After starring as a player, Scott Hazelton has gone down a different path to success as a coach.
By Danny Priest
The name Scott Hazelton is synonymous with basketball in New England. People know him as a coach, mentor, player development specialist and a former star player. They know his accolades, his achievements and his success within the game.
But how many people know about the times when the game wasn’t easy?
The times where he himself didn’t grow up with a leader or mentor for a long time.
The transition to coaching, then getting passed over for the first 16 varsity head coaching jobs he applied for.
Oftentimes basketball comes easy on the court for the most gifted people, but real success comes from character. The game teaches character quickly.
Hazelton is a major success now, but his path from playing to coaching wasn’t a straight line. Like many, he experienced his own ups and downs, but basketball was always there to help him through.
Before he was the athletic director and boys’ and girls’ basketball coach at Bradford Christian Academy or coaching with the Mass Rivals AAU program, Hazelton dabbled in all sports growing up in Somerville.
“We’d play down the park and we played every sport down there,” Hazelton said. “One day we’re playing stick ball, the next day it’s tackle football and then the next day we’re playing basketball.”
When he was young, Hazelton had no idea how far basketball could bring him. One of his second cousins was Don Morris, a longtime Division III college and AAU coach. He helped Hazelton realize what he could be capable of in the future.
“When I was in about the seventh grade, he came to me and said, ‘Listen man, you can be good at this game, but you’ve got to start working on your game,’” Hazelton said. “I didn’t know what that meant. I’d never had anybody show me drills or anything like that, so he started showing me some drills and some things I could do to work on my game and I kind of became addicted to it.”
Basketball became a constant. More than just a habit to pass the time, it bordered on an obsession.
Hazelton quickly improved and joined a CYO basketball league by the time he reached the seventh grade. CYO leagues are often just for fun, but it helped him get noticed.
A matchup with Belmont pitted him against Mike Crotty Jr. Crotty Jr. and his father, Mike Crotty Sr., are well-known for launching the successful Middlesex Magic AAU program.
Over the years, they’ve helped a number of players get to the next level. Most notably, Arlington native and NBA champion Pat Connaughton played for the Magic.
Crotty Jr. was a terrific player locally; he went on to be a Middlesex League All-Star and MVP, while eventually playing pro ball overseas. But on this day, Hazelton caught Mike Sr.’s eye.
“He told me about this thing called AAU,” Hazelton said. “I had no idea what AAU was.”
The idea was new, but Hazelton was in. The Middlesex Magic seventh grade team was his first taste of AAU ball and not only did he begin to get noticed, that love for the game only continued to grow stronger.
“That was kind of my introduction to basketball and then from there I think I had kind of an addictive personality where I literally would play basketball for 10 hours a day,” Hazelton said. “I’d go from court to court anywhere I could and then something happened my eighth grade year.”
That something was a growth spurt. Hazelton was about 6-feet tall when he started the eighth grade. By the end of the school year, he stood at 6-foot-6.
Once again, he’d caught the eye of a coach.
“People started taking notice of me and that’s how I came to know Vin Pastore,” Hazelton said. “Vin was running a program called Wildcats and I switched over there when I was in eighth grade. I always say that’s really where my basketball journey started.”
The Wildcats weren’t yet the powerhouse program that Pastore now oversees with the Mass Rivals, but the coach knew he had found something special in Hazelton.
For as much as Pastore wanted him on his team, Hazelton needed him in his own life, too.
The Next Step
Hazelton didn’t have a lot of guidance growing up. Few adult figures existed in his life and Pastore helped change that.
“Vin, that’s my father,” Hazelton said. “I consider him my dad. Vin has been the most consistent adult in my life since I was 13 years old.”
They became so close, Hazelton moved into Pastore’s home prior to starting high school.
“I actually ended up going and living with Vin,” Hazelton said. “Vin became my legal guardian and when I went there that’s when I started really kind of working on my game, learning the game, and growing.”
Hazelton took a winding path through high school. He initially enrolled at Malden Catholic High School, but grew tired of the lengthy commute and transferred to Somerville High School. That didn’t last long, either.
With Hazelton set to transfer to his third high school in as many years, Pastore stepped in to offer guidance, connecting Hazelton to Central Catholic High School in Lawrence. Hazelton found a permanent home at the private school with a powerhouse basketball program.
In just two years at the school, he had a high school basketball career with Central that still stands among the greatest in the history of the Merrimack Valley.
Hazelton averaged 30.1 points and 11 rebounds per game, leading the Red Raiders to a Division I state title in his first full season with Central in 1999.
He followed up that performance with of 28.2 points and 12.2 rebounds per game in his senior year before a stress fracture in his left foot cut his season short.
Despite his injury, Hazelton was named a McDonald’s All-American and committed to continue his playing career at UConn under legendary coach Jim Calhoun.
A Bump In The Road
The next chapter of Hazelton’s basketball life wasn’t as smooth as those final two high school years. Hazelton came back quickly from the stress fracture in his foot to participate in the McDonald’s All-American game before going to Storrs.
Unfortunately, his injury followed him.
“I came back early so I could play in the McDonald’s All-American game,” Hazelton said. “I never quite let it heal and I went to the University of Connecticut and broke my foot two more times while I was there.”
Hazelton never lived up to his recruiting status during his two seasons at UConn, but said he gained valuable experience playing on a loaded team that included NBA talents such as Caron Butler, Emeka Okafor, Ben Gordon and Hilton Armstrong.
“I always say one of the biggest things I learned from the University of Connecticut was just work ethic,” he said. “You learn consistency. Every single day you have to show up and every single day you have to give your best. That was probably the biggest thing I learned from there was just that consistency. Things aren’t going to go your way all the time, but you still have to work.”
Hazelton transferred to the University of Rhode Island for his final two years of college and was the team’s MVP as a senior, averaging 15.5 points and seven rebounds per game.
After graduating, Hazelton played professionally abroad, even earning league MVP honors while playing for the Black Star Mersch in Luxembourg, where he averaged 30 points per game. He also spent time playing in Sweden.
“Going over to Europe was so eye-opening to me because coming from the United States the culture is so different over there,” Hazelton said. “You have to adapt and I came to really love it. The competition was good, it was a different brand of basketball, but the passion that was behind athletics over there was an incredible experience for me.”
As time went on, he began to think about his next chapter. Coaching was a natural next step, but his love for the game was still obsessive. Hazelton knew if he was going to make a career transition, he needed to essentially give up playing the game completely so he could reset.
No playing part time or sneaking in games, he needed to be all in or all out. His career depended on it.
Hazelton eventually came to grips with the fact that it was time for him to move on from playing. It was hard because basketball had been such a big part of his identity for so long.
“If things were going well on the basketball court, then that meant they were going well in my personal life,” Hazelton said. “I couldn’t kind of separate the two.”
As soon as Hazelton stopped playing, he was giving private lessons back home in the Merrimack Valley. He was eager for his next steps and to find a place where he could man the sidelines as a head coach.
“My first coaching gig was a travel basketball team in the Merrimack Valley,” Hazelton said. “It was like a seventh grade Plaistow, N.H., team that was like a rec team. That was my first taste of coaching a team.”
All the while, Hazelton was getting involved with AAU, giving private lessons, and hoping for his chance. The problem was, as mentioned, it was denial after denial.
Finally, he got the call he’d been waiting for.
“The 17th job that I applied for was at Bishop Guertin High School and it was a girls job and I actually got it,” Hazelton said. “That’s actually how I started coaching girls’ high school basketball. It was my last option and someone actually took me.”
Those previous 16 teams who turned down Hazelton may have wanted a do-over. In his first season with the Cardinals, Hazelton took the Nashua, N.H. school to a state title.
Spent a fun night this week at Hoops for Hope. Reflecting back to 2000 when the league was played outside in the parks of Lawrence. D1 State Champion and McDonald’s All-American Scott Hazelton took Merrimack Valley Basketball to a new level. The rest is history. pic.twitter.com/U1vBlyUFEj
— Rivals Nation (@RivalsNation) June 24, 2019
“The year before they were just a .500 club,” Hazelton said of his first team. “When I got them, I was looking at the talent and I thought, ‘Holy crap, these kids are really good.’”
Hazelton had found his way to a roster with three Division I college basketball players on it, a rare feat in high school basketball, especially in New Hampshire.
“I got lucky and that’s part of coaching,” Hazelton said. “I’m cut from a cloth where I say good players make good coaches and good coaches make good players. Without those kids, we don’t have the success that we had.”
Before all the high school success came, Hazelton was focused on building his portfolio as a coach. His mentor and father figure Pastore had established the Mass Rivals AAU program and Hazelton was building a New Hampshire Rivals program.
What set Hazelton apart from other programs was he had a serious collection of talent on his hands.
“Call it fate or call it luck, or maybe we were good at what we did, but at that time when I started that program the players that we had there were pretty incredible,” he said.
NBA talents such as Noah Vonleh and Wenyen Gabriel were playing for his teams. Caleb Green, Gio Baker and Carsen Derosiers were destined to star in the future, but at that point were still unknown.
“I had a great pool of players to work from and work with and that was a kind of springboard to get me some reputation and then I started getting good girls.”
Eventually, the Rivals programs came together to make just one Mass Rivals. While Hazelton oversees the entire program as a director, he has traveled with the girls’ team on the Adidas circuit in recent years.
As time went on, Rivals became extremely successful and Hazelton had found his place.
“I always tell people I’ll coach anybody,” he said. “I don’t say I’m a girls coach or a guys coach. I just like to coach kids that want to learn the game of basketball. What made me kind of stick around more on the girls side was that it was successful. The first girls team I ever put together was 11 girls on a team and nine of them were scholarship players.”
Hazelton’s resume has continued to expand over the years. He’s still with the Rivals and spent time as boys’ basketball coach at Greater Lawrence Technical High School. Now, this season he’s led both the boys and girls basketball teams at Bradford Christian Academy in Haverhill, Mass.
Ever since he stopped playing, Hazelton has had the same philosophy as a coach over the years.
“I always say that if you’re going to play for me, and the people I played for, the first thing you need to know is that you’re going to have to play hard and be held accountable,” Hazelton said. “We’re always going to be truthful with you and we’re going to tell you the good and we’ll tell you the bad. The work never stops. Playing hard, sharing the basketball, and being a good teammate are kind of the first requirements that you need to play for me.”
Hazelton will be 40 in December and he’s not slowing down anytime soon. He’s found his place with Rivals and Bradford Christian, and he’s excited to keep impacting lives for the better.
“I just like seeing kids that come in and they’re at a certain level and ability and I love seeing them go through the program and go through the process to just kind of morph into something totally different,” Hazelton said.
“I’ve seen kids that were on our Rivals B team and the next year they’re getting recruited by Kentucky. Wenyen Gabriel is a perfect example of that. On the girls side, pick a kid like Piath Gabriel who’s at UConn now, and you see what they were as freshman and what they became when they were seniors. That’s just pretty special to me. I love seeing people achieve their dreams and their goals.”
Success doesn’t come overnight and it’s not without highs and lows along the way. But stick with the game long enough and it can take individuals to some incredible places. Hazelton is living proof and he’s sharing that knowledge with others now.