The Maggie Dixon Story: An Inspiring Legacy
CHICAGO - With the first Maggie Dixon Classic at DePaul tipping off at 5:30 p.m. Friday in McGrath Arena, we take a look back at the Maggie Dixon story---one that comes straight from the heart.
Doug Bruno was getting fired up about an evening with the guys on a spring-fever kind of Friday night in May of 2000 when Blair Banwart hollered into the DePaul locker room: "Coach, there are a couple of tall girls that look like players standing at center court and they are asking to see you."
Recruits, thought Bruno, and the nationally renowned women's basketball coach finished his shower and quickly got dressed.
Little did Bruno suspect he was about to embark on a most amazing life experience as he walked out to the old Alumni Hall gym.
Instead of encountering prospects, Bruno would meet for the first time an extraordinary young lady named Maggie Dixon, who had driven all the way from North Hollywood, Calif. with a friend to join the Blue Demons' coaching staff.
It was as if the 22-year-old Dixon---made up of equal parts moxie and charisma---was planning to shake Bruno's hand, give him a resume and ask: "When do I start?"
There were no openings at DePaul, but a three-hour conversation the following morning led to Dixon taking a job working at Bruno's basketball camp.
The campers, DePaul's players---everyone delighted in the way Maggie lit up Camp Bruno.
"She was so impressive and really knew her basketball," Bruno said. "I asked Athletics Director Jean Lenti Ponsetto if there was any way she could create a graduate-assistant position. Jeanne waved her magic wand and Maggie began working for us.
"To supplement her income, she also waited tables at my good friend Artie Greco's Sorriso Italian Steakhouse."
Dixon was made a full-time assistant coach the following season and became the recruiting coordinator for the 2002-03 season. In May of 2004, Dixon became Bruno's top assistant.
"She was a great assistant coach, and everyone loved her," Bruno said. "She filled up a room with her personality. Her last three seasons with us, we went to the NCAA Tournament each year."
After five seasons at DePaul, Dixon was named head coach at Army just 11 days before the start of the 2005-06 season.
"We were at a friend's wedding in Chicago just after Maggie had taken the job," said DePaul assistant coach Nicci Hays-Fort. "I had worked at the Merchant Marine Academy in Kings Point, N.Y. and knew what it was like.
"I said to Maggie: 'Are you sure about this?'
"Maggie said: 'They need me. I feel I can do something really special at that place.'"
The U.S. Military Academy at West Point had never before seen anything like Maggie Dixon. She galvanized this male-dominated culture with the force of her will and her gift for bringing out the best in others.
"The magic she worked at Army is the same magic she worked on every person in her life," said Hays-Fort. "She made the cadets want to attend women's basketball games. She was such a leader of young people. She was trying to change the environment there."
That moment came just six months later when Army edged Holy Cross 69-68 to win the Patriot League Conference Tournament and secure the Academy's' first appearance in the NCAA Tournament.
Several hundred cadets, led by the football players, stormed the Christl Arena court and carried Dixon off---a memorable scene telecast to a national audience on ESPN's "SportsCenter."
"I was in the stands, and you could see how Maggie had electrified West Point," Hays-Fort said. "All the top officers were at the game, and the cadets had painted their faces.
"I got goose bumps. How many schools rush the court for women's basketball? I felt so good and happy for Maggie. It was a great moment in sports.
"The next day, the team was formally presented the Patriot League trophy. When Maggie got up to speak, 4,000 cadets gave her a standing ovation."
Army lost its NCAA opener to a powerful Candace Parker-led juggernaut from Tennessee, but the Blue Demons advanced to the Sweet 16 in San Antonio. You knew Dixon would be there to cheer on her former players.
After that, Maggie attended the men's Final Four in Indianapolis before flying into Boston for the women's Final Four.
"On that Monday night, a bunch of us went to a Nike party at a sports restaurant inside Fenway Park," Bruno said. "When that closed down, we headed back to the Nike suite at our hotel. Connecticut coach Geno Auriemma, Colorado coach Kathy McConnell, Maggie and I are the last ones left.
"When that closed down, we went over to my suite. The last time I saw Maggie, the sun was coming up on Tuesday morning. She returned to West Point and watched the women's title game with her older brother Jamie Dixon, the men's basketball coach at Pittsburgh.
"The next day (April 5), Maggie was having tea with a friend when she collapsed from heart arrhythmia and was rushed to the base hospital. She was later airlifted to Westchester County Medical Center in Valhalla, N.Y.
"I was on my way to the Boston airport when I got a call from Dana Pump of Adidas. He was crying and kept saying over and over: 'Maggie's not good.' When I got to the airport, I got a call from Jeanne. She said: 'Doug, she's in tough shape.' I changed my flight, jumped into one of those four-seater planes and flew to Westchester County."
Bruno was a jumble of emotions upon arriving at the hospital to see his 28-year-old former assistant coach.
"Maggie was lying in a comatose state, breathing through a ventilator," Bruno said. "She had her normal, beautiful face. Jamie was the first family member to arrive. Her parents, Jim and Marge, and older sister Julie, got there at 4 a.m. the next morning from Los Angeles.
"I was riding up the elevator with Julie on Thursday when tears started streaming down her face. 'My sister is brain-dead, we're done,' she cried out. I flew back to Chicago later that day, and I knew she had passed when I got off the plane. It was tough breaking the news to our team. We all went to North Hollywood, Calif. for the funeral.
"Maggie is one of the few civilians buried at West Point, near Army football legends Glenn Davis and Doc Blanchard."
Julie gave Bruno a religious Catholic medal that her sister always wore around her neck and a stone carving of Maggie's favorite inscription. The last line reads: 'Live every day as if it were your last.'
"Maggie had an electrifying personality and always made you feel like you were the most important person," said Hays-Fort. "She had her artsy side and would go to art fairs and concerts. She had her fashion side. She had her guy friends, her female friends, her coaching friends.
"She always made you feel like you were her best friend."
Tennessee State faces Dixon's alma mater, San Diego at 5:30 p.m on Friday. DePaul plays Cornell at 7:30 p.m. The title game is set for 7:30 p.m. on Saturday.
Ponsetto, who can't bring herself to delete Maggie's entry on her BlackBerry, delivered an eloquent eulogy April 11 at Dixon's funeral where 1,200 mourners gathered at St. Charles Roman Catholic Church in North Hollywood. Here are some excerpts:
"If I had to choose from all Maggie's strengths, it would be her legacy of caring for family and the human spirit. She saw the good in everyone. And if your spirit was low or your heart was hurting or your focus was in a wayward bent, Maggie would wrap her soul around you and hug your troubles away...
"Like St. Vincent DePaul, she valued the dignity of every person whom she came in contact with and cared for those who were marginalized in our society...
"Maggie in a moment's notice---in her own charismatic way---could get together more staff to join her at Kelly's or McGee's pubs than if I were to call a staff meeting to pass out bonus checks...
"Maggie girl, we'll miss the shoes (I think of you every time I buy a pair)...the outfits...the red boots...the green purse...the laughter...the brightness of your eyes...the warmth of your smile and seeing you every day. But, we'll be forever grateful that for a magical time in our lives, our hearts were touched by you. Thank you, girlfriend!"