Ask Nick Nixon’s coaches or family members, and they’ll tell you he wields a passion unlike most for basketball.
The 21-year-old North Hall High grad and member of Special Olympics Georgia’s Hall County Traditional team feeds off those who underestimate him on the court.
Basketball gave Nixon the tools to conquer the many hurdles in his lifelong management of autism spectrum disorder. Now, it has guided him to an opportunity of a lifetime.
Nixon will be one of 10 Hall County players representing Team Georgia in the upcoming 2018 Special Olympics USA Games from July 1-6 in Seattle. Nixon’s teammate Chris Payne is also from North Hall.
“I am just real excited and so happy that the Lord put me in this position. I’m loving it,” said Nixon, who was diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder in his early childhood. “That’s never happened to me before in my life. I’ve won five medals counting high school and at Marietta (Special Olympics). ... I feel like I want to play more competitive.”
He’ll certainly face some of the best on this West Coast trip.
Every four years, 4,000 athletes and coaches from all 50 states make up the national competition covering 14 sports.
Since 1968, the global movement of Special Olympics has aimed to empower individuals with intellectual disabilities through the joy of sport. It aims to combat inactivity, injustice and intolerance while promoting acceptance and equality, according to the Special Olympics website.
Venues include the University of Washington, King County Aquatic Center, Seattle University and Celebration Park. The 70,000 expected spectators should make these Games the largest sporting event to take place in the Seattle area in more than 25 years, and this edition is on the 50th anniversary of the Special Olympics movement.
Hall County coach Teresa Young said the chance to set foot on the national stage is right up there with the NBA Finals, and her squad has made several public appearances in conjunction with its practice schedule leading up to the event.
In January, Hall County Traditional took home its fifth consecutive Gold medal at the Winter Games for SOGA, which qualified the players to represent their state at the national level. In response, Nixon’s alma mater held a special fundraiser during halftime of a home varsity basketball game between North Hall and Dawson County. The team was introduced, and a donation bucket was passed around the bleachers, raising more than $1,500 for the trip.
“(The USA games) allows them to identify with their hearts’ desire, which is to play basketball or whatever sport,” Young said. “It gives them an opportunity to believe in themselves — that (they) can do what any other child can do.”
Nick’s surroundings growing up involved sports, with his younger siblings — brother Nate and sister Natalie — being accomplished athletes at the varsity level. Nate, 16, plays for the varsity basketball and football teams at North Hall, while recent grad Natalie has signed to play basketball for Truett McConnell University this fall.
The eldest of three learned from an early age that due diligence would take him far in both academics and basketball, and in no way has autism defined Nick.
It was just a small part of him that makes his journey all the more grand.
Roger and Leeann Nixon-Miles welcomed their first-born into the world March 23, 1998, on a military base in Sagamihara, Japan, while Roger served in the U.S. Army.
Their return to the states months later was followed by life-altering news.
When Nick was 1, Roger and Leeann began to notice a different side of Nick. He developed a fascination with toy Hot Wheels cars, more so with the spinning motion of the wheels. An obvious sensitivity to loud noises and high ceilings raised even more flags for the parents.
“You couple that with, not so much the fact that he couldn’t communicate, just that he didn’t access his words like everyone else,” said Nixon-Miles, a special education teacher at Wauka Mountain Elementary in Gainesville.
“He understood anything and everything going on around him all along, but he didn’t necessarily understand how to communicate that with others. I’m sure that lent to his frustrations and some of the challenges he’s had with being social and being in situations that a lot of other people take for granted.”
The Nixon family eventually paid a visit to the Marcus Autism Center in Atlanta, where he was formally diagnosed on the spectrum at the age of 4.
Of the three categories of ASD, Nick is considered as mild (Level 1 or high-functioning), Roger said.
Moving forward, the family made a team effort to help Nick thrive. Basketball bridged the gap.
Growing up in a sports-centric household beside his younger siblings, Nick was encouraged by his dad to take interest in sports like football and baseball. But basketball seemed to be the most intriguing for Nick, who first held a ball at 4. It really became a priority by Nick’s sixth-grade year.
“I always found that basketball was such an interesting thing for him to excel at because things change so fast,” Nixon-Miles said. “There was a lot of things (about that sport) he had been so uncomfortable with, he had to deal with.”
Still, Nick took off with it. In his first season with a local YMCA league, he averaged 14 points a game.
“My friends taught me a lot,” Nick said. “I just started getting better and better. It takes practice for me to get better, and that’s what I do.”
Practice turned into an obsession for the game. When he wasn’t spending hours shooting by himself, Nick paid close attention as a spectator.
“He has an eye for detail like other people don’t,” his mother said. “Very literal thinker, so when his middle school coach said, ‘You need to be shooting 50 free throws in a row,’ he thought he meant make 50 in a row. And he wouldn’t come inside until he did it.
“It’s just that kind of drive that he has, because of who he is.”
From the age of 11, Nick played in an assortment of leagues: middle school, travel ball for the North Georgia Elite and junior varsity in high school. While Nick doesn’t consider himself to be the best ball-handler on the court, Young said otherwise — the North Hall grad eventually found himself at point guard for Hall County Traditional, which he joined as a high school freshman.
At 6-foot-3, he seems to barrel through defenders like a freight train inside the paint, with handles so swift and one with his movement they could rival a person running without a ball, his coach said.
Nixon-Miles said Nick seems to carry a LeBron James persona, and when he’s on the court, he expects to win.
“(Nick) just plays from his heart,” said Young, Nixon’s coach for the last five years who has spent nearly a decade with SOGA. “He loves the sport. He is a player you want to handle the ball. (He’s) not intimidated at all.”
In time, Young said her point guard learned to be more of a facilitator, and he plans to move up to the Masters level for Hall County.
The time not spent on himself, however, is spent with his siblings.
However early North Hall boys basketball coach Tyler Sanders could open the gym during the week, Nick and Natalie were inside for 1-on-1s before school.
They even rehabbed together in Natalie’s sophomore season at North Hall after they both tore their ACLs six weeks apart.
Nick pushed Natalie to improve, and their father said he’s the reason for where she is today.
“He has had more of a positive impact to some degree on (Nate and Natalie), rather than the other way around,” Roger said.
Roger and Leeann found that sports surrounded Nick with a community of close friends and individuals invested in his improvement.
“Playing with your closest friends really is the good part in your life, and it makes an impact,” Nick said. “You make a lot of memories when you play with your closest friends. It’s just reveals what the Lord can give you.”
In addition, Nixon-Miles said the sport has given Nick a platform to influence and teach others to think differently about autism.
“It’s an awesome way for us to encourage other parents to not feel hope is lost just because your kid has autism,” Nick’s mother said. “God can do amazing, wonderful things. And Nick is a prime example of that.”
In the coming weeks, he’ll have the help of thousands more to spread the message even further.
“(Basketball) gave him the confidence,” Roger said. “And the opportunity to go to these 2018 games this summer, it’ll be a memory that he will take with him for the rest of his days.”
Another piece of hardware around his neck on the flight back would be nice, too.