Jerry West was in his second year as head coach of the Lakers that season, and although by the second day of rookie training camp it was clear Nixon would be Los Angeles' playmaker. West made it his business to ride Nixon hard and often. West, of course, had been one of the game's legendary players, but Nixon—who had grown up in Macon, Ga. thinking Mr. Clutch was a pedal in Mr. Car—was not terribly impressed with his new coach. "I never saw Jerry West play a basketball game," Nixon would say in 1981, "and I never saw him coach one."
Much of Nixon's antipathy toward West grew out of that first season, when Nixon felt he'd been unduly bullied. "Here I am, a rookie, playing with veterans like Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Adrian Dantley, Jamaal Wilkes and Lou Hudson," Nixon says. "So if you're the coach, who are you going to direct your frustration at? I think a lot of it was unfair." During a game in Atlanta that year, West used a time-out to chew out Nixon for mistakes the team had made in falling behind the Hawks. When play resumed, Hawks Coach Hubie Brown brought 5'8" Guard Charlie Criss in, and over the space of the next several minutes Nixon buried seven consecutive jumpers to tie the game. The quiet during the ensuing Atlanta time-out was shattered when one of Nixon's excited female relatives arose in the stands and thundered, "Use him, Norman! Use that chump! They can't put no midget on my boy!"
In 1979 West became a special consultant to the Lakers and in 1982 he was named general manager of the team. It didn't take long for Nixon's name to start coming up in trade rumors. When Nixon had what was, for him, an off season in 1982-83, he blamed it on a case of anemia and tendinitis in his knees, but West thought otherwise. "Norm's always got an answer for everything, especially when he's wrong," West says. "That's one of his big problems."
Nixon had always known that his fiercely held opinions would eventually cause him trouble. "I was the one who opened his mouth," he said last spring. "I think I put people in an uncomfortable position because I force their hand. And I've put myself in a dangerous position, because some people don't like that stuff. I'm sure when I'm no longer able to do it, they'll deal with me accordingly." The Lakers obviously had serious questions about why Nixon was no longer able to do it during the latter stages of the 1982-83 season, because last summer L.A. had Nixon investigated. The investigation apparently turned up nothing and was dropped. And then, coincidentally, so was Nixon. This season he has already begun to hear of rumors that he does indeed have a drug problem.
"I knew somebody was following me, but I thought they were trying to rob my house," Nixon says. "What they are doing is trying to rob me of my credibility. Now I hear the Lakers are saying that the untold story about the trade hasn't come out yet. But I don't worry about that stuff because the people who know me know I'm no junkie, that I couldn't practice and play the way I do if I had a drug problem."
Nixon is less concerned about gossip-mongering than he is about reaffirming his credentials as the game's best at his job. He had been unable to operate primarily as a point guard since Johnson came to the Lakers in 1979. "During Magic's first year the ball was taken away from me," Nixon says. "It was frustrating. After handling the ball all the time for two years, I thought I had proven myself at my position." The Lakers had started out that 1979-80 season in a two-guard set, but after Head Coach Jack McKinney was injured in a bicycling accident and replaced by his assistant, Paul Westhead, L.A. began to shift to a new alignment, with Magic out front and Nixon running the baseline. "I don't think I ever adjusted to that," Nixon says. "I had a mental block about it. It was a totally different perspective, looking at the side of the basket. My effectiveness was cut down tremendously."
The Lakers won the championship that season with Johnson playing center in the decisive game. In Game 5 of the series against the 76ers, Abdul-Jabbar went down with a twisted left ankle, and Nixon had the ring finger of his left hand bent so far back that ligaments were torn and the finger just dangled from his hand. "I looked down at the back of my hand and there was a blank space there," he says.
Nixon's relationship with Westhead worsened considerably that summer. Surgery was required to repair his finger, and there was some question at the time whether he would ever play again. Nixon was advised by the Lakers' physician to take the summer off, the feeling being that with rest his finger might be ready when training camp opened. In the team's offices one day, Nixon ran into Westhead, who said he'd like Nixon to play in the L.A. summer league, a proving ground primarily for rookies and free agents, to get himself into shape. Nixon was furious, but he choked back his anger and looked Westhead squarely in the eye. "Sure, Paul," he replied, "I'll be glad to. Just have Kareem pick me up on his way out there."
The 1980-81 season was a nightmare. Johnson tore the cartilage of his left knee in November, and when he tried to come back for the playoffs, chaos reigned and the Lakers lost to Houston in a three-game miniseries. True to form, Nixon was in the middle of the resultant controversy. A throwaway remark he had made in the Los Angeles Times casually talking about Magic's lasting impact on the game had annoyed Johnson enough to cause him to accuse unnamed teammates of "jealousy." When Johnson played poorly in the final loss to Houston, Nixon caught most of the blame. "I was a victim that time," he says. "When we lost, all of a sudden I was the one who caused all the problems. They actually told me I was responsible for the way Magic played in that last game because I upset him." If it accomplished nothing else, the dispute brought Johnson and Nixon, who were always friends, closer together. "After that," says Johnson, "we said to each other, 'O.K., you can have an ego as big as a building as long as we win.' Norm's a very proud dude. What happened was no personal battle between the two of us. We were just trying to figure out each other's roles."
Nixon's grumblings became more muted, but he never quite got over the fire he drew. Now that he's in San Diego, at a safe remove from the egos of the Lakers, Nixon says he's finally relieved. "I'm wanted here," he says. "My team wants me to play well. It's nice to be away from a negative environment because even a minute amount of negativism can be detrimental."