Pensacola State College men’s basketball coach Pete Pena was 30 seconds into reflection on standout center Rozelle Nix when he stopped himself.
He fought back tears at the podium. The room got silent. Nix has meant that much to him.
In a proud moment for player, coach and school, Nix signed Wednesday with the University of Pittsburgh and became the first PSC player under Pena to sign with a Power Five Conference team. The NCAA early signing period began Wednesday and includes junior college talent.
Nix, a 7-foot sophomore from Cincinnati, will head into the Atlantic Coast Conference next season with the Panthers, who have reached the NCAA Tournament in 12 of the past 13 seasons.
“Everywhere this young man goes, he leaves with people having a smile on their faces,” said Pena, in his fifth season at PSC. “That is very important. I always refer to him as the Pied Piper, because that is a credit to the person he is.
“It is not lost on us that he’s heading to the best college basketball conference in the country.”
Nix, who insisted all of his teammates join him at Wednesday’s signing event at PSC, which included the entire athletic program, chose Pitt after narrowing his recruiting list to South Carolina and Loyola Marymount.
Pittsburgh’s proximity to his hometown was one of the deciding factors. The city is 284 miles from Cincinnati.
“It seemed just like here (at Pensacola State). It felt like home,” said Nix, describing his visit to the Pitt campus, located not far from the center of the city. “It’s not far away from my family so basically my whole family can watch me play.”
Pensacola State and Pena watched Nix rapidly develop in two years. When he arrived in Pensacola, Nix weighed 385 pounds. He weighs 305 now, after intense work with PSC trainers and fitness staff.
Pena said Nix would frequently go from basketball practice to the school’s track or down the hallway into the PSC pool for fitness training sessions.
“The transformation he has made to become the player he is has been unbelievable,” said Pena, whose team is off to a 3-2 start after a pair of close losses in games last weekend at Miami-Dade and Palm Beach State. The Pirates have an extended break before resuming the schedule on Tuesday against Alabama-Southern.
“You don’t get to transform your body the way he has done without him being determined and having a work ethic to want to be the best,” Pena said. “I have not coached a young man with the work ethic that Rozelle Nix has had. It has been an absolute marvel for me to watch.”
In typifying his humble personality, Nix thanked the Pitt Panthers and their head coach Jamie Dixon for giving him a chance “to play against future NBA players every night in the ACC.”
Nix follows Ontario Lett, a Pensacola High graduate, who played at Pensacola State, then transferred to Pitt where he became a starter and popular player for the Panthers more than a decade ago. Lett is now a first-year assistant coach at PSC.
“It will be a great experience for him,” said Lett, whose senior year was the first year Pitt played in its current arena, the Petersen Events Center on campus. “The way he has earned it is special. I’m kinda jealous because he gets to play against Duke and North Carolina.
“It’s a great environment to play in. It is a big city and basketball is huge there.”
The Panthers and other major schools liked Nix’s demeanor and potential development. He averaged 5.5 points and 3.5 rebounds last year as he adjusted to weight loss efforts. He is averaging 12.8 points and 9.5 rebounds so far this season.
“Since I came down here, I can move really well now,” Nix said. “Now I can go get long distance rebounds… I am able to go to a long ranger. I can run up and down the court without being tired. My development has been great.”