These three F’s have set the foundation for young Jamal Nixon ’17, helping him to find his way — from Chicago and Plainfield, IL, to Oak Park and Mankato, MN, and beyond.
An injury can’t hold back a leader of Friars. Facing “minor” knee surgery, Jamal says he will be ready to hoop again for the Minnesota State Mavs in the New Year.
By Mark Vruno
Jamal Nixon ’17 is a winner: off the basketball court as well as on it. His father, outplacement services professional William Nixon, credits Friars’ Head Basketball Coach Rick Malnati with nurturing Jamal’s competitive edge, which transfers from sports to school. “Teachers have the ability to tap into this and allow kids to achieve at their highest levels,” Mr. Nixon believes. “At Fenwick, they are willing to develop you as a student.”
William watched pridefully as his son developed and flourished. Jamal’s natural leadership abilities were enhanced in the classroom and in the gymnasium. William and his wife, Loretta (Moore) Nixon, employ basketball as a platform to tell a Friar’s story that is much bigger than athletics. Jamal and his family came into Fenwick with an open mind but didn’t really know anything about the “Catholic thing” and the school’s culture, says his mother, who is Manager of IT Audit and Advisory Services at Health Care Service Corp.
Loretta and William were teenage sweethearts at Westinghouse High School in Chicago. When the curious parents inquired about Fenwick, they began hearing words such as, “legacy,” “tradition” and “multi-generational families.” They noticed how many alumni come back to teach at the private school. “We found all of that very impressive,” Loretta admits, including the relationship-building and connection aspects of “Friar Nation” and all its devoted alumni. “Fenwick offers so much in terms of mentoring, community and the alumni network,” praises her husband.
The parents wondered how structured or strict the Fenwick environment was – academically and behaviorally. They have very high expectations of their sons, and they wanted to ensure that their expectations for Jamal matched the school’s.
“I was pushed and challenged by my teachers in the classrooms of Fenwick,” Jamal says now, in his first semester at Minnesota State University, Mankato. “Mike [Smith, a teammate and friend] warned me about the challenging academics, but I wasn’t prepared as a freshman.”
Looking back on the experience, Jamal believes that success in school also has helped to build his self-confidence. His mom concurs: “There is an even playing field with kids coming in [to Fenwick],” she reports with hindsight. “You have to have an open mind and embrace the culture. Fenwick is more than willing to help you succeed.”
Christian values also are very important to the Nixons, whose religious roots are planted firmly in the Baptist tradition. The spiritual aspects of Fenwick and the core Dominican values were strong selling points, they say. “My family is Christian, but I had never studied Theology before [coming to Fenwick],” Jamal notes. Adds his mother, “Community service is huge at Fenwick, and Jamal learned to give back.”
“Fenwick is the place we knew we wanted Jamal to be,” she asserts. And the Nixons were willing to sacrifice to make sure he could come. “I was okay with borrowing from my 401 (k) for Jamal to get the education he deserves,” explains Loretta, “but we still needed some help financially. It all has been worth the price.”
William notes that he and his wife are thoroughly grateful to the benefactors who make this high level of education possible for kids. “The assistance we received was very much appreciated,” he says, then adds quickly: “But Fenwick also benefited by having a great kid in Jamal as part of the community!”
With 102 victories recorded, Jamal is the winningest basketball player in the storied, 85-year history of Fenwick hoops. There is a ceremonial ball in the trophy case outside the school’s Fieldhouse Gym stating that fact. He also is a leader, but the second team All-State guard didn’t always view himself that way.
Coming in as a freshman in 2013, Jamal did not expect to play up on varsity. Then fate presented an opportunity in the form of senior leader Scottie Lindsey’s broken leg. (Lindsey now is entering his senior season at Northwestern University, poised to lead the Wildcats deep into “March Madness” again.) Amid the Friars’ turmoil and adversity four years ago, young Jamal was asked to step up by Rick Malnati, the team’s new coach.
So, here’s this 14-year-old kid born in Chicago, moved to the southwest suburbs, had never even heard of Fenwick — and now he’s starting on their varsity basketball team. “I knew two people at that time,” Jamal recalls: teammate Mike Smith ’16 and classmate Jacob Keller ’17 (see below). “I grew up in Plainfield,” he explains, before his family moved back to the Austin neighborhood. “You know what’s out there? Corn,” he says with a laugh. “Lots of corn.”
Jamal’s older, taller brother, Will, graduated from Plainfield South High School and, recently, from Elmhurst College. The 6’7” center transferred after one year at Wayne State in Detroit. (Former Friar Jeremy Ireland ’14 also transferred to the Bluejays, from North Central College.) However, parents William and Loretta foresaw a different path for their younger son, who followed his brother to a Christian elementary school before attending Aux Sable Middle School in Joliet.
“My folks didn’t think that public [high] school was the best fit for me — academically or athletically,” says Jamal. Interested in private-school options, the couple was leaning toward St. Ignatius, but Benet Academy, Marist and Providence St. Mel all were interested in their highly talented, eighth-grade basketball player. “One of my AAU [Amateur Athletic Union] teammates, Trey Mack, was going to Ignatius,” Jamal relates. Trey’s father and mother really liked the atmosphere at “Iggy.”
Mike Smith ’16 (now playing college ball at Columbia) was a big reason why Nixon ended up at Fenwick.
“Then my dad met Mike Smith’s dad at a [basketball] camp, and everything changed,” he recalls. Mr. Nixon, listened intently as Mr. Smith described the student-athlete environment at Fenwick and how his son seemed to be thriving in Oak Park. (The younger Smith, only a freshman at the time, now is a collegiate sophomore student-athlete playing basketball at Columbia University in New York City.) Subsequently, Mr. Nixon came to a Fenwick practice, met then-Coach (John) Quinn and talked with Jeremy (Ireland), then a junior, about the program and the school. Soon, Jamal was “shadowing” at Fenwick. (Parents of 8th-graders can click here to set up a shadow date.)
New Coach, New Opportunities
As for the leadership aspect, Jamal is a quiet leader and a respectful young man; humble, some might say. When teachers and coaches passed him in the hallowed halls of Fenwick – even ones he didn’t know well – they usually received a nod of acknowledgement, perhaps a mild-mannered “hello, Mr. or Ms. so and so.”
When he came to the Friars’ basketball program, there were nine seniors on the varsity team. “They really took me in,” he recalls, as did Coach Malnati. In much the same way, Jamal mentored 6’2” freshman “freak” DJ Steward (now a sophomore) this past fall and winter. “It was a flashback for me,” he says.
“I first saw DJ at an in-house clinic and said to myself, ‘He shouldn’t be here.’ I gave him the layout, told him how to balance his school work and to keep his head up. I’d check in with him periodically, text [message] him. Upper-classmen can give you confidence: telling you to play like a sophomore, junior or senior – not like a freshman.”
By Christmastime last year, DJ wasn’t playing like the frosh that he was. “He just needs to stay humble. All his hard work will pay off.” The young Steward already has received D1 scholarship offers, including from Georgia Tech and the University of Illinois.
Jamal admits that getting caught up in a coaching change was awkward at first, especially since he and his parents were recruited by Coach Quinn. However, Coach Malnati’s collegiate experience at Loyola and success at New Trier brought instant credibility. “Coach always says that we were freshmen together,” Jamal says with a smile. “2013 was his first year at Fenwick and it was my first year, too. So we started together. He is like a best friend to me.”
The demanding coach also has been an encouraging mentor. “The biggest things he pushed with me were building character and growing into a leader,” Jamal reflects, adding that Malnati tapped him as a varsity team captain as a sophomore in 2014-15. “I was being recruited by Army, and Coach was like, ‘Of course you are. They can see you are a leader.’ But I was young and sometimes didn’t see myself in that role. So he kept pushing me, telling me how I needed to step up and rally my teammates and become a coach on the court.”
Looking back, Malnati says this about his four-year player: “Jamal is the ultimate leader, captain, teammate and winner. He was mature beyond his years and never showed much emotion on the court. He is a quiet kid who has a very spiritual side to him.” The coach pauses. “He left a legacy here that will last a long time,” Malnati concludes.
Jamal also credits Assistant Coach Staunton Peck as being instrumental in his development as a basketball player and as a person. “Coach Peck is younger and more relatable,” he explains. “We’d have these side conversations [going on] during practice, and he was always checking in with us. One of the big lessons he taught me is not to be too high or too low with my emotions.”
Fighting through team adversity and personal pain also honed Jamal’s leadership skills. A severe knee injury slowed him down at the end of his sophomore season, but not enough to stop recruiters from schools such as the College of the Holy Cross in Massachusetts and Furman University in South Carolina. The scholarship offer from Division II Minnesota State came after a stellar junior campaign in 2015-16, which saw the Friars advance to the Sectional Round of the state playoffs, only to lose in heartbreaking fashion to Chicago Catholic League (CCL) rival St. Joseph’s.
Perseverance was key as Jamal transitioned, and resilience has fostered his now confident demeanor. “The homework, the practice, the commute … it was tough,” he acknowledges. “But there were no short cuts; there was no quitting. I just kept my eye toward the future.” And that future is here. Jamal is on a business track and plans to study marketing in college at Minnesota State. Go, Mavericks! Go, Friars!
Friends and Friars Forever
Jamal Nixon and Jake Keller entered Fenwick together in 2013. The pair has known each other since second grade. “We first met playing winter basketball for the Illinois T-Wolves,” Jamal remembers. An All-State quarterback for the Friars in 2016, the 6’3” 195-pound Keller played football and basketball at Fenwick. He now is the second-string QB this season as a true freshman at the University of Northern Iowa.
Jamal and Jake have been friends for more than 10 years — since second grade.
Jamal, despite his powerful frame, chose to focus on basketball. At 6’5” and a solid 215 pounds, he might have been an athletic wide receiver, tight end or even a linebacker on the gridiron. Instead, he excelled at three different positions on the hardwood.
Jamal Nixon’s Winning Legacy at Fenwick
What a run! “I’m proud about where we’ve taken this program in the past four years,” Jamal says.
J. Nixon’s final Friar win-loss record: 102-25; second in state in ’17. As a senior, he averaged 10.7 points, 7.2 rebounds and 2.4 assists per game, earning All-Area (1st team) and All-State (2ndteam, Associated Press) recognition. A true team player, the versatile athlete did whatever his coaches asked of him. Depending on the personnel around him, sometimes that meant playing small forward; other times it meant playing guard. At either position, opponents know him as a tenacious defender. (Read more.)
Malnati’s Softer Side
Fenwick Head Basketball Coach Rick Malnati. (Image courtesy of Oak Leaves.)
While Rick Malnati may have a reputation as a fiery Italian, his players sometimes see another side of their highly competitive coach. “My Grandma came to almost every game,” Jamal says, “and coach showed her so much love.”
Editor’s note: Jamal is no relation to the other two basketball-playing Nixon brothers at Fenwick: senior AJ ’18 and junior Damari ’19.