Front and Center
Senior struggled through ups and downs, now looks back
Senior center Derrick Nix looks up at the crowd from the team huddle at the game against Louisiana-Lafayette on Sunday, Nov. 25, 2012, at Breslin Center. The Spartans overcame 20 turnovers to take the 63-60 win. Katie Stiefel/ State News
Tom Izzo has never been afraid to send a message. Coming off a loss to then-No. 7 Indiana, the MSU basketball team returned to Breslin Center in January in need of a victory against a tough Illinois team. But from the tip, the thought on everybody’s mind was about Derrick Nix.
The seldom-used sophomore Alex Gauna got the start against the Fighting Illini while the senior center Nix sat on the bench with a sad scowl, causing moments of speculation and doubt for anyone who’s followed his career closely and knows what he’s been through.
Each passing moment brought forth a new question.
Why isn’t Derrick starting? Did he get in trouble — again? What could he possibly have done this time? Could this be the end for him?
Nearing the halfway point of the first half, the questions faded as Nix entered the game and the Spartans went on to win, 80-75.
After the game, Izzo addressed the decision to sit Nix, telling the media he missed a class and a tutoring session the previous week — a violation of team rules and a hard-to-grasp mistake by the senior captain.
Having guided Nix through the ups and downs of his career at Michigan State, Izzo said Nix had come too far to throw it all away and needed a reminder of it.
“Derrick Nix is 13 hours from graduating,” Izzo said. “He will be the first human being in his family who has graduated. It will be a cold day in hell before I do anything but get him graduated.
“If he has to sit the rest of the games, he will.”
It was the latest in a long line of attempts to save the most polarizing player of Izzo’s tenure, and it certainly hasn’t been easy.
There was the weight problem — Nix arrived at MSU at 306 pounds after being as large as 340 pounds at Detroit Pershing High School, eternally struggling to curb his appetite and stay in fighting shape.
Then came the issues of maturity, often battling with Izzo over misplaced comments, missing classes, issues of playing time leading to Nix staying home prior to the 2010 Maui Invitational and feuding with opponents.
It was capped by an April 2012 marijuana arrest, leading to a suspension and a haze of uncertainty for Nix’s future at MSU.
Yet the longtime coach saw something special in Nix — a distinct passion to make good by the Detroit native, while other MSU problem-child players, such as Korie Lucious and Chris Allen, buckled under pressure and were forced to transfer.
After all, Nix has grown into the leader.
He’s not a natural-born leader like his predecessors Draymond Green and Mateen Cleaves.
But he’s never been afraid of barking out criticism of a botched play in practice or slapping the hardwood Breslin floor when the team needed a rally.
He’s also the class clown; evident from stories of him flipping the mattress of former roommate Garrick Sherman and standing behind junior guard Keith Appling, mocking his mannerisms as Appling tried to answer questions after practice.
Moreover, Nix has become the elder statesman in the locker room, providing a framework for what it means to be a Spartan and, more importantly, a man.
“This team means everything to me,” Nix said. “These are my nephews, these are my guys. They put a lot into me, and I put a lot into them and we need to finish the season off strong.”
With Derrick’s arm around her shoulders, Darlis Nix made the tearful stroll past midcourt at Breslin on Sunday to greet Izzo on Senior Day.
Coming out to a standing ovation, Darlis threw her arms around each member of the Izzo family for a long embrace, forever grateful of the journey they’ve made together.
A single mother of five children in Detroit, Darlis works two jobs and long hours as a custodian to afford her family the opportunity to eat and attempt to live a normal life amid the chaos of a decaying major-metropolitan city.
But as Derrick found success on the basketball court, winning the title of Mr. Basketball at Detroit Pershing and finishing his career with a 90-73 thrashing of Kalamazoo Central in the state championship game, Darlis knew Derrick’s life had potential to be anything but normal.
A brief courtship led Derrick to East Lansing and Izzo, which in turn led to a matter-of-fact phone call Darlis still remembers with detail.
“Oh mom, I did something.”
“What do you mean?”
“I accepted a scholarship at Michigan State.”
“You didn’t do it like that. We’re going to travel around and see some schools first before you jump and make a decision.”
“No, no. I’ve got to be up there by 9 o’clock (a.m.) tomorrow to meet Izzo.”
Despite her protests to open her son up to the myriad of programs chasing him, Derrick felt an immediate sense of loyalty to Izzo and made his decision.
It was the same loyalty Nix felt when he spoke at a rally when Izzo was flirting with the NBA’s Cleveland Cavaliers in 2010, and each time Nix talks about being indebted to the program for forgiveness of his sins.
After a roller coaster career — including a summer of “hell” in the gym and a full slate of community service to repay his debts following his arrest — the loyalty has been reciprocated.
“His mother — when I went through tough times with him a few times, one time in particular — was a rock,” Izzo said. “She was so good that I swear to you at that time, one of the reasons I kept banging my head against the wall was because of her.”
At times, Nix’s outspoken nature has led him to feel the wrath of Izzo.
In a collegiate atmosphere of buttoned lips and carefully orchestrated interactions, Nix has been known to be blunt, honest and generally forthcoming.
Such was the case earlier this season after the Spartans defeated Michigan on Feb. 12, when Nix told members of the media his team was undervalued by the national media — comments Nix later said cost the team a chance to win the Big Ten championship.
“I feel like our players don’t get credit at all,” Nix said at the time. “I feel like coach wants us to be pros. He tells us that all the time. … We don’t really get that (credit).”
For Nix, it’s never been about drawing attention to himself or beating his chest in triumph.
Moreover, it’s about expressing his emotions in a forum he interprets as best suited for all to hear.
Since the comments, Nix has been relatively quiet in his remarks at the urging of Izzo, who decided not to address Nix’s comments after the following game against Indiana.
“His philosophy is the reality,” Nix’s high school coach, A.W. Canada, said of his former standout. “The one thing I know about him is that he’s a strong believer in what he believes in. If he believes somebody is against him, he’s gonna prove them wrong. Likewise, if he agrees about a fall, he’s gonna be there with you.”
In the final regular season game of his career, the Spartans came on the floor in the alternate MSU basketball Nike Hyper Elite uniforms, last seen in a Jan. 27 loss to Indiana.
More than looking slick in a deep green and gold, Nix wanted to be outspoken in appearance, asking Izzo to wear the uniforms to express the pride he feels for the program in his final appearance.
“You play for the name on the front, not the back,” he said.
Following a Senior Day victory against Northwestern, highlighted by a quick smooch of the Spartan head at half-court before being replaced late in the game by freshman guard Denzel Valentine, Nix has played his final collegiate game at Breslin Center.
Now, the attention turns to the Big Ten Tournament and another potential national run.
The next uniform Nix will wear on the Breslin floor will be the traditional commencement cap and gown, alongside his classmates when graduates with a degree in sociology.
Nix has learned plenty on the basketball court as well, a product of going into battle with one of the game’s great teachers.
Maybe Nix will end his career with a trip to the Final Four. Maybe he’ll walk away with a national championship.
Maybe he’ll catch the eye of an NBA scout and move on to the professional ranks.
As of now, much of Derrick Nix’s legacy is uncertain. But what is certain, for his mother and his coach, the most important thing for him is to walk away with a college degree.
“I meant what I said, Antonio (Smith’s) taught me a lot, the Mateen (Cleaves’) have taught me a lot and the Travis (Walton’s) have taught me,” Izzo said. “I learned a lot from this kid. I just hope he continues to move forward now.
“When he walks, the party is at my house.”