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Originally published Friday, February 16, 2007 at 12:00 AM

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Pitt coach keeps sister's spirit alive by sharing story

The reporter somewhat reluctantly wades into what figures to be a most uncomfortable topic. But within seconds, Jamie Dixon, coach of the...

Seattle Times staff reporter

 

The reporter somewhat reluctantly wades into what figures to be a most uncomfortable topic.

But within seconds, Jamie Dixon, coach of the University of Pittsburgh men's basketball team that will host Washington at 11 a.m. Saturday, sends out a "don't apologize" vibe.

"I decided long ago I would talk about her every time people want to hear about her," Dixon said of his little sister, Maggie, who died last April of heart failure.

Maggie Dixon was one of the rising stars of women's basketball coaching a year ago, leading Army to the Patriot League title in her first season as a head coach at age 28.

Jamie Dixon was 12 years her elder, but shared love for the family sport of basketball narrowed the age difference. Both played the sport in college — Jamie at Texas Christian, Maggie at the University of San Diego — before entering coaching.

Basketball brought them closer than ever last season, with Maggie spending her first year in West Point, a stone's throw from many of the main recruiting haunts for Jamie. Whenever Jamie had to take a trip to the New York area, he'd stay at Maggie's house, and the two often talked basketball late into the night.

Saturday

Washington @ Pittsburgh, 11 a.m., ESPN

On April 5, after yet another recruiting trip for Jamie and an overnight at his sister's house, the two had breakfast and said goodbye.

When Jamie Dixon's plane touched down at his next destination a few hours later, there was a call from his mother telling him "something was wrong with Maggie."

Maggie Dixon was dead the next day, a victim of an heart arrhythmic episode, later attributed to an enlarged heart and a faulty valve.

"They know what happened, but they don't know why," he said. "There's no way to anticipate it or really recognize it."

The tragic death thrust Jamie Dixon into a limelight far different than anything he'd encountered as a Division I basketball coach. He's admittedly less outgoing than the rest of his siblings (another sister, Julie, is an attorney), and it could have proven to be a burden.

Instead, he has found that talking about Maggie "makes it somewhat easier." Being asked about his sister on almost a daily basis has made him realize the impact his sister had.

"It's just neat to hear that so many people were inspired by her story and what she did," he said.

And in the process of talking about Maggie, people fill him in on some details of her life that their age difference caused him to miss.

The other day, he was told of Maggie working at a summer basketball camp in Los Angeles at age 12, running the coaches' hospitality room. A few of the people running the tournament thought they noticed Georgetown coach John Thompson, then one of the most intimidating presences in the sport, in another corner of the room, but weren't sure and were hesitant to approach him.

Maggie had no such qualms, quickly striking up a conversation with Thompson.

"Even they couldn't talk to John Thompson, so they sent a 12-year-old girl to do it," Jamie Dixon said.

"She was not afraid or in awe of anything or anyone."

Those conversations have helped Dixon understand how much he meant to his sister.

"I don't think I ever realized until afterward that she said she looked up to me and wanted to go into coaching because of that," Dixon said.

Dixon's players have noticed a slight change in their coach's demeanor this season.

"It's easier for us to relate to him, seeing how he has responded to this," center Aaron Gray said. "Usually, when a guy goes through something like that, facing the things we face on the court will be no problem for him. Being down 15 points with 10 minutes left is all right. He's not going to shy away from that. He's gone through worse times."

He tries to keep her memory alive however he can. He helped organize the Maggie Dixon Classic tournament this year, something he hopes will become an annual showcase for women's basketball at Madison Square Garden. For now, event organizers want his Pitt team to play every year to get it off the ground as a men's and women's doubleheader.

"I'm not surprised by the people that knew her, how touched they were," he said. "But I am surprised by the people that didn't know her, how touched they are."

Bob Condotta: 206-515-5699 or bcondotta@seattletimes.com. Read his blogs on Washington football and basketball at www.seattletimes.com/huskies.

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