Here’s a story of a Christmas — one past, one present — and what a difference 34 years, a Hall of Fame career and a bunch of plates of soul food can make.
Back in 1984 — as his dad was taking him to the railway station at the end of his Christmas break — Scott Nagy remembers not wanting to get on the train to Memphis, the first leg of his journey from Illinois back to college in the Deep South.
From Memphis, someone would pick him up and bring him down to Delta State University in Cleveland, Mississippi, a place where he admits he had a tough time adjusting to at first.
It was far different than growing up in Champaign, home of the University of Illinois, where his dad was an assistant basketball coach on Lou Henson’s staff.
Nagy — who had starred at Centennial High School — was comfortable at home. He had a girlfriend, lot of pals and family there.
In Cleveland – a town of 12,000 in the Mississippi Delta – he found different social customs, different racial views and even a dialect that sometimes was hard to understand, especially to his untrained teenage ear.
“At first it was really strange for me,” he said. “I was a Yankee. That’s what they called me.”
Now fade to three days before Christmas this year when Nagy and the Wright State Raiders he coaches meet No. 17 Mississippi State in a special holiday game being played Saturday night at the Mississippi Coliseum in Jackson, rather than at “The Hump,” as the Bulldogs call their home court in Starkville.
As Nagy talked about his return to the Magnolia State, his whole countenance seemed to brighten.
“I’m going to see a lot of friends,” he said.
He’ll rekindle some of the memories of Delta State, a school he now calls “a wonderful place…a great place for me.”
Over the years he’s stayed connected to the state, especially with his son Nick — now an administrative assistant on the WSU staff — graduating from Ole Miss two years ago.
And, of course, there’s the challenge of facing MSU, a veteran team with three stellar guards — Quinndary Weatherspoon, his brother, Nick, and Lamar Peters – that already has beaten the Cincinnati Bearcats, Clemson, St. Mary’s and the Dayton Flyers, 65-58, at UD Arena three weeks ago.
While the Bulldogs present a daunting challenge for the 6-6 Raiders, the trip also provides a delightful opportunity for Nagy to share some time with one of his closest friends, Jason Case, a former Delta State teammate from the tiny Mississippi town of Bogue Chitto, which back in the late 1980s had a population of about 500.
“He’s one of my best friends and he doesn’t live too far from Jackson,” Nagy said. “He’s coming to the game with a girls team he coaches.”
As he thought about Case, he grinned:
“He was just a country kid. I had a great time going home with him, but I absolutely could not understand his dad. He had that Deep Southern accent…and he chewed…so he just kind of mumbled.
“And I remember they had a dog.
“They named him Big Dog.”
As it turned out, Nagy was something of a big dog himself at Delta State.
He started every game in his four years there and still holds the record for career games (122) played.
He also holds school records in assists for a career (549), a season (234) and a game (15.)
He was name the Gulf South Conference Freshman of the Year and senior year was honored as the conference’s Athlete of the Year.
During his career from 1984-88, Delta State made three (Division II) NCAA tournaments and one Final Four.
Yet, when asked about this at the end of his press conference following the Raiders 78-67 victory over Morehead State at the Nutter Center Tuesday night, Nagy tried to downplay his efforts.
“I led the program in turnovers, too,” he claimed.
And when he was talking about the talented athletes Delta State had back then, he made it sound like he was just another guy on the team.
But just like with Jason Case’s dad, you couldn’t quite understand what he was saying.
After all, he was a two-time CoSida Academic All American and in 2001 was enshrined in the Delta State University Athletic Hall of Fame.
From a milk truck to Delta State
If his dad, Dick Nagy, had not been pulled off a milk truck many years ago, Scott said he would not have gone Delta State, nor would he now be coaching the Raiders.
Dick grew up in a blue-collar family in Syracuse and soon after high school was working on a milk truck and planning to get married.
Meanwhile, his friend from high school, Ed Murphy, was being recruited by Henson, then the coach at Hardin-Simmons, a small Baptist college in Abilene, Texas.
Murphy told Henson about Dick Nagy, who was a good ball player, and Henson offered him a scholarship even though he’d never seen him play.
After college, Dick ended up being a longtime assistant coach for Henson.
Murphy was the head coach at Delta State when Scott graduated from high school and made an offer.
Scott accepted, though, he admits he didn’t quite know what he was getting into at first. And that’s not because Murphy left for Ole Miss a couple of years later.
Cleveland, Mississippi is known for several things: Good soul food, its blues music — it’s on U.S. 61, the Blues Highway — and also its entrenched poverty, segregated schools and a cityscape divided by railroad tracks where blacks live on one side and whites on the other.
It’s one thing to turn on the taste buds to collard greens with ham and neck bones or Moon Pie bread pudding – ‘’I loved the food down there,” Nagy said, “even in the school cafeteria,” – but it’s another thing to try to swallow some of the racial norms he faced.
“It was very segregated,” he said. “I remember my teammate, Victor Smith, and I were the only ‘mixed couple,’ – the only black and white people – living together on campus.
“To me, he was just my teammate. I needed a roommate and got put in with another basketball player.”
Just as Nagy lived differently, he also interacted a little differently.
“I wasn’t used to saying, ‘Yes Sir’ and ‘No Sir,’ he said., “I’d just say ‘Yeah’ or ’What’s up?’ My coach didn’t like that.”
But just as he learned some things, folks there seemed to especially appreciate him after a while.
Besides the athletic hall, he’s also in the school’s hall of fame, was named the senior class president and was voted Mr. DSU (Delta State University) as a senior.
Another upset of Mississippi State?
And that’s brings us to another story from the Christmas season. It happened 32 years ago in Starkville.
On December 10, 1986, Delta State was hosted by Mississippi State, which, over the years, had won all 14 of the basketball games the two schools had played.
This time, though, Delta State stunned the Bulldogs for a 56-53 victory.
“I’m not kidding you, we had a really good team, “Nagy said. At that time, we probably had better players than they did.”
It’s the only time Delta State ever beat Mississippi State. A year later the series ended.
That’s not saying Nagy can help orchestrate another upset of the Bulldogs, but he said, “I don’t think any of our guys will go in there just shook up. We’ve played enough of these games now that it shouldn’t be a big deal.”
After all, last season WSU went to Georgia Tech and pulled the upset.
Nagy said he likes to play games on the road right before Christmas. He said the students of the home team usually have left on break and the opposing players are thinking about their own holiday getaway as soon as the game ends.
“It’s easier to get your team focused away from home right before Christmas,” he said. “I don’t mind playing on the road like this.”
Especially when that road takes him back to Mississippi, a place where he learned a lot…and taught a few people some things as well.