A Family Tradition

Notre Dame's John and Portland's Jim Paxson are following firmly in their father's basketball footsteps
March 21, 1983

If the producers of Leave It to Beaver or Ozzie and Harriet had been looking for a real prototypical Middle American suburb in which to set their television shows, they couldn't have done better than Kettering, Ohio, outside Dayton, where the inhabitants tend to be just like the Cleavers and Nelsons: not rich or even well-to-do but simply "comfortable." Jim and John Paxson lived in a house at the end of a cul-de-sac—nobody in Kettering lives on a dead end street—with their father, Jim Sr., their mother, Jackie, their sisters, Molly and Maggie, and younger brother, Michael. The five-bedroom house was typical of Kettering, and a basket and backboard hung like an altar at the end of the driveway. The hoop had a weather-resistant net, just like most of the other baskets around town. "Whenever we wore one net out," Jim Jr. recalls, "we always had another ready." The young Paxsons clearly were not playing the tough, netless ball of the inner city.

But there were tensions beneath this nice suburban fa√ßade, as we shall see—and as indeed one might expect in a perfectionist family that has produced two celebrated sons. Young Jim is now an All-Star guard in his fourth season with the Portland Trail Blazers and is his team's leading scorer. Through Sunday he was averaging 21.7 points a game. John is an All-America and senior captain at Notre Dame, where he also was tops in scoring (17.7). Jim was a star for four years at the University of Dayton, where Jim Paxson Sr. had been a standout, graduating in 1956, before spending two years in the NBA.

"Jimmy's a man now in his own right, making more money than most people do in a lifetime," says a friend of the Paxson family, "but he's still very much his father's boy." And John, at 22 three years younger than Jim, is still very much the reverential kid brother. Out of respect for Jim, John changed his uniform number this season from 23 to 4, because that's Jim's number in Portland. "I never had to look very far," John says, "to find a hero."

Although Jim is 6'6" and John 6'2", their style of play has always been similar. Jackie can remember driving into their street when the boys were small and having difficulty figuring out which was which as they took shots. Now that both Paxsons have attained a certain celebrity status, they have begun to be bothered by a new identity problem. Last month, John was introduced before a game at North Carolina State as Jim. Two weeks ago at his house in the Lake Oswego area south of Portland, Jim fished a fund-raising letter out of the mailbox that began, "Dear Mr. Paxson: Having attended Jesuit High School in days past, I've followed the fortunes of Notre Dame and your career for years...." Paxson crumpled the paper up into a neat ball and fired it at the wastebasket.

That letter struck a nerve. It's no secret that Jim wanted to be the first Paxson to play for Notre Dame. Dayton, where Jim averaged 18.0 points a game in his four years (1975-78), was fine because it was close to home and he was coached by Don Donoher, who happens to be his godfather, but Jim was disappointed that Notre Dame Coach Digger Phelps never made a serious effort to recruit him. When the Paxson family convened in Cleveland last month for a Trail Blazers game, Jim couldn't resist needling his brother about a 55-53 loss the Irish had suffered a day earlier at the hands of DePaul. Notre Dame had come from nine points down with 1:44 to go to tie, only to lose at the buzzer. "Digger is great in the last two minutes of a game," Jim told John, who had scored 19 points. "But why does he always wait until the last two minutes to make his move?"

Jim looked at John. John looked at Jim. "No comment," John said, exercising his best possible defense of Phelps's coaching.

From the time they were very small, the Paxsons played games from morning until they had worn themselves out at night. Their parents added a 16 x 30-foot room to the house on Andrea Drive, as the cul-de-sac street is called, and covered the floor with extra thick padding and carpeting so the boys and their father could play football in their pajamas. Later, when Jim decided to concentrate on basketball, he did so with predictable passion. "I remember nights when Jimmy would come in with all the fingers on his hands bleeding from where the basketball had rubbed them raw," says Jackie. "And then the next night he'd be right back out there." That's about the time that Jackie began closing her eyes whenever she had to attend one of her boys' games.

The Paxsons lived in the home at the end of Andrea Drive for 16 years, and it holds such pleasant memories for John that, even though his parents sold it five years ago, he refers to it as "the good house." There was goodness all around. On one side was the parish rectory, and to the rear Archbishop Alter High and St. Charles Borromeo, parochial schools that the Paxson boys and Molly attended at various times. The brothers often played football in the backyard of the rectory, and the priests would come out in their Roman collars and black garb and shoot baskets in the Paxson driveway until dusk.

"One priest," Jim recalls, "always used to come by and say, 'Why do you guys keep practicing all the time? Aren't you any good yet?' That was his idea of a good joke." But from as early as they can remember the Paxson boys knew that more was expected of them than most children. Their father had been a local hero as a 10.9-points-a-game forward at Dayton, and when, after two seasons in the NBA with the Lakers and Royals, he took over his father-in-law's insurance business in 1958, he became a local success. "You have to understand that the University of Dayton is the only game in town," he says. "I can remember taking the boys to the supermarket as babies, and even then people would always ask me, 'Are they going to play?' "

From the time he was very small it was evident that Jimmy was obsessed with trying to master his father's game. "We wanted to be like our dad," John says, "and I think the fact that he had been a player had a lot to do with us getting interested in it. He was a good role model for us." The battles in the driveway between Jim Sr. and Jim Jr. were always hard fought, with father, who is 6'6", swatting his son's shots away and otherwise never giving an inch.

"He would do whatever he could to stop me from scoring," Jim says, "then he'd let John and Michael score all over him, and that made me mad. When I was growing up I thought my dad was pretty hard on me. I was always supposed to set an example. In a lot of ways we didn't get along very well during that period, so I guess I never looked at what I did as following in his footsteps."

Jim Jr. finally beat Jim Sr. one on one when he was in the sixth grade (and had sprouted to about 5'7"), and that was when the father-son games came to a halt. "After that," Jim Sr. says, "it wasn't so much fun anymore." It was also about that time when Mike Paxson inadvertently made a discovery that seemed innocent enough but would change the lives of his older brothers.

"Our 5-year-old had seen a movie about military schools," says Jackie, "and he started asking us about it. Eventually I sent away for some brochures just to make him happy." Jim, who was 11 then, studied them carefully for several days and then announced he wanted to go to one of the schools. "A lot of people in our part of the country think military schools are where you send bad kids as a last resort," says Jackie. "But Jimmy wasn't bad." Jim remembers himself as being a "hyperactive, mean kid" before he went away, but his mother insists he was just shy.

"Jimmy likes regimentation," she says. "For as long as I can remember he always had a time to study, a time to eat and a time to play ball." All of which may have made Jim seem like a dream candidate for Leonard Hall Junior Naval Academy, located in Leonardtown, Md. and run by a Catholic order. But the school felt his answers to a psychological test given as part of the entrance examination indicated he wouldn't fit in. "We asked the psychologist why," Jackie says, "and he said Jimmy was such a perfectionist he wouldn't be able to adapt to a regimented environment."

The school finally agreed to try Jim, and while attending the sixth through eighth grades there, he went on to win virtually every academic, military and athletic award the academy gave. "I remember him telling me how each night the loneliness was so hard," his mother says. "He was dreadfully homesick, and I used to tell him each time he came home that he didn't have to go back. He even admitted later that during his first year he began to wonder if we really wanted him. But he always said he felt he had something to prove."

"It wasn't that I really liked it," Jim says of Leonard Hall, "but it gave me a chance to establish an identity for myself. Everything there was goal oriented, and that's where I started to drive myself."

By 1971, when Jim had returned to Kettering to go to high school at Archbishop Alter, John was beginning to think about being a basketball player, too. But by the time he was ready for the eighth grade, he was still only 5'4". "My height has always been my disadvantage," he says. "When I was in the seventh grade and shorter than everybody else, my parents and I started talking about holding me back a year. Even then athletics were a big part of my life, and I just couldn't see myself ever doing anything as long as I was so small. I was really intimidated about my height."

John had himself shipped off to the Le Mans Academy, a Catholic military school 272 miles away in Rolling Prairie, Ind. After two months he was overcome by homesickness and came home to go back to school in Kettering, but the next year he lasted the whole term, repeating the eighth grade and biding his time while he waited to grow a few inches. But even his adult height isn't going to impress anybody in the NBA. "All the 6'2" guys in the league can really blaze," says Milwaukee Bucks Coach Don Nelson. And as John himself is the first to admit, "When you're short and white, they just assume you're not quick. Of course, it doesn't help that I'm not quick."

Though his older brother and father are four inches taller than he is, that isn't the most difficult family comparison John has had to endure. In high school he found he was being judged against the achievements of Jim, his own hero. "There's a lot of pressure when that happens," John says. "Jim was doing well in college and I hadn't shown people I was a player yet. That's when you get a little jealous, when you're growing up and everywhere you go, the only thing people ask you about is your brother."

Michael Paxson fled all the way to the University of Wyoming to try to escape the inevitable comparisons. "People would always say Mike was the best natural athlete," Jim says. "That didn't make it any easier for him." Mike transferred after his freshman year at Wyoming and spent last season as a walk-on basketball player at Ohio University, averaging 1.2 points a game off the bench.

It hasn't been easy for Jackie, either. "We've had our problems, just like everybody else," she says. Eight and a half years ago she suffered a nervous breakdown and underwent shock treatments. "Perfectionism has its price," she says. "I just felt I'd somehow been a failure as a wife and mother, and I withdrew from everything." Soon she was back in circulation, and, as with everything else that touches their lives, the episode seemed to draw the family closer together.

Nothing, however, has been able to help Jackie overcome the phobia she has about watching her sons play basketball. When a game is on TV she will only watch a tape replay, because seeing it live makes her too nervous. If she must watch a game in an arena, she's sure to wear her glasses, so it will be less obvious that she often has her eyes clamped firmly shut. "We figure she ought to get her ticket at half price," says Jim Sr., only half kidding. When John hit three free throws in the final minute to beat UCLA in his freshman year at Notre Dame, his mother was walking in the arena's hallways, anxiously saying her rosary. During John's college career, the elder Paxsons have made the 259-mile trip to South Bend for several of his games, but she has seen little of any of them. "When he plays," she says, "I have to go walk around for a while. Sometimes I go to The Grotto and pray. Oh, I don't pray for Notre Dame to win anymore. I know that's not right. I just pray that everything turns out for the best."

Because of John's lack of size and speed, he will probably have to endure in the NBA some of the anxiety that Jim went through during his first season in Portland. Jim was the 12th player taken in the 1979 draft, but he averaged just 6.2 points a game in his rookie season and played tentatively most of the year. "He wasn't a smashing success," says Portland Coach Jack Ramsay. Since then Paxson's game has steadily improved, largely because he is one of the best players in the league at moving without the ball, an ability perfectly suiting Ramsay's offense, which stresses motion, screens and passing. "He's not fast," Ramsay says, "but he's quick. There are very few players who can catch him in the open court, and he gets to his target quickly. He might run his curls and cuts two or three times and not get the ball. For anyone else, that would be demoralizing."

Guarding Jim can also be demoralizing. "He makes you work all night defensively," says Cleveland Guard World B. Free. "You have to take a few bee pollen tablets to stay with him."

"He disrupts the defense by moving so much," says Blazer Center Mychal Thompson. "Even if Pax doesn't get the ball, the other team is usually so concerned about him getting it in the lane that it opens things up for someone else."

Jim has spent most of his pro career opening things up for someone else—and his example might just have opened NBA doors a little wider for John. But then, that's what big brothers are for.

PHOTOCARL SKALAKThe boys have always sought the approval of Dad, a former college and NBA player. TWO PHOTOSCARL SKALAK"I never had to look very far to find a hero," says John (top), who, like his brother, is his team's captain and leader in scoring. PHOTOCARL SKALAKSurrounded by her overachievers, Jackie readily admits, "Perfectionism has its price."

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)