The Odd Couple
Sophomore centers Sherman and Nix formed a strong friendship on and off the court
About two and a half months ago, the MSU men’s basketball team had a team evaluation meeting. Players were told areas they needed to work on.
Sophomore center Derrick Nix decided to write down the needed improvements and hang them above his locker so he remembered.
After temporarily leaving the team for a few weeks, Nix had five things written down: off-court issues, commitment, put the program at a different level, more substance and less BS, and free-throw shooting.
“When you look at it, you say, ‘Did I do all these things today to get better as a player and a person?’” Nix said. “I just evaluate myself every day.”
Nix didn’t know that another player also had decided to put his list above his locker: his best friend.
Sophomore center Garrick Sherman’s struggles have come later than Nix’s, but the goals still are the same. Sherman’s list reads: strength — keep working out, aggressiveness — sense of urgency, do you love the game? and free-throw shooting.
“Actually we did it separately,” Sherman said of putting the lists up. “We didn’t even know it. I guess we both had the same idea.”
Sherman and Nix have become the odd couple on the team; two kids from completely different backgrounds brought together by basketball to become friends. Despite the recent struggles of the team, the two have stuck through thick and thin and plan to for a long time.
“That’s just me and him thinking alike,” Nix said of the lists. “That’s like my brother. I look at him totally different than I do my other teammates because with him, it’s more than basketball.”
‘It’s kind of a unique situation’
Detroit and Kenton, Ohio, are only 140 miles from each other, but they’re worlds apart.
Detroit, Nix’s hometown, is a run-down industrial city with a population of about 900,000. Kenton, Sherman’s hometown, is a rural community with a population of 8,300.
About 80 percent of Detroit’s population is black. About 97 percent of Kenton’s population is white.
Out of these two worlds have emerged the unlikeliest of friends brought together by the game they both love.
The pair first met on Dec. 3, 2008. The site was Ford Field as the MSU men’s basketball team was set to face No. 1 North Carolina in the Big Ten/ACC Challenge. The two had committed to MSU earlier in the year. The Spartans lost the game, 98-63, but a friendship was formed right from the beginning.
“He seemed like a nice guy,” Sherman said of Nix. “I didn’t really know much a whole lot about him at the time. I didn’t know we were going to be great friends like we are now though.”
Being the only two recruits in the class of 2009, they roomed together as freshmen. Playing the same position, the two competed against each other for playing time.
“It’s kind of weird because normally when you’ve got a situation where guys play the same position, they don’t wish the other would do bad, but they really want to compete,” said assistant coach Dwayne Stephens, who works with MSU’s post players. “Those two have been able to compete for playing time at a position, while also maintaining a close friendship. It’s kind of a unique situation.”
Both were four-star recruits out of high school, where Nix was named Mr. Basketball in Michigan. Although head coach Tom Izzo doesn’t think they’re as hard on each other as they should be, Nix and Sherman say they help each other’s games.
“I think playing against each other has really helped both of us improve our games,” Sherman said.
“That’s something we’ve been playing against each other one-on-one a lot since we’ve got here, so we always compete with each other and we’ve made each other better.”
‘Don’t get mad if we don’t play’
Two games into this season, Nix temporarily left the Spartans.
“He’s going to have to figure out what those are, and what he’s going to do and what he wants to do,” Izzo said of Nix’s goals in mid-November.
Nix rejoined the team a week later, but the damage wasn’t repaired immediately. Nix never said exactly what it was that caused him to leave but said he should have gone to his best friend for help.
“That’s why I was in the position I was in,” Nix said a few weeks ago. “If I would have went to him, I bet you I wouldn’t be in the position I am now, where I’m only playing a limited about of minutes.”
Since then, Nix has turned things around, playing 35 total minutes in the last two games, but his weight remains an issue. After a strong summer losing weight, Nix said he got down to 267 pounds. But early in the season, the problems resurfaced.
Last week he said he guessed he was back up to 285 and said he won’t be happy until he’s 270.
Sherman has been a key component in helping Nix lose weight. Living with him and junior guard Austin Thornton, an eye always has to be kept on the refrigerator.
“We try to keep him focused,” Sherman said. “It’s tough, especially with his metabolism. Some of the things that he goes through aren’t fair to him, but that’s just the stuff he has to deal with.”
With the watchful eye of coaches and teammates, Nix said it’s hard to sneak a snack.
“Sherm don’t ever let me eat, but Sherm, he’s always in his room so he doesn’t get to see me,” Nix said with a smile. “He’s supposed to be on a diet too so we’ll get salads when we’re together, but I know when we ain’t together, he’s getting fried chicken and burgers and stuff too.”
Sherman’s struggles have been more mental rather than physical. After contributing early in the season, Sherman has seen his minutes dwindle, partly because opponents use smaller lineups and partly because Sherman hasn’t rebounded as well, Izzo said.
But having a friend dealing with his own struggles, Nix and Sherman have been able to lean on each other for support.
“We’re always there to help each other in good times and bad times,” Sherman said. “I’m cheering for him, he played well (against Indiana). It’s just in cycles.”
Nix said Sherman needs the confidence to know he’s a great player. But Nix knows the situations easily could be reversed.
“We’re kind of in the same position. I just played 23 minutes (against Indiana), that could’ve been him out there,” Nix said. “We’ve got a term, we just say, ‘Play hard, play smart and don’t get mad if we don’t play.’
“That’s all we’ve got to go by. If we don’t play bad, don’t get mad and try to play better the next time you get in.”
Nix hasn’t visited Kenton yet, but Sherman visited Nix’s home in Detroit last summer.
Coming from different backgrounds, the two have learned much about each other’s cultures.
“Sherm knows how it is to stay in the ghetto,” Nix said with a laugh. “I told him how it is to live in the ghetto. He told me a lot of stuff about living on the farm, like a lot of handmade stuff and doing stuff on my own.”
Nix and Sherman took it into their own hands when Sherman’s father helped replace the roof on their East Lansing house this summer. Although Nix said he was used to just calling someone to fix the roof, the hands-on experience was valuable.
“Derrick Nix is such a hard worker and I think it was so wonderful for him to experience construction,” said Mary Sherman, Garrick’s mother.
Did Mary Sherman think her son’s best friend would be a kid from inner-city Detroit?
“No, but I’m pleasantly surprised and very, very happy that it is because I think that’s part of the college experience,” she said. “When you get to college, it’s real life and so you make friends with people that are not from where you grew up, and I think that’s part of the wonderful thing about thing about their friendship. They let everything else go and just became friends.”
Nix plans on visiting Garrick in Kenton this upcoming summer “to see how it is and burn fires and do all kinds of crazy stuff.” Although Mary Sherman thinks Nix will love it, Garrick Sherman wasn’t so sure.
“It’ll be good. He’ll probably be bored,” Garrick Sherman said with a laugh. “He probably won’t want to come back, but we’ll see.”
A friendship between an inner-city kid and a country boy was not something expected by Izzo, who referred to the pair as “Frick and Frack,” but it’s something that can help both of their games.
“They really stick up for each other, they’re really tight,” Izzo said. “They really kind of look after each other. I told them to take it one step farther now.”
It wasn’t a friendship anyone could have predicted, but it became one that will last beyond their college years.
“I look at him as an older brother, like a role model because he does a lot of good stuff,” Nix said of Garrick Sherman. “A lot of people don’t see what he does beyond basketball, but Sherm is a hell of a person. I call him my older brother because I look up to him.
“It ain’t always about basketball and that’s what everybody sees, but we’re going to be friends forever.”