Commentary

Maggie Dixon still revered for her impact

Five years after her death, the Army coach continues to touch peoples' lives

Updated: April 8, 2011, 1:53 PM ET
By Elizabeth Merrill | ESPN.com

Maggie DixonAP Photo/Stephan SavoiaMaggie Dixon led Army to the NCAA tournament in 2006.

Micky Mallette hesitated to dial the number and ask. It was good news, which is something all of them could use, but who knew how Maggie Dixon's parents would react?

Jimmy and Marge Dixon had 28 years with their youngest girl Maggie; Mallette and the Army women's basketball team had only six months. But when the cadets huddled together for one last time, Maggie told them this: that it was the best time of her life. The team made pancakes together, danced and bowled and laughed. They took the United States Military Academy to its first NCAA tournament in basketball, and along the way, Maggie splashed pastels into a camouflaged world. And then she was gone.

[+] EnlargeMicky Mallette
Courtesy the U.S. Military Acacemy Former Army player Micky Mallette had a special request for Dixon's parents.

Of course the call would be awkward. Five years have passed, lives have scattered throughout the world, but one thing remains true: Parents aren't supposed to bury their children. The youngest, the one with the freckled face who always had to be in the center of everything, isn't supposed to go first. Thing is, when people call Marge Dixon today with these kinds of requests -- and there are a lot of them -- it reinforces that Maggie is still around.

She's buried a world away from their home in North Hollywood, Calif., among war heroes at West Point Cemetery, but ultimately, that made sense. So much of Maggie's short life was rooted in those six months that she was the women's basketball coach at Army. So many people are different now because they knew her.

Mallette, a captain on Maggie's one-and-only team at Army, is married now and lives in Albany, N.Y., where she's finishing up her first year of law school. She's the only one from the 2005-06 squad not on active duty, long ago forced into a medical discharge. Her bad back allowed her one of the closest views to Coach Dixon, which is the only name they call her to this day. Coach Dixon saw how much Mallette loved the game, how much she was hurting. She let her play sparingly -- enough to feel part of the team -- and the rest of the time, Mallette sat beside her to watch and learn. They were all so young. Maggie was only six years older than Mallette, kind of like a big sister or a cool aunt.

"She's somebody you meet for five minutes and feel like you have a best friend forever," Mallette says. "She had that aura about her. You got drawn in, and you didn't want to let go."

This is a story about a woman who died too young, but still has been able to influence so many, even five years after her death. People like Mallette, who, despite her doubts, still picked up that phone and called the California area code to Dixon's parents. Would they remember her? Would they approve of her request?

Maggie's 'starving artist' job

Doug Bruno talks for 12½ minutes straight about Maggie Dixon without even being asked a question. Surely, Bruno says, you've heard this story before. He's told it to four of his women's basketball teams at DePaul, and repeats it sometimes when strangers step into his office, see a large mural of a woman being carried off the court by cadets on another campus, and ask, "Who's that?"

OK, he'll tell it again. It was a Friday in May 2000, the only weekend Bruno had off all that year. He was showering at the old Alumni Hall, getting ready for a rare night of steak, cigars and beer with the boys, when a worker told him that two 6-foot-3 girls were standing at half court and wanted to talk to him. Bruno recruits 6-3 girls for a living. He'd be down in 10 minutes.

[+] EnlargeDoug Bruno
AP Photo/Keith SrakocicDePaul coach Doug Bruno helped Dixon get her start in coaching.

Maggie and an old college friend who was moving to Chicago were waiting for him. She'd come from San Diego to the Windy City to follow up on a resume that had been perused and filed away because DePaul didn't have any job openings. Maggie wanted an interview; Bruno wanted to leave and meet the fellas. He finally relented and agreed to meet at 9 the next morning. Ten minutes turned into three hours, and before Bruno knew it, Maggie had talked her way into what he jokingly refers to as a "starving artists" job helping run Bruno's summer camp.

"I constantly forgot she was in her 20s," Bruno says. "The way she handled herself, I always felt like I was working with someone in her 40s. And she would hang with the guys. But she had multiple circles of friends. You know, like one of those little electrons? She had her coaching friends, and my guy friends, older guys, all adopted her. We were cross-pollinating friendship circles along with busting our butts coaching.

"It was a magical time."

She waited tables at an Italian steakhouse in downtown Chicago to get by. Before her first day on the job at DePaul, she went to a White Elephant Shop and found a T-shirt that read, "Doug Bruno Camp." Within a year, she had a full-time assistant coaching job. Within two, she was the recruiting coordinator.

Tall and athletic -- Maggie had played basketball at the University of San Diego -- she doubled as a practice player. She'd walk off the court, beet-red, soaked in sweat. "She held her own," Bruno says. "She more than held her own. She kicked our kids' butts in the post."

Clearly, she had a way of connecting with people, which helped the Blue Demons secure a top 10 recruiting class. By 2005, she was Bruno's top assistant and a hot name bandied about in coaching circles, and it was time to make a move. So she interviewed at Army. The job had a couple of red flags, the most notable being that the new coach would start just weeks before the season. Bruno knew Maggie could adapt just about anywhere, but Army?

"My only concern was that she's such a personable recruiter, she's such a people recruiter," Bruno says. "At a military academy, you're not going to get people just because you can charm them on the phone.

"I had no doubt she could be a great coach. But you have to have players. I was a little concerned [about whether] she would get the players who could show how good a coach she was. She obviously showed that in five months."

Bruno says he thinks about Maggie every day. He says she changed his life. He can't quite put his finger on it. He calls himself a stodgy old disciple of Ray Meyer. But he's really a sentimentalist. The women's basketball offices are referred to as the Maggie Dixon Suites, and Bruno, on occasion, can still be reduced to tears when he talks about the girl who wouldn't leave the court until she got an interview, who wouldn't take no for an answer.

He tells each team about that girl.

"She will never leave this program," Bruno says. "You know how little kids want to be like Mike? Well, you couldn't help but want to be like Maggie. How she related to people in such a positive and good way, that's where she's magical. That's where she helped me."

A slow start at West Point, quickly reversed

In 2005, there was a sophomore on the Army women's basketball team named Margaree King. Teammates called her Redd. She came from a military family, including two brothers who matriculated through West Point. But the crack-of-dawn lifestyle of code and conformity is an adjustment for some, and King was homesick and wanted to leave.

She was battling depression. And for her, as well as for many of the Black Knights, basketball just wasn't fun; it was part of the work. And then along came Maggie. Army allows members of its teams to sit in on candidates' interviews, and Maggie was the only one who had memorized little factoids about every player. She teased some of them about their hometowns, putting them at ease.

"She was waiting in the conference room, and all I can remember is this big smile," King says. "When she opened up her mouth to speak, I thought, 'OK, yes, this is what we need.'

"It's hard to even describe in words. It was just a breath of fresh air to have that kind of … not only coach, but that kind of person in my life."

Under Maggie, Army started the season 5-7, as she struggled with trying to get the cadets to learn her complex inverted-flex offense. It required improvisation, instincts and a high basketball IQ. Initially, she didn't understand why they didn't get it. These were young women who, yes, were the brightest of the bright. But they were also soldiers, regimented and drilled to take orders.

So Maggie switched to a simpler approach, and the Black Knights got on a roll. They started to love practice, loved lining up at the free throw line to play knockout, a drill many of them learned as grade-schoolers. Maggie knew when to ease up and rein it in. She cooked dinners for them and listened to their problems. Basketball, for many of them, was a release from the everyday pressure all cadets lived under.

But despite all the feel-good moments on the court, King, inside, was flailing. During Christmas break, she didn't pick up a basketball. She called Maggie. She told her coach that she was thinking about walking away. Don't quit on me, Maggie told her. Don't quit on your team.

"One of her favorite words was adversity," King says. "Whether it was on the court or just life in general, she kind of taught us all that when stuff gets hard, you push forward. You keep going.

The last time they talked, King was crying. The season was over, and she was having a rough night. Maggie promised to give her a number for a therapist she knew of. She told King everything would be all right.

King stuck it out. And when she graduated in 2008, she invited Maggie's older sister Julie to the ceremony. King's a platoon leader now, in charge of 13 men who make up the 716th EOD company in Alaska.

After West Point, King was selected to go to a special Explosive Ordinance Disposal school. It's an intense job. "The Hurt Locker," an Academy Award-winning film in 2008, is based on the work that King's company does. King will deploy for the first time this summer, and the Pentagon hasn't told her where she'll go. "I'm a little nervous," she says. "I'm just praying that everybody I take over, I bring back healthy."

Eventually, King wants to be a coach. She wants to push people to be their best. That, she says, is what Maggie did for her.

After Maggie died, King got a tattoo of a shamrock, just like the one Maggie had. Most of the team did it. And now the shamrocks are on ankles and stomachs in different parts of the world.

"Without Coach Dixon," King says, "I wouldn't be where I am. Or who I am."

Brotherly love

March always reminds him of Maggie. Well, everything reminds of him Maggie. But March is special. Jamie Dixon was in his car last month, driving home from another basketball practice, ending another day with his little sister on his mind. Maggie worshipped him, wanted to be just like him. She was only in kindergarten when he played basketball at TCU, but she soaked up his games on TV. For the rest of her life, he was the first person she called whenever she needed advice.

Micky Mallette was at Maggie's house one day, just after she landed the Army job, when Jamie stopped by to visit his sister. Jamie is fairly famous, mind you, a big-time men's basketball coach at the University of Pittsburgh. But the security guards at the checkpoint didn't recognize him, didn't know who Maggie was, and at first barred him entry.

[+] EnlargeJamie Dixon
AP Photo/Keith SrakocicPittsburgh coach Jamie Dixon says he thinks about his little sister Maggie every day.

He finally showed up at her door with a housewarming gift, a rocking chair. She wasn't expecting him.

"She jumped into his arms," Mallette says. "You could tell the bond they had, even though they were 12 years apart. You could tell from that little exchange how much her family meant to her, and how much she meant to Jamie."

They had many mutual friends, most of whom were coaches. When Jamie had a daughter, he made Maggie the godmother. Jamie has always been a rather serious man. Stoic, almost. Maggie, their sister Julie says, brought out his warm and fuzzy side.

When Maggie's team was struggling, Jamie suggested using different approaches during timeouts to settle the players down. She'd tell them jokes, which were usually corny. It usually worked. When the Black Knights made it to the NCAA tournament, Maggie didn't celebrate for long. She headed to Madison Square Garden to watch Jamie's team in the Big East tournament.

That, Marge Dixon says, was the best March ever. Jamie and Maggie became the first brother and sister to take their teams to an NCAA tournament at the same time.

"It's hard to believe it's been five years," Marge says. "We were all in New York in March, and it was a wonderful time. Both of them were going to the NCAAs, the brother and sister. How much fun they were having.

"And then it was over. Just like that."

Jamie and Maggie hung out together that first week in April. Their seasons were over. They worked out one morning, and had breakfast. Then Jamie got a phone call. His sister had collapsed at a friend's house. Doctors said she had a heart arrhythmia.

He rushed from Portsmouth, Va., to be with his sister. He was the first family member to arrive. The next day, on April 6, 2006, she died.

"Yeah, there's times of sadness," Jamie says. "But mainly, it's moments of joy and good memories. I decided long ago that I was not going to let moments of sadness stop me from telling people about my sister or allowing her legacy to grow."

Shortly after Maggie's death, Jamie and Julie started the Maggie Dixon Foundation, which organizes a heart health fair in Pittsburgh and at Madison Square Garden, home of the annual Maggie Dixon Classic. They wanted to raise awareness for heart disease and sudden cardiac death. Jamie has a policy now at Pitt. Each of his players must be trained in CPR and know how to use a defibrillator. Each receives an EKG before the start of the season.

"He's extremely passionate about this," says Dr. Dan Edmundowicz, a cardiologist who helps with the heart fare at Pitt. "He's an extremely passionate guy not only in his coaching, but with his players and his dedication to his sister."

The letters, calls and emails got him through those first few months without Maggie. Now he makes a point to randomly call athletes who have collapsed on the court or been diagnosed with heart problems. He tells them about Maggie. He tells them about how a young, seemingly invincible person can be inexplicably taken away.

Jamie has gone to too many funerals over the past five years because of heart ailments. He's lost a cousin and an uncle since Maggie died. In December, his friend Scott Lang, the head coach at La Roche College, died of a heart attack while he was coaching practice. Lang was 41 years old.

"We want to get young people to become a little more aware," Jamie says, "because in some way, it's going to affect somebody."

Always loving and inquisitive

Julie Dixon Silva is different than her two siblings. She is the non-athlete of the family, a high-powered attorney in Los Angeles. She was eight years older than Maggie, but they shared a room together as kids.

Little Maggie Dixon was silly, loving and inquisitive. She had a round face with freckles and always seemed to be putting on little shows. She was a jokester, and liked to crack on her mother's Bronx accent. But as a player, Maggie worked hard. She was a captain her senior year at San Diego and was voted most improved player. Maggie tried out for the WNBA but was cut by the Los Angeles Sparks.

Jamie always taught her if she wanted something, especially in coaching, she had to take the initiative, just go out and do it. Maybe that's why she drove those 2,000 miles from San Diego to Chicago. Maybe that's why she got up in front of everyone in the mess hall that lone winter at West Point, when the Army women were playing to small crowds. Beat Navy, she said, somewhat nervously. Then she asked the male cadets to start coming to the women's games.

[+] EnlargeMaggie Dixon
Courtesy U.S. Military AcademyArmy coach Maggie Dixon celebrates with her players and with academy cadets after beating Holy Cross to win the Patriot League championship in 2006.

They listened, painting their faces and packing Christl Arena when Army clinched an NCAA tournament bid. They carried her on their shoulders after the win against Holy Cross, a sea of green arms hoisting a woman in a white blazer.

Maggie used to tell her siblings that someday, women's basketball would draw huge crowds like the men. And last winter at Madison Square Garden, the Maggie Dixon Classic pitted No. 1 UConn against No. 11 Ohio State. The Huskies won their 88th straight, tying the all-time record set by the UCLA men. The game drew a crowd of 15,232.

"I know when she heard all those people at the Garden this year," Julie says, "she was absolutely tickled."

Remembering Maggie, five years later and thousands of miles away

First lieutenant Anna Wilson wants to be a coach someday, too. She was deployed in Iraq last year, and summers in Baghdad are so hot that Wilson felt as if she was standing under a hair dryer. She worked 6½ days a week, with Sunday mornings off for church.

She felt safe with the 14th Military Intelligence Battalion. Someone found an old basketball hoop in back of a building, and whenever Wilson felt homesick, she'd go and shoot and think about the best times of her life. Like that 2005-06 season.

Some wise guys in her unit found a photo of Army's first-round tournament game on the Internet and asked her to autograph it. Dixon's team was a 15-seed and drew Tennessee. Pat Summitt's Volunteers, the elite of college basketball, did what was expected. They crushed the Black Knights by 48 points. Candace Parker dunked on them. It was such a shocking event that Maggie had to call a timeout to get her team composed. She laid into them, not because of the dunk, but because of their reaction. Yeah, this is Tennessee, she told them. But you know how to play basketball. Keep going.

Thing is, Maggie believed her team could win that game. If she could get 4,000 male cadets to cheer for her, and a team to go where it had never been before, why not?

It's funny how some things stick in a person's mind, five years later and thousands of miles away. Wilson thinks about the bad jokes and the games of knockout. She replays the cadet mob scene after the win against Holy Cross in the Patriot League championship, and one sense dominates.

"It smelled bad," she says, laughing. "There were all these guys with their shirts off and everything."

She is stationed in San Antonio now and keeps in touch with Redd King and the rest of her class. She focuses on the good things, because that's what Maggie did.

"I mean, it sucked what happened," Wilson says. "But I think we all learned to come together after it happened, and still play in her memory.

"I remember all the positive things she taught us in that short time. It's amazing how much she affected all of us in a few months."

A perfect match -- the hip youngster and the old warrior

The sky is gray on a late-March morning, and Dave Magarity pulls into a parking spot near Michie Stadium. He was not supposed to be here, and definitely wasn't supposed to be coaching women. He'd coached the Marist men for 18 years before he was fired and became soured on the politics of the game.

[+] EnlargeDave Magarity
AP Photo/ Jim McKnightDave Magarity, who had been one of Maggie Dixon's assistants, took over as Army's head coach after her death.

He was out of coaching for two years and deep into his 50s when Army approached him about a job as an assistant coach. There was no way he'd take it. He had a good gig as assistant commissioner of the Mid-American Conference.

"What the hell?" is what he thinks he said under his breath. Taking an assistant coaching job -- working under a 28-year-old -- surely wouldn't be seen as an upward move. Plus -- no small thing -- he'd never coached women.

But Magarity agreed to meet Maggie for dinner, and the meeting stretched to four hours. They hit it off, the old coach with the thick East Coast accent and the girl from California. They needed each other. Maggie needed his decades of experience; Magarity needed to be inspired again.

"She got hired on Oct. 3, and she hired me on Oct. 7 or 8 or something," Magarity says. "When I first got here, I was like, not stunned, but like, whoa, this talent level is bad. And that team went on to the NCAA tournament. To this day, I say, at best, we were maybe the third-best team in the league in terms of talent.

"But these kids, they did have an edge. And I think the timing was perfect for her to come in. Because she just captured them. They were hungry to do something they had never done."

It was Magarity who suggested that Maggie scrap her intricate Gold offense when the Black Knights were floundering. She was never afraid to listen. And when coaches' meetings ended, Maggie and Magarity would sit in her office and talk about basketball and what made people tick.

They were the perfect balance -- the hip youngster who loved to shop for fancy shoes and the old warrior who needed an occasional fashion tip. Where Maggie left off, Magarity filled in the gaps.

By the end of that season, Magarity was rejuvenated. An old buddy offered him a job in scouting and personnel with the New Orleans Hornets, and he told Dixon about it after the final game. It's a great opportunity, she told him. She didn't expect him to stay at Army for very long, anyway.

Then Maggie died, and everything changed. The Black Knights were reeling and needed stability. Army asked Magarity to stay on and be head coach. Magarity eventually told the Hornets he wasn't coming. The kids needed him.

"I probably wouldn't even be coaching if it wasn't for her," Magarity says. "I probably would've stayed where I was. I was 56. Where was I going to go?

"She completely changed my life. She convinced me it would be a lot of fun. She convinced me I could help her. That made me feel pretty good."

[+] EnlargeMaggie Dixon
Elizabeth Merrill/ESPN.com Maggie Dixon's grave at West Point Cemetery.

Today, Magarity's office is filled with pictures of teams that came after Maggie. The 2007-08 team, when King and Wilson were seniors. The teams that carried on. They're almost always smaller than most of their competition. His best player this season was Erin Anthony, a civil engineering major who led the Patriot League in rebounds. Magarity jokes that Anthony, a wiry but fierce opponent, looks a little more like Gumby than Maya Moore.

But that's what they do at Army: They make the best of what West Point's stringent requirements deal them and hope their teams come together and play harder than everybody else. Maggie, in six months, was great at that. She already had other schools eyeing her for bigger jobs. Magarity figures she would've stayed a little while because of loyalty. Eventually, he says, she would've had to go. She would've been a superstar.

A spokesperson at Army says Magarity visits Maggie's grave often. Opposing coaches, referees and complete strangers come, too. On windy days, the faded black-and-white basketball placed at her grave rolls around the cemetery. The ball is always returned to her headstone.

It's a beautiful resting place, up Bear Mountain, overlooking the Hudson River. The top of her headstone is covered with rocks, weathered old coins and a three-bar pin, the latter most likely a tribute from a senior who wanted to show that Maggie, though a civilian, was one of their own. A woman who could bridge gaps.

The new Maggie

Micky Mallette doesn't need to go to West Point to talk to Coach Dixon. She's a firm believer that the people you love are always with you. She talks to her anywhere she wants.

"There's always that sense that she's watching over us," Mallette says. "One of my teammates, Ashley Magnani, was driving back to West Point three months after Maggie passed away and she hydroplaned across four lanes of traffic with a tractor-trailer coming in her direction. She did, like, a 360 on a major highway and managed to miss everything. It's stuff like that, just little things that you get a sense that there's somebody there with you at certain times."

Mallette has tried to model herself after Maggie, to be passionate and attack life. She worked a few years before deciding to pursue her dream of law school. Mallette knew if she didn't go this year, she'd probably never go back to school.

She's expecting a baby. She and her husband, Todd Tiasecki, lost a child a year and a half ago, when she was three months pregnant and miscarried. From nearly the moment she found out they were expecting, Tiasecki worried. But Mallette didn't.

They're having a girl in May, the same month Maggie was born. It's the fifth anniversary of Maggie's death. This child, Mallette says, was meant to be.

Which led her to the phone call, to the parents who lost their child way too young. Mallette had to call the Dixon family and ask: Would it be OK to name their baby Maggie?

"You don't know how somebody's going to react," she says. "I'm sure that their loss is something they still struggle with every day."

Marge Dixon took the call. She's the one who usually gabs with all of Maggie's friends. Of course she remembered Mallette. And she loved the idea. She told Mallette that she would be another grandmother to little Maggie. She has mostly grandsons, and it will be nice to shop for another little girl. Dresses are much more fun than boys' T-shirts and mesh tops, she said. She used to love to shop with Maggie, even though the kid, much to her dismay, never could seem to find a sales rack.

So it's done. Mallette's baby will be named Maggie May. Marge told her to take pictures and keep in touch.

"It's kind of a signifier of how much she meant to everyone," Mallette says, "and how much of a shining star she truly was. She could meet 18 girls for five months, and here five years later there's somebody who wants to honor her by having her baby named after her. That's the kind of person she was."

Elizabeth Merrill is a senior writer for ESPN.com. She can be reached at merrill2323@hotmail.com.