SAN ANTONIO, Texas — He is a curious figure, the prep sports hero. His past is part myth, and his future is all projection. And for the ones who are not careful, it is easy to be caught in the netherworld in between.
To his credit, Ed Nixon has come to understand this. There is no doubt he was a big shot back in the day at Lakewood High. His shots fell, his team won and the honors rolled in.
Yet from the moment he stepped foot on campus at Virginia Commonwealth University, Nixon felt an imperceptible shift beneath his feet. All of his new teammates were high school hot shots. And all of them arrived with expectations and goals similar to his.
"That's everybody's dream, to be an NBA star. Everybody wants to be as successful as they can," Nixon said Saturday from the NCAA Southwest Region. "But that life is not for everybody. I'm not saying it's totally out of the picture for me, but it's like a one-in-a-million chance that you make it into the league. So I have to play my cards right."
This is what perspective sounds like. This is what humility has to offer.
His career at VCU has not been the stuff of legend, and yet Nixon has turned it into the experience of a lifetime.
He has gone from a perimeter player without much of a jump shot or defined role to one of the most trusted members of Shaka Smart's team that will play Kansas this afternoon with an invitation to the Final Four on the line.
What has happened is that Nixon has learned. He has adapted and adjusted. When it became clear he was not going to be the scoring threat he was in high school, Nixon embraced the concept of being VCU's top defender.
Along the way, he has put himself in position to graduate in the coming weeks with a degree in criminal justice. He has become part of the most successful senior class in VCU history. And he has outlasted those who either could not, or would not, adjust to the idea that life is never the same once you leave the halls of your high school.
"I know a lot of people who had the talent and they let outside distractions pull them down," Nixon said. "That's a sad thing to see at the end of the day."
For Crystal and Spencer Nixon, there is delight in hearing this. They encouraged the youngest of their four children to chase his dreams as far as they might take him, but they wanted him to understand that success can be measured in many ways.
"My direction for him was that he could do anything he wanted if he set his mind to it," his mother said. "But my ultimate goal was that he be an honorable man. No matter what his status or station was in life, he could be honorable and respectful and responsible.
"He may or may not continue playing basketball and land a job as a professional athlete, but it's reassuring to me that he is prepared for life no matter what he does."
The idea of playing in one of basketball's minor leagues or even in Europe is not farfetched, and Nixon said he will explore whatever options come his way.
But he is also considering the possibility of combining his education and his passion to become a basketball coach on either the high school or college level.
In the meantime, he still has at least one more college game to go. Which is more than what he anticipated at this time two weeks ago.
The Rams had ended the regular season in a bit of a funk, and their chances of making the NCAA Tournament field were shaky.
Nixon could not bear to sit through the NCAA selection show, and so he closed the door of his room and watched the Cartoon Network while roommate Joey Rodriguez watched in another room as the brackets were unveiled.
"We had watched the selection show when I was a freshman and ended up disappointed. So I didn't want to go through that again," Nixon said. "So I'm watching Johnny Test, enjoying myself, and all the sudden I hear Joey screaming.
"I open my door and I see him running out the front door, so I went out and chased him and I hear him yelling, 'We're in, we're in.' "
Two weeks later, VCU is 40 minutes away from becoming just the third No. 11 seed to reach the Final Four.
"We're an extremely blessed team. Everything that needed to happen has happened. The path is set, we just need to do what we have to do," Nixon said. "We're making history, man."
No, this isn't the exact path he expected coming out of St. Petersburg four years ago. But in ways that matter, it may even be better.
John Romano can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.