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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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"He would do whatever he could to stop me from scoring," Jim says, "then he'd let John and Michael score all over him, and that made me mad. When I was growing up I thought my dad was pretty hard on me. I was always supposed to set an example. In a lot of ways we didn't get along very well during that period, so I guess I never looked at what I did as following in his footsteps."

Jim Jr. finally beat Jim Sr. one on one when he was in the sixth grade (and had sprouted to about 5'7"), and that was when the father-son games came to a halt. "After that," Jim Sr. says, "it wasn't so much fun anymore." It was also about that time when Mike Paxson inadvertently made a discovery that seemed innocent enough but would change the lives of his older brothers.

"Our 5-year-old had seen a movie about military schools," says Jackie, "and he started asking us about it. Eventually I sent away for some brochures just to make him happy." Jim, who was 11 then, studied them carefully for several days and then announced he wanted to go to one of the schools. "A lot of people in our part of the country think military schools are where you send bad kids as a last resort," says Jackie. "But Jimmy wasn't bad." Jim remembers himself as being a "hyperactive, mean kid" before he went away, but his mother insists he was just shy.

"Jimmy likes regimentation," she says. "For as long as I can remember he always had a time to study, a time to eat and a time to play ball." All of which may have made Jim seem like a dream candidate for Leonard Hall Junior Naval Academy, located in Leonardtown, Md. and run by a Catholic order. But the school felt his answers to a psychological test given as part of the entrance examination indicated he wouldn't fit in. "We asked the psychologist why," Jackie says, "and he said Jimmy was such a perfectionist he wouldn't be able to adapt to a regimented environment."

The school finally agreed to try Jim, and while attending the sixth through eighth grades there, he went on to win virtually every academic, military and athletic award the academy gave. "I remember him telling me how each night the loneliness was so hard," his mother says. "He was dreadfully homesick, and I used to tell him each time he came home that he didn't have to go back. He even admitted later that during his first year he began to wonder if we really wanted him. But he always said he felt he had something to prove."

"It wasn't that I really liked it," Jim says of Leonard Hall, "but it gave me a chance to establish an identity for myself. Everything there was goal oriented, and that's where I started to drive myself."

By 1971, when Jim had returned to Kettering to go to high school at Archbishop Alter, John was beginning to think about being a basketball player, too. But by the time he was ready for the eighth grade, he was still only 5'4". "My height has always been my disadvantage," he says. "When I was in the seventh grade and shorter than everybody else, my parents and I started talking about holding me back a year. Even then athletics were a big part of my life, and I just couldn't see myself ever doing anything as long as I was so small. I was really intimidated about my height."

John had himself shipped off to the Le Mans Academy, a Catholic military school 272 miles away in Rolling Prairie, Ind. After two months he was overcome by homesickness and came home to go back to school in Kettering, but the next year he lasted the whole term, repeating the eighth grade and biding his time while he waited to grow a few inches. But even his adult height isn't going to impress anybody in the NBA. "All the 6'2" guys in the league can really blaze," says Milwaukee Bucks Coach Don Nelson. And as John himself is the first to admit, "When you're short and white, they just assume you're not quick. Of course, it doesn't help that I'm not quick."

Though his older brother and father are four inches taller than he is, that isn't the most difficult family comparison John has had to endure. In high school he found he was being judged against the achievements of Jim, his own hero. "There's a lot of pressure when that happens," John says. "Jim was doing well in college and I hadn't shown people I was a player yet. That's when you get a little jealous, when you're growing up and everywhere you go, the only thing people ask you about is your brother."

Michael Paxson fled all the way to the University of Wyoming to try to escape the inevitable comparisons. "People would always say Mike was the best natural athlete," Jim says. "That didn't make it any easier for him." Mike transferred after his freshman year at Wyoming and spent last season as a walk-on basketball player at Ohio University, averaging 1.2 points a game off the bench.

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