It was a Friday night last spring on Sunset Strip in Los Angeles, a cool evening full of possibility, and Norm Nixon was looking for the fast lane. Traffic was at a near standstill, but Nixon gunned his white Mercedes through a small opening and then swung left into a lot next to the Roxy music club. Outside the Roxy there was no sign of human life, just valet parking attendants. Nixon surrendered his car to them, slid past a doorman and went quickly up some stairs to On The Rox, a private club that caters to the Hollywood glitter crowd.
Within minutes of his arrival, Nixon was seated on an overstuffed couch, sandwiched between two especially luscious blondes. One of the women was Michelle Phillips, once Mama Michelle of the Mamas and the Papas, and she wanted to have her picture taken with Nixon. A few feet away, Jack Nicholson leaned against the bar and watched, patiently waiting for his turn with Nixon. Phillips held on tight to one of Nixon's arms, and then she put her lips close to his ear as the camera began to flash. "I just want to thank you, Norman," she purred. "You've given me so many nights of pleasure." Outside, the traffic continued its languid bump and grind along the Strip, but Nixon was moving easily through the night now. He was cruising in the fast lane.
Nixon had indeed spent most of his six years in L.A. with his foot planted firmly on the gas. Not only was his night life jet-set fast, but Nixon also was the quicksilver point guard for the Los Angeles Lakers—a team followed by adoring fans like Nicholson, Phillips and almost everybody else ever featured in the "Chatter" section of PEOPLE magazine. Nixon wasn't the most famous or recognizable of the Lakers, but it was precisely because of his relatively low profile—Nixon is 6'2"—and his sophistication that he was able to move so comfortably among the Beautiful People who eagerly sought his attention. Then one day last month Nixon was traded to the San Diego Clippers.
The deal was announced on Oct. 10, the day before Nixon's 28th birthday, and that night some friends threw a combination birthday and farewell dinner party at Mr. Chow's, the ne plus ultra in Beverly Hills see-and-be-seen dining. In addition to five of his former Laker teammates, "Jack and Lou were there, and so were Burt and Carole," Nixon says. Like a foreign film, Nixon's life occasionally requires subtitles. So for the benefit of the terminally un-hip, those first names belong to Nicholson, movie producer Lou The Rocky Horror Picture Show Adler and the songwriting duo of Burt Bacharach and Carole Bayer Sager. "It was the Last Supper," Nixon says. "We just sat there around the table all night, drinking shots and talking about life."
November 21, 1983
The next day Nixon moved into Room 239 at the Sports Arena Travel Lodge in San Diego, 120 miles and a world away from the L.A. dazzle he'd thrived in. Nixon says he was "devastated" by the trade that sent him to the Clippers in exchange for backup Center Swen Nater and rookie Guard Byron Scott, but the deal may very well turn out to be the best thing that ever happened to him. Though he's arguably the quickest player in the NBA and one of the league's best jump shooters, Nixon was nevertheless considered something of a luxury on the talent-rich Lakers, one of the few luxuries that owner Jerry Buss has ever given any evidence of feeling he could live without. Already Nixon has proved his value to the Clippers by igniting their running game; thus, even though San Diego suffered through a 0-4 East Coast road trip last week that dropped its record to 3-6, the Clippers are optimistic that they can improve over their disastrous 25-57 mark of last season. With Center Bill Walton and Forward Terry Cummings to dish the ball off to, Nixon at week's end was averaging 11.7 assists per game, third in the league to Magic Johnson of the Lakers and Johnny Moore of the Spurs. It so happens that Johnson became one of Nixon's closest friends during the four seasons they played together in L.A. and was probably the player most responsible for Nixon's being traded.
Although Nixon has been forced to alter a life-style he loved, the ironic result is that he suddenly has an opportunity to become an acclaimed player, a situation that might never have developed had he not left L.A. Had Nixon stayed with the Lakers, he almost surely would have been remembered as the "other" guard who played alongside Johnson. The 6'9" Johnson is, like Nixon, a point guard, perhaps the best one to play in the NBA in more than a decade. It's because of him that Nixon is usually described as the best "pure" or "legitimate" point guard in the league, those being euphemisms for short. Because of his tremendous size, Johnson can see and do things on a basketball court that Nixon and other noted point guards, such as Philadelphia's Mo Cheeks and Kansas City's Larry Drew, simply cannot. "Physically, I'm a petite guy and I know my limitations," Nixon says. "My size has always been my biggest deficiency."
The trouble with being the best pure point guard in the NBA—which Nixon is and has been for several years—is that nobody seems to care much. Nixon has lamented for so long about not getting sufficient esteem that he has become the ultimate media paradox: He's widely recognized by the press as a player who gets little recognition. When he was with the Lakers and living in Johnson's long shadow, Nixon often felt taken for granted and, as a result, was frequently subject to sudden mood swings. In the course of a single day he could feel overconfident, underwhelmed, overjoyed, underpaid, overlooked, overworked, underappreciated, up in arms and down in the mouth. Many of these feelings would come upon him simultaneously, and that would just make Nixon play a little bit harder. "I think Norman sometimes feels it's him against the world," says Lakers Coach Pat Riley. "It's as if he believes he constantly has to prove himself. And that's understandable. If you're going to be a point guard—a position where you're not as big and strong as everybody else—you have to be like an animal that's been backed into a corner."
Outwardly, however, Nixon gives every indication of being a supremely confident player. "I know I'm the best at what I do," he says. "There's nobody else in the game who can do all the things I can." And yet, despite his importance to the Lakers while they were winning two championships, Nixon was never considered to be quite as accomplished as Seattle's Gus Williams; he was not Rookie of the Year, as Phil Ford was when he was with Kansas City; and he wasn't the No. 1 pick in the draft, as John Lucas was with Houston. "None of those guys ever had to challenge me," Nixon says. "They came into the league rated ahead of me." He considers Drew his only close rival among the standard-sized point guards, although there is still some strong, if misguided, sentiment in the East that Cheeks is better than either of them. Nixon, for one, doesn't subscribe to that. "Cheeks could be [as good]," Nixon says, "but he's not aggressive enough offensively."
It's not only Nixon's mouth that roars. He plays the game with ferocious quickness and the instincts of a killer. When Nixon moves forward with the ball, in a state of accelerating fury, he resembles the part of a cyclone that touches down—Stormin' Norman, always picking up ground. "He's a rocket," says Phoenix Coach John MacLeod. "Our problem has always been that we not only can't guard him, we can't even get close to him. For ball handling, playmaking, ability to run the break and jump-shooting, I don't think there's anybody who gives you all the dimensions Nixon does."
Nobody was all that excited about Nixon's dimensions when he was coming out of Duquesne in 1977. Not only was he not the Lakers' first pick in the draft that year, he wasn't even their first choice among point guards. L.A. took Maryland's Brad Davis before selecting Nixon with the last of the three first-round draft choices it had stockpiled that year. "I'm sure they didn't know who the hell I was," Nixon says.
Jerry West was in his second year as head coach of the Lakers that season, and although by the second day of rookie training camp it was clear Nixon would be Los Angeles' playmaker. West made it his business to ride Nixon hard and often. West, of course, had been one of the game's legendary players, but Nixon—who had grown up in Macon, Ga. thinking Mr. Clutch was a pedal in Mr. Car—was not terribly impressed with his new coach. "I never saw Jerry West play a basketball game," Nixon would say in 1981, "and I never saw him coach one."
Much of Nixon's antipathy toward West grew out of that first season, when Nixon felt he'd been unduly bullied. "Here I am, a rookie, playing with veterans like Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Adrian Dantley, Jamaal Wilkes and Lou Hudson," Nixon says. "So if you're the coach, who are you going to direct your frustration at? I think a lot of it was unfair." During a game in Atlanta that year, West used a time-out to chew out Nixon for mistakes the team had made in falling behind the Hawks. When play resumed, Hawks Coach Hubie Brown brought 5'8" Guard Charlie Criss in, and over the space of the next several minutes Nixon buried seven consecutive jumpers to tie the game. The quiet during the ensuing Atlanta time-out was shattered when one of Nixon's excited female relatives arose in the stands and thundered, "Use him, Norman! Use that chump! They can't put no midget on my boy!"
In 1979 West became a special consultant to the Lakers and in 1982 he was named general manager of the team. It didn't take long for Nixon's name to start coming up in trade rumors. When Nixon had what was, for him, an off season in 1982-83, he blamed it on a case of anemia and tendinitis in his knees, but West thought otherwise. "Norm's always got an answer for everything, especially when he's wrong," West says. "That's one of his big problems."
Nixon had always known that his fiercely held opinions would eventually cause him trouble. "I was the one who opened his mouth," he said last spring. "I think I put people in an uncomfortable position because I force their hand. And I've put myself in a dangerous position, because some people don't like that stuff. I'm sure when I'm no longer able to do it, they'll deal with me accordingly." The Lakers obviously had serious questions about why Nixon was no longer able to do it during the latter stages of the 1982-83 season, because last summer L.A. had Nixon investigated. The investigation apparently turned up nothing and was dropped. And then, coincidentally, so was Nixon. This season he has already begun to hear of rumors that he does indeed have a drug problem.
"I knew somebody was following me, but I thought they were trying to rob my house," Nixon says. "What they are doing is trying to rob me of my credibility. Now I hear the Lakers are saying that the untold story about the trade hasn't come out yet. But I don't worry about that stuff because the people who know me know I'm no junkie, that I couldn't practice and play the way I do if I had a drug problem."
Nixon is less concerned about gossip-mongering than he is about reaffirming his credentials as the game's best at his job. He had been unable to operate primarily as a point guard since Johnson came to the Lakers in 1979. "During Magic's first year the ball was taken away from me," Nixon says. "It was frustrating. After handling the ball all the time for two years, I thought I had proven myself at my position." The Lakers had started out that 1979-80 season in a two-guard set, but after Head Coach Jack McKinney was injured in a bicycling accident and replaced by his assistant, Paul Westhead, L.A. began to shift to a new alignment, with Magic out front and Nixon running the baseline. "I don't think I ever adjusted to that," Nixon says. "I had a mental block about it. It was a totally different perspective, looking at the side of the basket. My effectiveness was cut down tremendously."
The Lakers won the championship that season with Johnson playing center in the decisive game. In Game 5 of the series against the 76ers, Abdul-Jabbar went down with a twisted left ankle, and Nixon had the ring finger of his left hand bent so far back that ligaments were torn and the finger just dangled from his hand. "I looked down at the back of my hand and there was a blank space there," he says.
Nixon's relationship with Westhead worsened considerably that summer. Surgery was required to repair his finger, and there was some question at the time whether he would ever play again. Nixon was advised by the Lakers' physician to take the summer off, the feeling being that with rest his finger might be ready when training camp opened. In the team's offices one day, Nixon ran into Westhead, who said he'd like Nixon to play in the L.A. summer league, a proving ground primarily for rookies and free agents, to get himself into shape. Nixon was furious, but he choked back his anger and looked Westhead squarely in the eye. "Sure, Paul," he replied, "I'll be glad to. Just have Kareem pick me up on his way out there."
The 1980-81 season was a nightmare. Johnson tore the cartilage of his left knee in November, and when he tried to come back for the playoffs, chaos reigned and the Lakers lost to Houston in a three-game miniseries. True to form, Nixon was in the middle of the resultant controversy. A throwaway remark he had made in the Los Angeles Times casually talking about Magic's lasting impact on the game had annoyed Johnson enough to cause him to accuse unnamed teammates of "jealousy." When Johnson played poorly in the final loss to Houston, Nixon caught most of the blame. "I was a victim that time," he says. "When we lost, all of a sudden I was the one who caused all the problems. They actually told me I was responsible for the way Magic played in that last game because I upset him." If it accomplished nothing else, the dispute brought Johnson and Nixon, who were always friends, closer together. "After that," says Johnson, "we said to each other, 'O.K., you can have an ego as big as a building as long as we win.' Norm's a very proud dude. What happened was no personal battle between the two of us. We were just trying to figure out each other's roles."
Nixon's grumblings became more muted, but he never quite got over the fire he drew. Now that he's in San Diego, at a safe remove from the egos of the Lakers, Nixon says he's finally relieved. "I'm wanted here," he says. "My team wants me to play well. It's nice to be away from a negative environment because even a minute amount of negativism can be detrimental."
If Nixon wasn't misunderstood in Los Angeles, some of his finer qualities may have been overlooked. "Everything that's ever been written about Norm has said he's a rebel, he's a militant, he's trouble," says Riley. "But he's none of those things. He's just Norm—a very tough and yet in many ways a very insecure man who needs love."
No matter where Nixon goes, it seems there's always someone there trying to fulfill that need. Nixon is single, intelligent, wealthy, good-looking and an impeccable dresser, and women seem to find him irresistible. He's fond of wearing hand-tailored leather pants, particularly for the response they provoke in the sport's more button-down management circles. "There's something about wearing leather pants," he says. "They know you've got to be going somewhere awful to do something crazy."
Nixon has never wasted much energy denying the extravagant claims made by others about his sexual prowess. "They think I bleep five times a day, bleep myself to death," he says. "If I did half the stuff they say I do, I wouldn't be able to play," he says. "People like to speculate about what I do, and I like to let them. It gives them something to talk about."
Playing in San Diego has been an easier adjustment for Nixon than living there. After a month in the motel, he recently moved into the decidedly tonier digs of one of his millionaire friends at the fashionable La Costa resort in Carlsbad, about 30 miles north of San Diego. Nixon's home in the Baldwin Hills area of Los Angeles was recently being occupied by his lady friend, Debbie Allen, the wonderful dancer from the television series Fame with whom he spent part of the summer traveling in Europe. For the time being, that's also where he has left his two dogs, the aquarium full of exotic fish and the trumpet he liked to play to himself when he got up in the morning. "People used to be really shocked when they would come by my house and see I have dogs and plants because they think I'm never home," Nixon says. He insists he is a regular homebody who is never happier than when he is reading a good book. He recently curled up in bed with The Trojan Women, the play by Euripides, not the entire coed population of USC.
According to the book in the NBA, you can't win without size. What's sometimes forgotten, however, is that small is a size, too. Nixon was often overlooked in Los Angeles because he had small size, but with the Clippers he has managed to turn an abundance of littleness into a king-size virtue. Which is to say that little Norman Nixon may have had to go to San Diego to finally become truly big.