John Feinstein: Pittsburgh Coach Jamie Dixon's Tragic Loss
BOSTON Late at night, when he's in the car, is when it hits Jamie Dixon hardest. He will be on his way home from a recruiting trip or a game or a late night at the office. Something will cross his mind, and he'll think to call his little sister to talk to her about it. Instinctively he will reach for the phone, and that's when it hits him: She's not there.
"That was the time I'd call her," he said quietly Wednesday afternoon, sitting in an empty room at the TD Banknorth Garden after his Pittsburgh team had practiced. "Something would pop into my head, and I'd call her and we'd talk -- usually for a long time."
Jamie Dixon is 43 now. Thursday night, for the first time in his coaching career, he reached the region finals of the NCAA tournament when his Pittsburgh team beat Xavier, 60-55, after trailing 54-52 with a minute to go.
Maggie, Dixon's youngest sister, would be 31 if she hadn't died suddenly almost three years ago from an arrhythmia in her heart. She died just four weeks after she and her brother had become a major national story: the first brother-sister combination to coach teams to the NCAA tournament in the same season. Jamie, then in his third season at Pitt, took the Panthers to their fifth straight NCAA bid that March. Maggie's feat was more remarkable, winning the Patriot League title in her first season at Army, a school that had never reached the NCAA tournament in men's or women's basketball.
"I didn't get to see the [league] championship game because we were playing Louisville that night in the Big East tournament," Dixon said. "I heard that they'd won just before we went on the floor. After the game Tom Okjakian [from the Big East office] came up to me and said, 'You have to see the tape of Maggie after the game.' "
It was, in fact, an extraordinary moment. The basketball teams at Army rarely draw more than 1,000 fans for home games, but on March 8, 2006, the entire Corps of Cadets turned out to watch the Army women try to make history. When the game ended, they stormed the court and carried Maggie Dixon around on their shoulders. The picture of her with her left index finger in the air remains indelible in her brother's mind.
"She came down to the city the next morning, and we watched the tape," he said. "My parents had been at the game, and they were there, too. It was just amazing to see what she'd done."
Whenever she got the chance, Maggie Dixon would tell people that much -- if not most -- of her basketball success started with her big brother. In fact, the story goes that Jamie talked Maggie into coaching after she'd been cut by the Los Angeles Sparks in the summer of 2000 shortly after graduating from the University of San Diego.
"That's not really the way it happened," Dixon said, laughing. "She called me the night she got cut. She was crying, very upset, not sure what she was going to do next. I said to her, 'Let's talk tomorrow; we'll come up with something.'
"The next day she called me and said: 'I'm on my way to Chicago with two friends. I'll figure something out when I get there.' "
Two of Maggie's college friends had gotten jobs in Chicago, and she decided to hop in the car and ride east with them. The apartment they were renting was near the DePaul campus so she walked over there one morning and, without an appointment, asked women's coach Doug Bruno if she could work at his summer camp.
"By the end of the summer, she had a coaching job," Dixon said. "Three years later, she was the number one assistant. She was just good at it."