Seasons of Change / An interview with Jamie Dixon

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Lake Fong, Post-Gazette photos

The long days. The longer nights. The pressures and the high expectations. Jamie Dixon looks forward to each and every one as a new basketball season begins this week if for no other reason than to help fill the void of a summer's sorrow that knows no end.

By Ray Fittipaldo
Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

In late June, Pitt basketball coach Jamie Dixon was on his way to West Point, N.Y. to meet his mother. They were traveling there to tend to the affairs of Dixon's sister, Maggie, the former women's basketball coach at Army who had passed away unexpectedly from a heart ailment two months earlier.

Dixon was looking forward to the trip. After taking care of his sister's affairs, he planned to visit with family at West Point. He was especially looking forward to catching up with his cousin, John Jackson. Later that night, he was going to go see Jackson and his band play in concert.

Dixon was about 30 minutes from West Point on a Sunday afternoon when he received a phone call from his mother.

"She said it was an emergency," Dixon recalled last week. "Something was wrong. She said you have to go to the hospital. I said what hospital? She said the same hospital they took Maggie to."

By the time Dixon got to the hospital, Jackson, 43, was dead from a heart attack.

The past half year unquestionably has been the most difficult period of Dixon's life. Slowly but surely, he has learned that life, and basketball, go on.

Dixon and the Pitt Panthers are on the eve of another season, one filled with high hopes and expectations. The Panthers, who are expected to be a preseason top 10 team, begin preparations for the season later this week. The first game is a little more than a month away.

Jackson was more than a cousin to Dixon, the coach said during a recent interview in his office. He was a close friend. When Dixon was a child his family spent summers in New York. Jamie and John were only two years apart and shared some special times.

"I couldn't believe it," Dixon said of Jackson's death. "We were all gathering again in the same area, at the same hospital. When I got there, it was a little rough. Here was a guy who was 43, in perfect health. He was married and had a son. It was amazing.

"He was very similar to Maggie, very outgoing. He was in a band. He had a lot of personality, had a lot of fun. That was pretty tough for our whole family. We had to get together again for another funeral. Maggie's death was the first real tragedy we've ever had as far as losing a family member. We had never gone through anything like that. And then in two months ..."

Dixon, with the help of colleagues, friends and even strangers, has come to the understanding that he will never get over Maggie's death. But he is learning to live with his grief and copes by throwing himself into his job. He says it's the only way he knows.

Voices of support

Hofstra coach Tom Pecora knew what Dixon was going through. In 1992, his wife and mother-in-law were killed by a drunken driver in Maine. Pecora did not know Dixon well, but he wanted to reach out and lend support. Hoping he wasn't overstepping his bounds, he telephoned Dixon about a month after Maggie's death.

"My heart was bleeding for the guy," said Pecora, who has remarried and is the father of three daughters. "I told him that time is the only thing that has softened it. You never get over it. You just learn to live with it. It's an unfinished life. When an elderly grandparent dies, it's easier. You can make sense of it. But with something like we went through, you just try to let time pass and think of the fond memories. I live with it every day."

Florida coach Billy Donovan also reached out to Dixon. In 2001, Donovan's wife gave birth to a stillborn child. Dixon said those conversations with coaching colleagues, as well as the thousands of letters and cards received from fans, gave him some perspective.

"One thing I've recognized that as tragic as it is to lose Maggie and John in such a short period of time, people move on," Dixon said. "I see that in all the cards and letters I get. I still get letters, especially lately. The letters I get now are from people who have gone through the same thing. I don't know if that makes me feel any better, but it makes me realize that a lot of people go through these things. They lose a younger sibling or parents lose their child. You realize that other people go through these losses and continue to go on. I've learned that."

Of all the stories he has heard, one recent chance meeting buoyed Dixon's spirits. Last week when he was flying out of town on a recruiting trip, a flight attendant gave him a newspaper story about his son, who like Maggie, had a heart arrhythmia.

"He was 12 years old," Dixon said. "He was a big Pitt basketball fan. He was playing basketball in his front yard when it hit him. A friend called 911. A local guy came and gave CPR, and they were able to save the kid with a defibrillator. It touches you more when they're younger like that."

Still grieving

Jamie and Maggie made history in March when they became the first brother-sister combination to lead their teams to the NCAA tournament.

Maggie idolized Jamie and followed him into the coaching profession. They were 12 years apart in age, but were extremely close. They would speak almost every evening once their hectic work days were done. They would talk about everything, but basketball was their passion.

It is those times, late at night, when Dixon is alone that he continues to struggle the most with his emotions.

"We had opportunities to talk at night," Dixon said. "Those are the times we always talked. That's when it hits me the most. That's when I think about her, driving home from work or when I'm traveling on the road."

Pecora said those tears that are shed now will, in time, be replaced with a smile.

"There will be times when it hits him," Pecora said. "He'll hear a song on the radio or hear a phrase she used to say. When I hear those things now, it puts a smile on my face. It's almost like God is making sure I remember her"

Dixon worries more about his aging parents in the wake of Maggie's death. He worries most about his father, who is retired and has too much time to think. He looks forward to the start of the season when his dad can travel to Pittsburgh for his favorite pastime -- watching Pitt play.

The past few months have been trying. Dixon speaks to his parents, Jim and Marge, every day, but the conversations are much different.

"I do worry about my parents more," Dixon said. "Everyone tells me that there's nothing worse than a parent losing a child. As much as we talked before -- I don't know how we could talk more than before, but we do -- our conversations are different. No question. There are pauses and deep breaths.

"I can't get back [to Los Angeles] as much as I would like. Different things come up, birthdays, holidays. I have to get them back here as much as possible. Those are things we have to figure out."

UCLA coach Ben Howland is Dixon's best friend. Howland, the former Pitt coach and Dixon's mentor, said Dixon's faith has helped him cope with his sister's loss.

"I know losing his sister has been very difficult for his immediate family," Howland said. "They are a very close family. When you see Jamie with his wife and kids, that's the way he is with his family, too. It's been difficult. But he has a real strong faith. He is a good Christian, a good Catholic. And he has some strong convictions that she is with God in Heaven."

Basketball as therapy

After losing his sister and cousin, Dixon returned to work quickly. Basketball has always been therapeutic for Dixon and getting back to work after the death of Maggie and John helped him move on.

"It's all I've ever done," Dixon explained. "It's what I'll lean on. It's always been my therapy. If I didn't have that, that's when I'd really need something. That's always been my focus. That's always been one of my strengths. Once I'm on the floor basketball has to be my No. 1 priority."

In that way, getting back into the routine of a season will help. There were recruiting trips, off-season workouts and speaking engagements during the summer months to occupy the time, but it's nothing like the regimented schedule during a season.

Twelve hour working days are the norm. There will be practices almost every day, more time to spend with players and his coaches and competition. Yes, competition. That fire has not burned since Pitt lost to Bradley in the second round of the NCAA tournament in March.

If there was one thread that tied Maggie and Jamie it was their will to compete.

"I really threw myself into the work," Dixon said. "I've always been that way. I don't like to sit around. The quiet times are the hardest times. I keep busy. Seeing our players working ... Those are the things that keep me occupied and are the best times.

"I continue to go back to other people moving on who have had losses, too. You have to go on. Maggie would want me to go on. She loved our success more than anybody. She would want not to slow down, not me, my sister or my parents."

The season will bring new challenges emotionally. Dixon had grown to following the Army women's team and had a special relationship with the Cadets. Pitt will take part in the Maggie Dixon Classic at West Point next month. The Nov. 12 season opener will be played as part of a men's/women's doubleheader. Pitt will play Western Michigan. Army will play Ohio State.

That promises to be an emotional weekend for Dixon and his family.

"He's going to think a lot about Maggie," Howland said. "Basketball was her life and livelihood as well. There will be constant reminders. There will always be that pain of her dying. But there will be sweet memories that will serve as a reminder."

A lesson learned from Maggie

In the weeks before Maggie passed away, she and Jamie shared something in common. While they were coaching their teams in the NCAA tournaments, both were being courted by other teams to be their next coach.

Jamie fielded phone calls from athletic directors who inquired about Maggie and the possibility of hiring her away from Army. Jamie was going through the same thing. Schools such as Arizona State and Missouri offered him big contracts to leave Pitt.

It was then that Jamie said he learned something from Maggie.

"She was only 28, but she could really simplify things. She said it wasn't about money or location or what was the best job or win and get out, all the things coaches talk about. She summed it up. She said, at age 28, this is where I'm supposed to be. That was something I remember and based my decision on. It wasn't about other things. It was about something else inside. That was pretty wise for a 28-year- old, to learn something from her. She was a little ahead of her age, a little ahead of her time."

Dixon signed a contract extension with Pitt March 25. Less than two weeks later, Maggie was dead.

Friday marked the six-month anniversary of her passing. Jamie was hard at work. He returned from a recruiting trip in mid-morning and then put his players through a workout.

Time marches on.

So does Jamie Dixon.

Jamie Dixon works the phone Friday even as daughter Shannon, 2, wants to play.
Click photo for larger image.

Ray Fittipaldo can be reached at rfittipaldo@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1230.


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