When he was a rookie point guard, Norm Nixon’s confrontations with then Lakers coach Jerry West were continuous and high pitched. West was hard as nails, intensely driven, dogmatic, relentless, the kind of leader that believed criticism was love; strategically that was the West identity: be hard on yourself, expect perfection from the world. What was problematic in the West psychology was that Norm Nixon was cut a little bit differently. He was notoriously thin skinned and sensitive and was not used to the dismissive and quick barbs West threw his way whenever Nixon made a mistake. Even for a rookie, Nixon had a healthy ego and was used to that ego being fed by admirers. But Jerry West didn’t cooperate in the fall of 1977. He seemed to hate Norm Nixon.
West was relentless in his Nixon critique, never letting up. You’re a whiner. You’re soft. You’re inexperienced. Being a Laker is too much for you.
Perhaps if Nixon was wired a little bit differently, if he was more laid back and more secure in his own capabilities, he would have let it go but Nixon couldn’t let West get away with what felt like a public stoning. He returned fire in this very simmering and antagonistic war between player and coach with the team in the middle as bystanders.
“I was harder on him than anyone else because I knew what was there. Even to this day, I’m not so sure Norm Nixon doesn’t think of me as the anti-Christ.” (Jerry West)
Nixon was a good player from the get-go. His first year he averaged 14 points and 7 assists. He wasn’t particularly big at 6-2 but he was quick and adept at getting into the paint and he had a step back jumper he had great confidence in. He had a huge upside but then there was the Nixon baggage. He was too sensitive when he was judged; in the NBA you are ruthlessly evaluated so there were going to be hurt feelings. Nixon personalized everything. When Magic Johnson joined the team two years later, Nixon had to make adjustments and room for the effervescent Johnson who was a natural leader. Everyone followed Johnson. Everyone. That left Nixon in no-man’s land. What now?
There are usually two very distinct perspectives. What you think you are. And who you really are. The front office saw Magic Johnson as transformational and iconic, an innate leader. But Nixon saw himself that way too. He lacked awareness that the team didn’t feel about him the same way he thought of himself. In fact, the team was just waiting for Nixon to implode.
Unhappy, as the years progressed, Nixon told Lon Rosen who was the Lakers Director of Promotions at the time, “I don’t want to be here.” The stress of daily battles was getting to him, putting Nixon on edge. His Rosen comment was said when Nixon was on one of his complaining binges, a frequency of his. Did he really mean it? It didn’t much matter. Once Jerry West heard Nixon’s gripe, it set everything in motion.
It was October 15, 1983. Jerry West was no longer the Lakers coach. He was the Lakers General Manager. He knew what he had to do.
No one was in denial. Norm Nixon could be exhausting. He could drain the energy from the room. He struggled co-existing with Magic Johnson. It was a numbers game. There could only be one leader. But as much as Nixon was miserable not being the main dog and he let everyone know it, he and Magic won two titles together trying to make it work. Why change?
Byron Scott was why.
The 22 year old shooting guard was selected with the fourth pick in the 1983 draft by the San Diego Clippers. Scott was a local kid who played at Arizona State. He was quiet and resilient and could make contested shots. Scott was from a rough part of town and survived the detritus. He was mentally tough and his aspirations didn’t lend himself toward wanting to be the leader and take away Magic Johnson’s shine.
Two hours south, the San Diego Clippers were a disaster but no one cared or paid attention.Clippers owner Donald Sterling was an afterthought. Except one of Sterling’s close friends was Jerry Buss. Sterling loaned Buss money to complete the Lakers sale from Jack Kent Cooke in 1979. Buss, in turn, convinced Sterling to buy the Clippers in 1981. Sterling soon learned that in the NBA, in the Western Conference, it was the Lakers world. They titled the axis. Sterling was desperate for attention, for love and adoration and he was jealous. He wanted what the Lakers had.
As leftovers went, Norm Nixon wasn’t a bad choice.
Jerry West couldn’t help Byron Scott with the transition. Once Nixon was gone and Scott was a Laker, Scott was hated and West wasn’t motivated to change the toxic atmosphere around the Lakers as they headed into the 1983-84 season. Scott’s new teammates felt betrayed by the Nixon trade and were very, very angry. They blamed Scott. In practice, every time Scott took the ball to the hole on a fast break, he got an elbow to the ribs. No one talked to him.
“I always thought of myself, Norm and Magic as the Three Musketeers and Byron broke that up so f**k him. We didn’t talk to him, we hit him, we did everything to f**k him up.” (Michael Cooper)
Scott called the absence of communication from his teammates the sound barrier. Jerry West watched from the sidelines. West had grown up a hard-nosed kid with an abusive, hateful father and a soldier brother who died in the war. West had layers and layers of grief. Either you were tough, according to West, or you needed to get the hell out. His message to Scott was figure it out.
One time, Scott offered Kareem Abdul-Jabaar a cup of water after a scrimmage and Abdul-Jabaar turned his back. Scott took it in stride. He wasn’t the one responsible. He was traded. This was Jerry West fleecing the Clippers, stealing from them. Scott was willing to wait his turn.
The third game of Byron Scott’s rookie year the Clippers were on the schedule. The game was in San Diego. The Lakers expected a heavy Lakers crowd which was the norm. The two hour drive wasn’t a deterrent to Lakers fans and their enthusiastic trolling of the Clippers made the night entertaining. The crowds usually left early after a Lakers beat down.
But this was a different kind of game. It was electric and anticipatory. The Clippers fans showed up. Norm Nixon had been a Clipper for three weeks and San Diego was excited. The Clippers got a Laker. They stole their championship player, that was how Sterling saw it. Michael Cooper had gotten over the shock.
“I really felt bad for Norm because nobody in their f**cking mind wanted to be a Clipper. But I also thought he was really stupid. It’s the classic curse of getting what you asked for. He’d complained a lot when he was with us. Well, congratulations. You’re a f**king San Diego Clipper.”
Nixon was iconic that night as if showing his former teammates and Jerry West they underestimated him. He had 25 points and 12 assists. The Clippers beat the Lakers 110-106 in a stunning defeat in front of a shocked Lakers crowd. Nixon took it as evidence the Clippers and the Lakers were equal. The Clippers had arrived. But Nixon was doing a little too much boasting and patting himself on the back. Although Nixon averaged 17 points and 11 assists that year, the role players were mediocre and Bill Walton was always injured. The Clippers won 30 games while the Lakers won 54 games. Byron Scott played 74 games, averaging 11 points, shooting 48% and was in the NBA Finals, although the Lakers lost to the Celtics.
Thirty-four years after Jerry West took the Clippers draft pick and delivered a veteran player- Norm Nixon would play four years after the trade, Byron Scott would play 13 years- West is joining the team he once manipulated. In a way it is unthinkable. But in a way it is business as usual. Time has changed everything. The Clippers are not the same organization Donald Sterling used to own and run. The Lakers are not the same organization Jerry Buss used to own and run. And so there is this intersectionality, this incestuous picking off of Lakers greats. Again.
To their credit, of which they owe a lot to Doc Rivers, the Clippers are not pathetic, persona non-grata in NBA circles but still fall way short in the city of Los Angeles. Often it seems they cannot get out of their own way. The best point guard of his generation hasn’t been to a conference final. Doc Rivers has been disastrous in free agency and drafting players.
In the same way the Lakers needed Byron Scott, the Clippers need Jerry West. They are desperate for a high i.q. in the front office and a gifted talent evaluator. Let Doc coach. He’s been his weakest at personnel moves.
The Clippers don’t have a two guard to speak of once J.J. Redick leaves. They don’t have a small forward to match up against Kevin Durant. And they don’t have a bench. Once they empty the bank and pay Paul and Blake Griffin this summer, there won’t be money left to bring in elite talent. But West will give the Clippers direction, intelligence and development.
The Clippers are infatuated with the idea of West though no contract has been signed yet. Desperate to win with this group, an impossible task, the Clippers have swung for the fences while the Lakers have turned the Jerry West page.
“For me life is about passion. Life is about being around people you want to be around.” (Jerry West)