Two years have passed on Jeff Nix's testimony, and, still, so many old friends in the NBA don't return his calls, his emails. It's like he disappeared, like he's dead to them. The irony is that no one liked Isiah Thomas, but he was still one of them, an NBA executive. Maybe they all think that Nix had an obligation to protect the New York Knicks president in that sexual harassment case anyway. Only, Nix refused. He told the truth under oath, and looking back, maybe it cost him a career in pro basketball.
"I guess the most disappointing thing is seeing all the people that I really knew and trusted, and thought I had a good relationship with, just putting me so far in their rear-view mirror," Nix said the other day from his home just outside South Bend, Ind. "But do I regret what I did? Do I regret telling the truth? No, I've never second-guessed myself on anything. I knew what the consequences would be, and I can live with it."
After 15 years as a scout, coach and front office-executive with the Knicks, Nix testified to witnessing and hearing of the harassment that Thomas had heaped on a co-worker, Anucha Browne Sanders. He told the truth to the lawyers in the deposition, repeated it in the trial and it turned out be some of the most credible and compelling testimony against the defendants, Madison Square Garden and Thomas.
Nix testified to witnessing Thomas hug Browne Sanders in a Garden corridor, and her pushing him away. When Nix asked her about what he had seen, she said that Thomas had told her that he loved her. Nix testified to conversations with Browne Sanders when she complained of "uncomfortable" and "unprofessional" encounters with Thomas.
For all the damage that Thomas' regime leveled on the Knicks organization, you have to wonder: Who paid a steeper price than Nix? Browne Sanders won an $11.5 million settlement and landed an athletic administration job at the University of Buffalo. Most of Nix's scouts still have jobs with new general manager Donnie Walsh. Thomas left in disgrace, yes, but with a $14 million buyout and a college coaching job at Florida International. Life goes on, but it's been almost two years since Nix gave his deposition testimony and still nothing.
Around Madison Square Garden, the cutthroat culture demanded a code of silence, but Nix kept telling himself: How could I ever face my parents, how could I ever honor my small-town upbringing in Olean, N.Y., and protect my boss' behavior with a lie? In Nix's mind, this was true when he had a $250,000-a-year scouting director job with the Knicks, and it's true now.
"A lot of people had the same opportunity to tell the truth there that I did, and they didn't do it," Nix said. "They have to live with themselves. But, yeah, I'd be lying if I didn't say that I don't ask myself why I can't even get an email response back from people I had known a long time in the league. I'd be lying if I didn't say that it's really disappointing. … Do I wonder if I'm blackballed in some way? Well, I hope not. I hope that's not the case."
Life is funny sometimes, and here's the most amazing part of these past two years: Nix has never felt so needed, so worthwhile. Perhaps it spares him some bitterness, recedes some anger. Perhaps it's taught him that things do happen for a reason, that a nasty ending in New York gave him a gateway to the most important work of his life.
Five years ago, Nix bought some tickets for an Air Force Academy game, where an old Knicks scout, Jeff Bzdelik, was the basketball coach and donated them to some military children at Fort Carson in Colorado. The kids had a blast and it got Nix to start thinking bigger: Let's get more military kids, more coaches and schools involved with it. Eventually, they gave the program a name, "Camouflage Kids," and started to hold summertime fundraisers in Indiana with big-time college coaches.
Cam Kids started to get busloads of military families who had a father or mother away overseas at war, and got them onto campuses for basketball games. Now, there are hundreds of kids going to games on dozens of campuses.
It costs Cam Kids roughly $25 a child for each game. Each one gets a T-shirt, a hot dog and popcorn and a private pregame talk with a college basketball coach. Mostly, they get some joy in what can often be a gray, grim world for them. Most military families couldn't afford to take their kids to the games in these economic times. They keep growing the experience with campus tours and motivational speeches – anything to keep those kids' spirits up, to keep them going until a parent comes home again.
Tom Crean hosts games at Indiana and does fundraisers for Nix. So does Tom Izzo at Michigan State and Mike Brey at Notre Dame. Nix has taken two trips to the Middle East to bring basketball to the troops. It doesn't pay his bills now, but it pays back.
"If I didn't have this," Nix said, "I'd be going crazy now. There are just moments with Cam Kids that keep you going. We just had an event at Michigan State and I asked a little 6-year-old girl if she was excited about Santa coming soon, and she told me, 'I'm more excited that my dad is coming home in two weeks,' and it just hits you so hard the sacrifice that they are all making. We've had a chance to visit Iraq twice and Walter Reed [Army Medical Center] and I've never seen spirit like this: Guys with legs blown off, complaining that they're not running the 50 fast enough with prosthetic legs. … Imagine that compared to the [bogus] complaints you hear every day working in the NBA.
"Hey listen, I had a great run with the Knicks. I was fortunate to make two NBA Finals, coach in an All-Star game. I got to coach at Notre Dame. I've gotten to do so much, but this by far is the most fulfilling thing I've ever done in my life."
This is a lousy time to be trying to find a job in the NBA because cost-cutting and video technology have decimated the scouting profession. Pat Riley and Jeff Van Gundy used to call Nix the best advanced scout in the league, but those jobs are fewer and fewer in the league anymore. Those who made good livings are begging for teams to assign them $100-a-game advance scouting assignments. Owners want a leaner bottom line and scouting positions are disappearing at an alarming rate.
Nix knows it, and that's why he's trying to find work in the college game, maybe administration, too. Crean has had Nix spend time with him at Marquette and now Indiana, and marvels over the way that Nix has thrown himself into Camouflage Kids the way that he did scouting and coaching.
"The one thing about Jeff Nix is when he commits to something, I really haven't seen many peers in terms of his singular purpose in what he wants to accomplish," Crean said. "The passion that he had in coaching and scouting, you just see it with our military families now. … What he's done is absolutely remarkable."
There are still tough days for Nix, still times he tries to understand what he did to become, in his words, "a black sheep in the NBA family." Does it bother him that Isiah Thomas is coaching college kids now? "Yeah, it does," he says. "It does…" It bothers him that he wrote to NBA owners and executives about possibly getting some donations of old summer league jerseys and worn-out sneakers to bring American soldiers in Iraq, and barely anyone beyond Washington Wizards assistant general manager Tommy Sheppard, Chicago Bulls vice president John Paxson, New Orleans Hornets coach and GM Jeff Bower and ex-Nets coach Lawrence Frank took the time to help him. Sure, it all bothers Jeff Nix. Sure, it gnaws at him.
And, sure, sometimes that all hangs over him until he has one of those Saturdays with Camouflage Kids, when the bus comes rolling into campus from a military base and all those tired, young faces come flooding out, come pouring into a gymnasium or arena, and suddenly brighten. He thinks about the fathers overseas, and how thrilled they'll be to hear about it, and all that angst can wash away fast.
And, mostly, he thinks about his parents in that tiny town in Western New York, about lessons learned long ago, and it always comes back to this: "I wouldn't change how it's all worked out for me, and what I had to do. …I'd say what I said all over again.
"I can live with the truth."
- Isiah Thomas