It was a Friday night last spring on Sunset Strip in Los Angeles, a cool evening full of possibility, and Norm Nixon was looking for the fast lane. Traffic was at a near standstill, but Nixon gunned his white Mercedes through a small opening and then swung left into a lot next to the Roxy music club. Outside the Roxy there was no sign of human life, just valet parking attendants. Nixon surrendered his car to them, slid past a doorman and went quickly up some stairs to On The Rox, a private club that caters to the Hollywood glitter crowd.
Within minutes of his arrival, Nixon was seated on an overstuffed couch, sandwiched between two especially luscious blondes. One of the women was Michelle Phillips, once Mama Michelle of the Mamas and the Papas, and she wanted to have her picture taken with Nixon. A few feet away, Jack Nicholson leaned against the bar and watched, patiently waiting for his turn with Nixon. Phillips held on tight to one of Nixon's arms, and then she put her lips close to his ear as the camera began to flash. "I just want to thank you, Norman," she purred. "You've given me so many nights of pleasure." Outside, the traffic continued its languid bump and grind along the Strip, but Nixon was moving easily through the night now. He was cruising in the fast lane.
Nixon had indeed spent most of his six years in L.A. with his foot planted firmly on the gas. Not only was his night life jet-set fast, but Nixon also was the quicksilver point guard for the Los Angeles Lakers—a team followed by adoring fans like Nicholson, Phillips and almost everybody else ever featured in the "Chatter" section of PEOPLE magazine. Nixon wasn't the most famous or recognizable of the Lakers, but it was precisely because of his relatively low profile—Nixon is 6'2"—and his sophistication that he was able to move so comfortably among the Beautiful People who eagerly sought his attention. Then one day last month Nixon was traded to the San Diego Clippers.
The deal was announced on Oct. 10, the day before Nixon's 28th birthday, and that night some friends threw a combination birthday and farewell dinner party at Mr. Chow's, the ne plus ultra in Beverly Hills see-and-be-seen dining. In addition to five of his former Laker teammates, "Jack and Lou were there, and so were Burt and Carole," Nixon says. Like a foreign film, Nixon's life occasionally requires subtitles. So for the benefit of the terminally un-hip, those first names belong to Nicholson, movie producer Lou The Rocky Horror Picture Show Adler and the songwriting duo of Burt Bacharach and Carole Bayer Sager. "It was the Last Supper," Nixon says. "We just sat there around the table all night, drinking shots and talking about life."
The next day Nixon moved into Room 239 at the Sports Arena Travel Lodge in San Diego, 120 miles and a world away from the L.A. dazzle he'd thrived in. Nixon says he was "devastated" by the trade that sent him to the Clippers in exchange for backup Center Swen Nater and rookie Guard Byron Scott, but the deal may very well turn out to be the best thing that ever happened to him. Though he's arguably the quickest player in the NBA and one of the league's best jump shooters, Nixon was nevertheless considered something of a luxury on the talent-rich Lakers, one of the few luxuries that owner Jerry Buss has ever given any evidence of feeling he could live without. Already Nixon has proved his value to the Clippers by igniting their running game; thus, even though San Diego suffered through a 0-4 East Coast road trip last week that dropped its record to 3-6, the Clippers are optimistic that they can improve over their disastrous 25-57 mark of last season. With Center Bill Walton and Forward Terry Cummings to dish the ball off to, Nixon at week's end was averaging 11.7 assists per game, third in the league to Magic Johnson of the Lakers and Johnny Moore of the Spurs. It so happens that Johnson became one of Nixon's closest friends during the four seasons they played together in L.A. and was probably the player most responsible for Nixon's being traded.
Although Nixon has been forced to alter a life-style he loved, the ironic result is that he suddenly has an opportunity to become an acclaimed player, a situation that might never have developed had he not left L.A. Had Nixon stayed with the Lakers, he almost surely would have been remembered as the "other" guard who played alongside Johnson. The 6'9" Johnson is, like Nixon, a point guard, perhaps the best one to play in the NBA in more than a decade. It's because of him that Nixon is usually described as the best "pure" or "legitimate" point guard in the league, those being euphemisms for short. Because of his tremendous size, Johnson can see and do things on a basketball court that Nixon and other noted point guards, such as Philadelphia's Mo Cheeks and Kansas City's Larry Drew, simply cannot. "Physically, I'm a petite guy and I know my limitations," Nixon says. "My size has always been my biggest deficiency."
The trouble with being the best pure point guard in the NBA—which Nixon is and has been for several years—is that nobody seems to care much. Nixon has lamented for so long about not getting sufficient esteem that he has become the ultimate media paradox: He's widely recognized by the press as a player who gets little recognition. When he was with the Lakers and living in Johnson's long shadow, Nixon often felt taken for granted and, as a result, was frequently subject to sudden mood swings. In the course of a single day he could feel overconfident, underwhelmed, overjoyed, underpaid, overlooked, overworked, underappreciated, up in arms and down in the mouth. Many of these feelings would come upon him simultaneously, and that would just make Nixon play a little bit harder. "I think Norman sometimes feels it's him against the world," says Lakers Coach Pat Riley. "It's as if he believes he constantly has to prove himself. And that's understandable. If you're going to be a point guard—a position where you're not as big and strong as everybody else—you have to be like an animal that's been backed into a corner."
Outwardly, however, Nixon gives every indication of being a supremely confident player. "I know I'm the best at what I do," he says. "There's nobody else in the game who can do all the things I can." And yet, despite his importance to the Lakers while they were winning two championships, Nixon was never considered to be quite as accomplished as Seattle's Gus Williams; he was not Rookie of the Year, as Phil Ford was when he was with Kansas City; and he wasn't the No. 1 pick in the draft, as John Lucas was with Houston. "None of those guys ever had to challenge me," Nixon says. "They came into the league rated ahead of me." He considers Drew his only close rival among the standard-sized point guards, although there is still some strong, if misguided, sentiment in the East that Cheeks is better than either of them. Nixon, for one, doesn't subscribe to that. "Cheeks could be [as good]," Nixon says, "but he's not aggressive enough offensively."
It's not only Nixon's mouth that roars. He plays the game with ferocious quickness and the instincts of a killer. When Nixon moves forward with the ball, in a state of accelerating fury, he resembles the part of a cyclone that touches down—Stormin' Norman, always picking up ground. "He's a rocket," says Phoenix Coach John MacLeod. "Our problem has always been that we not only can't guard him, we can't even get close to him. For ball handling, playmaking, ability to run the break and jump-shooting, I don't think there's anybody who gives you all the dimensions Nixon does."
Nobody was all that excited about Nixon's dimensions when he was coming out of Duquesne in 1977. Not only was he not the Lakers' first pick in the draft that year, he wasn't even their first choice among point guards. L.A. took Maryland's Brad Davis before selecting Nixon with the last of the three first-round draft choices it had stockpiled that year. "I'm sure they didn't know who the hell I was," Nixon says.