Ray Nixon struts the catwalk donning nothing but a skimpy set of boxer-briefs, a pair of socks and his trademark cool. Students at this charity fashion show clap and laugh along with the straight-faced University of Wisconsin senior—the lone graduating member of the 2005-06 men's basketball team.
Asked to look back and comment on the spectacle, Nixon barrels over in embarrassed laughter. He takes a minute to stand up straight and compose that devilishly sly self of his. Teammate Jason Chappell calls him a "Will Smith wannabe" to which Nixon implies he is in fact the real deal. His roommate Alando Tucker notes the poise of this jokester from Milwaukee—one who is quick to keep his comments, well… quick.
"That's just me," Nixon summarized of his foray into male modeling. "The heat of the moment. I just winged it."
A senior who finally got his crack at the starting rotation, Nixon has been ‘winging it' all year for the sultan of the swing offense, Bo Ryan. As an underclassman that came in as part of Ryan's first recruiting class, the Milwaukee product played sparingly in his first two seasons. He never took a redshirt—something Tucker and Chappell, the two other remaining pieces of that class, have both done.
By his junior season Nixon started playing more minutes, averaging 11 per game for a team that made a deep run into the NCAA Tournament. But now the 6-foot-7 long-range shooter will start his final home game after doing so in every contest this season. With a victory over Minnesota, Nixon can improve his UW record to 93-42, which would tie him with Mike Wilkinson for most wins in a career.
Along the way he has assumed a more outspoken role—both on and off the floor. Typically a veteran who led by example, Nixon has heeded the advice of his teammates. Instead of just protecting the ball, he has started calling for it. Rather than not talk back, he has decided to initiate the conversation.
"He's taken on more of a role in being more aggressive on the court," Tucker said. "Off the court this is a side of Ray I don't think anybody expected to see. Vocally, Ray just came from nowhere. He's talking in the locker room. He's talking more on the court.
"And I think that's natural. When you become a senior you look back on the time that went by and you want your last year to be the best."
One of those times Nixon will certainly look back on took place in his second-to-last home game. Against Ohio State, Nixon scored 10 points over three minutes, 24 seconds, as Wisconsin turned the tide and delivered a come-from-behind-victory in the Kohl Center.
Nixon was nailing 3-pointers from the wing and driving hard at the hoop during that span, both without the hesitation he once displayed. It was not the first time either. Against his hometown Marquette Golden Eagles, Nixon delivered a career-high 15-point performance and has since followed it with additional take-charge attacks such as at Michigan in January and against Indiana earlier this month.
His shot has not always fallen. It certainly did not against Purdue or Illinois. But the demeanor was noticeable, even if it took Nixon until his senior season to get comfortable enough in games to trust his potential.
"It was a time of need," Nixon said, referring to the Badgers losing two key players for the season 10 games ago. "There comes a time when it gets urgent. Me being a senior, I don't have that much time left. It's now or never."
Asked whether it may have been tough for the once-wiry Nixon to grow and watch much of the game from the bench before this year, Ryan turned that question on its head. He noted the positives Nixon has experienced in his time at UW.
"Some people would look at that question and ask, ‘What did he have to stick through?'" Ryan said. "He's a college athlete on scholarship, he gets to play in front of 17,000-plus and travel to some pretty neat places.
"You think about his four years here, do you know how many guys who have played at Wisconsin have had a chance to do what Ray has been a part of? So, the important thing is what he's able to walk away with in his own mind, not in my standpoint, but for him."
Ryan likened recalling a vintage Nixon moment to asking a parent to describe just one of his 15 children. From the opposite point of view, Nixon now had a chance to reflect on the man he signed with four years ago.
At the time of his signing, Nixon described his coach-to-be as someone who seemed like a pretty nice guy and who kind of liked his game. Now?
"He kind of likes my game," Nixon laughed.
"No, coach is a great guy," he added. "When he gets into it with us it's for a love of the game. He taught me you can never look past the little things, and the little things can get you a long way in life."
Little things like a shot fake or a hard dribble. Little things like spacing. Those things allowed Nixon to learn and develop as a taller wingman who is at his best when teams cheat down on his roommate Tucker and the latter can then kick it back out to make defenses pay.
But they also mean an hour of study or preparation for a term paper. They mean performing the tasks that allow a student-athlete to manage his time and graduate with a degree—for Nixon a communication degree he plans to get in December. Succeeding in that regard was critical for Nixon to prove any doubters wrong as he entered UW on somewhat shaky academic ground.
As for Sunday in the Kohl Center, he referred to it as "kind of like a mini-graduation." Nixon will be joined on the court by his parents, Raymond and Pershell, as well as his sister, niece and grandmother.
Maybe then the Kohl Center will finally get a glimpse behind that calculated gaze that Tucker said intimidates people who do not really know Nixon. After all, there will not be a catwalk, just a crowd to bid farewell. But who's to say how Nixon will react?
It's the heat of the moment. He'll just wing it.
Matt Lewis, a frequent contributor to Badger Nation, is the editor of creative sportswriting site TheHeptagon.com.