Clipper guard Norm Nixon, saying he wanted to end his career “with some dignity rather than go out riding the bench,” announced his retirement Thursday, just 19 games before the end of his 10th season in the National Basketball Assn.
Nixon had been disappointed about playing as a reserve in recent weeks, just as he was reaching a consistent level after a pair of career-threatening injuries that had caused him to miss the previous two seasons. He had averaged only 18.7 minutes in his last nine appearances as the Clippers went with younger players Gary Grant and Tom Garrick at point guard.
Nixon, 33, missed the last three games with bronchitis, and while he was out, the two-time all-star and a starter on the Lakers’ 1980 and ’82 NBA championship teams began to discuss his possible retirement with Clipper General Manager Elgin Baylor.
“I got the feeling that his bronchitis wasn’t as severe as he said it was,” Coach Don Casey said. “He came up to me one day and said he didn’t feel good and didn’t feel right about the situation. We talked that maybe he should start thinking about some of his alternatives and discuss them with Elgin, which he did.
“The way we were doing things, it wasn’t easy. He’s a proud warrior. But I thought that he contributed to our team. . . . I think it’s sad. But you have to understand the player. You can say, ‘Why not stay for the last 20 games and go to the end of the year?’ But it’s hard when you’re not involved. I understand where he’s coming from.”
The Clippers say they will continue to pay Nixon for the remainder of his five-year, $2.7-million contract, which expires at the end of next season. There had been some talk that he would serve out his contract as an assistant coach, but that idea never gained much momentum. In the end, the team decided to pay him even if he doesn’t work for them.
“Because he’s Norm Nixon,” team President Alan Rothenberg said. “I think we owe it to him for all he’s done for us.”
Nixon actually played only 283 games in his nearly six years with the San Diego and L.A. Clippers, averaging 14.6 points and nine assists. But because of his success with the Lakers and his inspirational comeback from knee surgery and a ruptured Achilles’ tendon, which combined to take away two of the six seasons, he was a crowd favorite.
Perhaps equally important to a team that has four rookies and four second-year players, he was looked upon as a team leader and, early on at least, the heart of the Clippers.
As recently as 2 1/2 weeks ago, Nixon talked of playing next season and said that his leaving the Clippers might be better for both sides. Rothenberg said Nixon is “free to do whatever he wants” and that “Norm can negotiate with another team if he wants.”
In most cases, the Clippers would have to waive Nixon before he could sign somewhere else next season because he is under contract. But it is also possible that the parties came up with unique terms of a retirement deal that would allow for Nixon to save some honor by not being cut while still being available to play again in 1989-90.
Baylor was not immediately available Thursday night. Nixon did not return phone calls.
Leaving the game did not seem to be an alternative in recent weeks. Nixon had been realistic about his role on this young team since the first months of the season, but he said from the start that retiring was not an option, unless he became physically unable to continue.
“I said to myself, ‘I’m going to be good this year,’ ” Nixon said in December. “There is none of that negative thinking--'If I can’t play I’m going to retire.’ I don’t think in those terms. I’m an eternal optimist.”
That all changed, however, as he struggled to find his niche on a young team.
“I don’t even have fun anymore,” he said Feb. 28. “Basketball this year became a job. That’s what makes it so tough.”
Nixon’s only comment on the retirement, released through the Clipper office, did not stray from those thoughts.
“Coming back from two injuries at this point in my career, I realized early that this wouldn’t be the best platform for my return because of the Clippers’ commitment to young players,” he said. “I have chosen to end my time with some dignity rather than going out riding the bench.”
Nixon did not practice Thursday, and there was no mention of his decision at the time to teammates, who heard the news on their own later in the afternoon.
“I talked to him a little bit in the locker room (Wednesday), and I had a feeling something like this might happen,” said Grant, the rookie whose increasingly solid play meant less playing time for Nixon. “I felt like he didn’t want to keep going through all this. And with the career he’s had, I don’t think he should have to.
“I’m surprised as far as that he’s not going to finish the year. But that’s his decision. He had a great NBA career and he taught me a lot in the short time that we worked together.”
The Clippers acquired Nixon Oct. 10, 1983, in the four-player trade that sent the rights to then-rookie Byron Scott from San Diego to the Lakers.
Nixon worked his way up to No. 7 on the NBA’s all-time assist list at 6,386, 91 shy of passing Nate Archibald for sixth place, and No. 2 among active players behind former Laker teammate Magic Johnson. In a 768-game career, the former high school football star from Macon, Ga., averaged 15.7 points and 8.3 assists.
“Norm Nixon was a true professional,” Casey said. “I think the older guys always want to go out with a roar and on a winning team. That just wasn’t there for him.”