The basketball court shook. That was bad enough for former Pitt player Jermaine Dixon. He could feel the wood quiver under his feet, and he didn't like it, didn't like it at all. "Relax," teammates told him. "We have earthquakes here all the time in Japan."
Later that day, March 11, after the team finished practice, those same teammates called Dixon in front of a television in the locker room. They weren't nearly so at ease by that point. There, on the screen, were the horrifying images of a tsunami -- caused by the magnitude-8.9, off-shore earthquake -- rolling through Sendai. It devastated much of the northeast coast of Japan, about 230 miles north of Tokyo. "Just washed away everything in Sendai," Dixon recalled.
Finally, there came the most terrifying news of all. There was a radiation leak at the Fukushima nuclear plant, approximately 170 miles north of Tokyo. "I was definitely scared," Dixon said. "We were [160 miles] southwest of Tokyo. They kept telling us we were safe. I stayed for awhile to see what was going to happen, but I finally said, 'It's time for me to go.' "
Dixon, who turns 24 April 15, was on a plane home Tuesday, his professional career with the Hamamatsu Phoenix on hold if not finished. He never was so happy as he was when his flight from Nagoya landed in Detroit Wednesday afternoon. Not because the flight was interminable, almost 13 1/2 hours. Because he was back on American soil. Another quick flight to Baltimore and he was home, reunited with his family.
"I was lucky. My brothers were able to get in contact with me right away after the earthquake. They knew I was OK," Dixon said.
Some of Dixon's teammates weren't so fortunate. "They had family in the area [of the tsunami and the radiation leak]," he said. "They couldn't reach them to find out if they were OK."
"I don't want to say that," Dixon said, quietly. "I just know they hadn't heard from them by the time I left."
Late last week, there were estimates of nearly 10,000 people dead from the disasters with another 17,500 missing. Damage estimates topped $300 billion.
"I feel so bad for the Japanese people," Dixon said. "It's horrible over there."
The Hamamatsu team gave Dixon permission to go home for a few days to think about his future. "They definitely want him back," said his agent, T.J. Doyle, of Los Angeles-based VVG Sports Management. "He's a pro. He shows up on time. He listens. He works hard. His coaches love him. He's just the typical kid that Jamie Dixon likes to recruit to Pitt."
Jermaine Dixon attracted attention overseas by playing well in NBA tryout camps in Newark and Milwaukee last summer, not long after his Pitt career ended with a second-round loss to Xavier in the 2010 NCAA tournament. He signed in September to play in Bosnia, but his team went bankrupt after little more than a month. He wasn't exactly crushed; "I was the only American on the team and I kind of felt out of place." It worked out for the best for Dixon when he hooked on with Hamamatsu -- "The Lakers of the Japanese League," Doyle said -- after its point guard was injured. Hamamatsu coach Nakamura Kazuo -- Doyle called him "the Phil Jackson of Japan" -- likes Dixon's defense and athleticism, not to mention the 12.2 points and 4.3 assists he was averaging for a team that was 33-4 when it shut down for two weeks because of the disasters.
"I loved everything about playing there," Dixon said. "I enjoyed every second of it. I was making good money. I liked my coach and my teammates. We were the best team in the league. I'll definitely go back and play as long as I think it's safe and my brothers and my family are OK with it."
Dixon is gone from Pitt, but Pitt isn't gone from him. He said he got up early March 18, turned on his computer and watched Pitt play Butler in the NCAA tournament. "I felt like I wanted to cry right along with my boys," he said of his former teammates after Butler's 71-70 win. Dixon said he reached out to each of the Pitt players through skype. "I just told them to be proud of the way they played all season and to get ready for what's ahead."
Dixon said he used a similar painful loss at Pitt -- the 78-76 loss to Villanova in the Round of Eight at the 2009 NCAA tournament -- as personal motivation. Those who know him will tell you he's always been able to overcome the negatives in his life, no matter how awful they might be. He never knew his father, who abandoned him when he was a baby. His mother, Juanita, died of AIDS in 1994 when he was 7. He mostly was raised by his brothers, Phil, a Baltimore cop, and Juan, a national champion at Maryland in 2002 and a former NBA player now playing professionally in Turkey. None of it prevented him from making it to college and getting his Pitt degree in Administration of Justice.
Now, Dixon has another negative to overcome.
"I'd say there's a 90 percent chance he'll go back to Japan," Doyle said. "If he doesn't, he won't have any trouble finding a job in basketball. He might not make as much money as he would in Japan, but he'll have a job. He's a great kid. He's a winner."
Ron Cook: email@example.com .