Derrick Nix is many things.
Articulate, brash, confident, cocky, funny, stubborn.
But one word likely has never been used — softy.
That’s part of the reason a scene on June 10, 2010, still stands out in head coach Tom Izzo’s memory.
With the campus coming together to rally for Izzo to stay in East Lansing after meeting with the NBA’s Cleveland Cavaliers, Nix, then a soft-spoken freshman, made his way through the crowd to deliver a plea for his coach to stay.
“Nobody knows what (Izzo) is going to do, but I just want to thank all y’all,” Nix told the crowd as tears streamed down his face. “I’m emotional about all this. I don’t want Coach Izzo to leave.”
A lot has changed in the nearly three years since that day.
Nix has gone to a Final Four, battled weight issues, won Big Ten championships, been arrested, suspended, reinstated and named a team captain.
And through all the ups and downs, it’s that one day that still stands out in Izzo’s mind, where a bond of loyalty was formed and a father-son relationship gained its foundation.
Tough as mom
Growing up in a single-parent household in Detroit, life for Nix was hardly glamorous.
The daily struggle he and his family experienced during his childhood still serves as his driving force.
“My dream is to play in the NBA and take my family out of the ‘hood and be rich one day,” Nix said. “I don’t want to play basketball just to not have nothing, no goals after it. I want to be rich one day and have six and seven figures and go to the mall and buy expensive clothes, and have all the pretty women and all that stuff.”
Although he stands 6-foot-9 and weighs 270 pounds, Nix said it’s his mother, Darlis Nix, who’s the strong one, the person who served as the family’s backbone and someone her son described as “tough as nails.”
Whenever he would step out of line, Derrick Nix said he knew what to expect.
“I used to get whoopings,” Nix said. “She used to take the extension cord or the cord off the back of the PlayStation and whoop us. … My mom, she wanted to make us pay for our punishment.”
Crime and punishment
But once Nix made his way to MSU’s campus, the role of disciplinarian was forced to change.
This was made especially clear when Darlis Nix first heard of her son’s arrest for marijuana possession in a phone call from a reporter.
It was the moments that followed that once again confirmed Izzo’s commitment to her son.
“I got a phone call from Izzo and he said, ‘I got this. I’m gonna handle this. Go to work and don’t worry about anything,’” Darlis Nix said.
“He called me back a few hours ago and said, ‘We sat him down and talked to him and you know I’m gonna give him hell’’, and I said, ‘OK, go ahead. We’re on the same page.’”
As Izzo mulled whether Derrick Nix should remain on the team, he thought back to that day in 2010 and the lessons his player had taught him.
“Superficially, you can make a mistake or two, but how did he feel when I was going to Cleveland? He was crying,” Izzo said.
“It means nothing to some people. It’s probably another reason he’s here for me. Because he was loyal to me, I’m going to be loyal to him. And yet tough love is sometimes hard, too.”
Tough love and loyalty
Playing on the Breslin Center court for the final time, Nix stood with the ball in his hands, calmly surveying the floor before turning and firing one of his career-high tying six assists to Alex Gauna for the score.
As he made his way back down the court he looked to the bench and saw Izzo with his finger extended, recognizing Nix for making the right decision.
Nix pointed back at his coach, who began screaming at the senior center.
“Hey! Derrick! Derrick!,” Izzo yelled. “Come on! Let’s go!”
It’s the type of prodding that through all of his early immaturity, Nix still was able to recognize he needed as a freshman.
“He recruited me and he told me all these dreams I could have, so he ain’t about to leave out and ditch out on me. I had to make sure he didn’t go,” Nix said of his motivation for joining the rally.
Being called a father figure, was something Izzo described as a “big-time compliment.”
“Unless you dive in with some of these guys, it’s hard to figure out what they’ve gone through,” Izzo said. “In general, just give people a chance, because some people don’t have what other people have. If you give them a chance, give them some direction, a lot of people will become better.”