Norm Nixon: He Works His Own Magic, 1981

[In the controversial HBO series Winning Time: The Rise of the Lakers Dynasty, guard Norm Nixon is played by his real-life son DeVaughn. Pretty cool. What’s not so cool is DeVaughn Nixon delivers lines during kooky, cooked-up moments that are meant to dramatize the team’s rise in the early 1980s. Case in point: In Winning Time, the veteran Nixon tells the callow, high-profile rookie that he wants to play him one-on-one. The mano y mano challenge is portrayed as Nixon’s attempt to put the rookie in place and on notice: the starting point guard position belongs to Nixon.

“Never happened,” the real Norm Nixon told NBA great Cedrick  Maxwell a few months back on the latter’s podcast.  “I don’t think I ever played Magic one-on-one. All the years we played together, what, four years? We never played one-on-one. You know how it is Max, you don’t do that, you play shooting games and stuff. That’s just something they came up with.”

So, how were things between Nixon and Magic? Really? This brief article from then-Philadelphia Daily News reporter Thom Greer, later published in the January 1981 issue of Basketball Digest, puts things in a more-accurate historical frame. The article also serves as a telling reminder of just how good Nixon was back in the real-life day.] 

The pattern was set while he was awaiting his own deliverance from Duquesne University into the NBA in the spring of 1977. The Los Angeles Lakers, who had expressed to him their considerable interest in his skills as a point guard, had three first-round choices. They invested the first one in forward Kenny Carr, the second one in guard Brad Davis, and almost as an afterthought, spent the last one—indeed, the final first-round pick that year—on the college player most pro scouts had ignored.

Carr and Davis have long since been banished to new situations. And Norm Nixon has remained unheralded, unrecognized, and virtually unknown to fans outside Los Angeles. 

It was no great revelation for Norm Nixon to discover that the accounts in the area’s daily newspapers of the Lakers’ victory over the 76ers in the [1980] NBA championship series barely mentioned his name. That has become routine procedure. The fact that he averaged nearly 43 minutes per game, or that he scored 15.5 points a game, or that Earvin (Magic) Johnson was the only Laker to pass off more than his 42 assists, was hardly a consideration.

Where is there space to write of the exploits of a Norm Nixon when he is on a team that includes Abdul-Jabbar, the league’s MVP playing his best basketball ever; and Magic Johnson, the playoff MVP, whose flamboyance commands more ink than Abdul-Jabbar; and Jamaal Wilkes, whose uncanny accuracy with the jump shot could pick the cherry off a banana split from 20 feet and never muss the whipped cream?

“Lost in the shuffle, I guess,” Nixon was saying after a Lakers’ team meeting. “But we’re winning, and that always makes for a much better atmosphere.”

Nixon does not give the slightest hint of being bitter, which is almost astonishing when you consider that so few in this game of dueling egos who suspect they have been slighted or ignored are able to keep their wits about them that well . . . even on the rare occasions they were in a position to capture a world championship and sample life’s finest wine.

“I feel I’m one of the top five guards in the league, because I’m a complete player. Maybe the recognition will come after we win the championship,” Nixon said during the final series last year.

Of course, Norm Nixon does confess to mind-boggling frustration at both the lack of recognition of his ability and the craziness that has befallen him. And perhaps never more so than when the Lakers made Johnson the No. 1 draft choice in the league last June.

There was no reason for Nixon to be concerned by the draft of Johnson. “I was the pro, and he was coming out of college,” Nixon says. “It seemed logical that he would have to adjust his game to mine.” Plus, Nixon had studied his position under Jerry West, certainly one of the two best guards ever (along with Oscar Robertson), and proven in two years in the NBA that he had learned his lessons well. People who know the game will tell you, Nixon can do it all. 

But when the Lakers’ camp opened last year, Nixon was told he would be switched to the shooting guard and Johnson would be the point guard. No questions asked. Period. They didn’t even toss the ball up and let them fight for the job in camp. They just handed the ball to the alleged sleight-of-hand artist and said, “Let’s see some magic, Magic.”

“I got upset when it first happened,” Nixon says. “I really didn’t like it at all. It bothered me from the perspective that it affected my game. I wasn’t relaxed. It was not comfortable because I was doing something I had never done before.

“I tried to understand it because he is not really a shooter. But it didn’t make it any easier for me. And at first, he handled the ball all the time. It was like he [Magic] didn’t understand we could work it together. With Magic handling the ball all the time, I really felt out of it. You know, you will feel that way. It’s like Caldwell Jones was a great scorer in college and the ABA, but now [with the Philadelphia 76ers] he seldom sees it. He probably feels out of it sometimes.

“Then, because Magic’s defense was so suspect, they had me guarding a lot of big guards. [In the Phoenix playoff series, for example, 6-foot-2 Nixon was assigned to 6-foot-4 Paul Westphal, while 6-foot-8 Johnson guarded 6-foot-1 Don Buse.] Magic couldn’t play them because he gambles a lot on defense from his college game. 

“Adjusting my game to play with Magic was tough at first. But winning made it all right.”

And they were a winning team, because Norm Nixon sacrificed himself to make the backcourt work. He and Johnson actually have become close personal friends, putting behind them whatever professional differences there might have been. Magic even shares the ball with him now. And the result has produced one of the NBA’s finest backcourt combinations.

Although handling the ball almost at the whim of the flamboyant Johnson, Nixon still finished among the top 10 in the league in assists, averaged 17.5 points per game, shot 52 percent from the field, and played more minutes than any of the NBA’s 242 players.

“Those are the visible things,” Nixon says. “I’m asked to make the big plays late in the game, penetrate, and do other things that are not noticed. I think I’ve done all of it well.”

Coach Paul Westhead could not agree more, insisting, “He’s the team leader on the floor. I turn to him when I need to change a play or to set the tempo. He plays hard every night. I don’t know where we’d be without him.”

Odds are, the Lakers unknown guard would be off brooding if owner Dr. Jerry Buss had not seen the potential problem developing. One of his first decisions when he purchased the club was to rip up Nixon’s $600,0000-a-year contract and replace it with a new one totaling more than $1 million over six years. And Dr. Buss’ exclamation point on the new deal was a new Mercedes. 

“Maybe I was fortunate because I came to a situation where they needed guards,” he says. “I got the playing time.

“But do you think I get any respect?” he asks a Los Angeles writer. “Nationally, I don’t get any. But winning and your owner can always make it better.”

It was obvious Norm Nixon had planned on going one up on Dr. Buss’ exclamation point. The NBA championship ring made everything right.

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