Oct. 11, 2012
By Steve Grinczel, Online Columnist
Nix is the affable giant center who was in danger of being kicked off the team after his arrest last April. Byrd, whose foot has been surgically repaired three times, ran on a barely perceptible record.
But when coach Tom Izzo put it to a players-only vote, no other player came close to Nix and Byrd. Then, when Izzo took a straw poll of his staff, the results were the same.
"I could have vetoed (Nix's) captainship," Izzo said.
He didn't however, and he revealed the results of the vote during MSU's media day at the Breslin Center on Tuesday.
Byrd's strength is the way he battled back from injury, subdued his discouragement and frustration and relates to every player on the team. Although he averaged just 5.5 minutes and 1.5 points while appearing in 27 of 37 games, Byrd's work ethic and determination proved to be inspirational.
"I was just honored and thankful that my teammates see me this way and I'm excited about the responsibility to be a captain and do whatever I can to make them better and this team better," Byrd said. "I think it's something I'm good at. Maybe the injury was a blessing in disguise because I've learned how to communicate and handle different situations, and handle different guys and bring guys together.
"I'm really excited about it. It's going to be fun. It's always good to lead by example, but you've got to be able to speak up, too, and call guys out when they're wrong and push guys when they need to be pushed. I care about each and every one of these guys and want the best for them."
Byrd, who was recruited for his perimeter shooting, made just 9 of 33 3-point shots, and it seemed like the hopeful Breslin Center crowd sagged with him each time he missed.
He said he was going to repay the fans' support, "by hitting a lot of shots," Byrd said. "It's what I have to do and will do. That's my job on this team, and to be reliable on the court and not a liability.
"The last two years were tough and it sucked, but getting healthy and getting back to myself kind of just brought me out of the fog a little bit. Last year, my foot wasn't broken and that was great, but my body was a mess. Last year, I didn't have them (legs) and I could last for only a minute or so before they were gone."
Nix won back the trust of his teammates and coaches with an act of contrition that went well beyond what was expected of him. Required to perform 24 hours of community service, Nix has logged more than 70, and counting, speaking to teen-age offenders at juvenile detention centers, visiting cancer-stricken children in hospitals and speaking to various youth groups.
"I let people know that the decision I made wasn't who I was as a person," Nix said. "I think about what I did every day because I still feel like I'm being judged, and I only brought that upon myself.
"I was at a low point. I was in jail. Nobody wants to go to jail. I sat there all night saying this can't be happening to me. Of all the people, not me. I'm a genuine guy. I care about Michigan State, I care about my teammates and it's a slap in their face because how do you care if you do something like this?"
Assistant coach Mike Garland accompanied Nix to many of his visits, but he went to others on his own without prodding.
"He made a gigantic mistake and his goal was to make up for it," said Garland. "He got to a place where it wasn't like he was just doing his duty. It got to the point where he was helping serve people."
Nix said experience is his biggest asset. He played in a Final Four and has contributed to two Big Ten championships, but he's also seen the Spartans come apart at the seams.
"I can tell them not to do this and not to do that because I've been through it," Nix said. "I've been around here going on four years and I've seen goods and bads and what distractions can do to a team. A couple years ago, we had the No. 2 team in the country and because of distractions alone, we barely made the (NCAA) tournament."
While serving a suspension, Nix knew his fate hung in the balance and he was ill at ease about his future for three weeks. Even after his reinstatement, he felt out of place when he was around the team.
"It didn't feel right and when I came around it was just different," Nix said. "People can say what they want about Izzo, but you never know how much somebody cares about you until you're in a situation where your career's on the line. He could have easily given me the, all right Derrick this is your third strike and you've got to go.
"I could easily be back home on the streets doing whatever or at some Division II or junior college and my career would go off the deep end. But he fought for me, and our athletic director (Mark Hollis) fought for me, and that meant more to me than anything."
Nix is beholden to Izzo and MSU for getting another chance.
"I ain't got no more room for error, no more mistakes, no more letdowns, no more parties, no more nothing," Nix said. "It's just a straight line from here on out. It's as simple as that. I feel like Tom Izzo, the person, saved me.
"With the dumb stuff we do, we put his job in jeopardy. I feel like I owe him this much, so my job as a senior leader is to make sure nobody on this team does the ignorant stuff I did, or what players in the past did."
Izzo said that Nix, who is 12 credits away from earning his degree in sociology in four years, will not serve a game suspension because he's had enough time during the off-season make amends.
"You know, he's been a pain in my butt in some ways," Izzo said. "(But) he could be the ultimate Spartan in another way, because he came here a blue-collar kid -- rough around the edges. He's made a mistake or two. He's struggled with his weight.
"I'm not selling him to you; I'm just trying to tell you that this kid has made incredible progress. He's going to be a huge, huge success story or egg on my face. For me, I think it's going to be a huge, huge success story or I wouldn't put him in the position he's in."
GoG Notes & Quotes: Sophomore point guard Travis Trice has gone through another type of rehabilitation during the off-season.
He woke up one day last May with a headache no medication relieved. Then he'd never feel hungry. Eventually, his legs would throb and feel weak all day. This went on for about two months.
"For about eight weeks I was getting blood work every two or three days, and I hate needles," Trice said. "I got to know the staff at the medical center real well."
The mysterious malady kept him off the basketball court and caused him to "zone out" during class.
"Being sick, I was out totally," Trice said. "I couldn't play, I couldn't lift (weights). All they'd let me do is come watch and go sleep and eat, if I was hungry."
The illness finally subsided on its own and doctors told Trice it was caused either by a virus or a parasite. He's now in the process of regaining the 20 pounds he lost.
"And I can't afford to lose five pounds," Trice said. "I'm 168 now. It's not the same weight I was wanting to be or where I was before, but I feel a lot better than where I was at 150. I played at 165 (last season)."
Izzo called sophomore guard Branden "B.J." Dawson "the bionic" man because of the way he has come back from knee surgery that kept him out of the last six games.
Trice called him a marvel of modern medicine.
"They need to test his body when he's dead and gone," Trice said. "He needs to donate his body to science because that dude is a freak of nature. Some guys you worry about how they're going to bounce back mentally, but he's done a good job."
The talk of media day was the way Byrd dunked on Dawson during a summer workout.
"I just got hyper and started jumping all over the place," Nix said. "I was like, Russ just dunked on B.J.; it's supposed to be the other way around. But I was real happy for him."
Said Dawson, "He didn't really dunk on me. I jumped pretty late from behind. I just say that Russell has been working hard and he deserves everything coming forth to him."
Nix has maintained his weight at 270 after dropping 70 pounds a year ago. He even tried being a vegetarian for about four weeks this off-season.
"The crazy part is, I think that is the hardest thing I¡¯ve ever done," Nix said.
When he told his mother, Darlis, he couldn't maintain such a diet, she said he could cheat and have meat from time to time. However, when he tried some grilled chicken, it wreaked havoc on his stomach.
Now Nix calls himself a "flexitarian" or semi-vegetarian.
"I don't eat beef, but I still eat as healthy as possible for the most part," he said.
Junior point guard Keith Appling proved himself as a defender last season, but after a heart-to-heart talk with Izzo, dedicated himself this summer to regain some of the scoring touch that made him a McDonald's All-American in high school.
"He just told me I needed to make more of a commitment to coming in and working on my game and that's one of the things I did because I knew it would help me and this team this year," Appling said. "But at the end of the day, it's defense that wins games. You've got to pride yourself on defense, or you're just not going to win enough games.
"Offense sells tickets, but it's all about winning basketball games. If you score and not getting stops, what's the good of scoring?"