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

A Family Tradition

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

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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 façade, 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.

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