A Final Salute

Times Staff Writer

Death is no stranger here. It is the United States Military Academy, Army for the less formal. The chapels here, for Catholics, for Jews, for Protestants, are used often to mark the deaths of young soldiers, male and female.

But even so, on a cold and rainy spring Friday, more than 670 packed the 550-seat Chapel of the Most Holy Trinity, which sits on a bluff overlooking the Hudson River. Mourners attending this memorial service had come to cry for and laugh about, to praise and honor Maggie Dixon, 28, not a soldier, a coach.

Dixon, who grew up in North Hollywood, had coached the Army women’s basketball team for one season. She died Thursday after collapsing Wednesday afternoon while having tea with a friend who had recently lost a job.


According to a spokesman at the Westchester (N.Y.) County Medical Examiner’s office, an autopsy Friday showed that Dixon had an enlarged heart and a malfunctioning valve that might have caused her heart to beat irregularly and stop.

Her brother, Jamie, men’s basketball coach at Pittsburgh, said in a statement, “Maggie touched so many people beyond basketball. I know she looked up to me. But I always looked up to her too, and it’s obvious that a lot of other people did as well.”

Dixon’s older sister Julie, a Los Angeles lawyer, and her parents, Jim and Marge, had arrived at her bedside about 4 a.m. Thursday, after flying from Southern California. Jamie, 40, had spent Tuesday night at Maggie’s place while on a recruiting trip. They’d had breakfast Wednesday morning.

And Dixon, who was 6 feet 1 and a standout basketball player at Sherman Oaks Notre Dame High and the University of San Diego, had seemed in great health last weekend when she joined Jamie, his wife and their two children to cheer on UCLA at the men’s Final Four at Indianapolis and then for a quick trip to Boston to watch part of the women’s Final Four.

Three weeks earlier, Maggie had joined Jamie in New York for a celebration after Army had won its Patriot League tournament while Pittsburgh was playing in the Big East tournament.

Jamie Dixon had been UCLA Coach Ben Howland’s assistant at Pittsburgh, and Howland’s voice shook when he spoke of Maggie.

“She was on target to be the next Pat Summitt,” Howland said, referring to the highly successful coach of the women’s team at Tennessee. “I firmly believe that.”

And, indeed, the final game Dixon coached was in the first game of the NCAA tournament, when Summitt’s Volunteers rolled over upstart Army, 102-54.

That didn’t get Dixon down, though, after the Cadets finished with a 20-11 record.

“She could hardly wait until next season,” said Cara Enright, a sophomore guard from Norco. “Coach Dixon made us love the game even more, and we played our hearts out every single time we stepped on the court.”

Dixon’s team marched smartly into the chapel. The players comforted Dixon’s parents and hugged Jamie, whose shoulders shook.

In a matter of only seven months, senior Ashley Magnani said, “Coach Dixon taught us so well that there are now 20 Maggie Dixons right here at Army.”

Dixon had gotten her first head-coaching job only 11 days before the season began after the previous coach’s sudden resignation. By March, the Black Knights had won their first Patriot League regular-season and conference tournament titles.

When Army beat traditional power Holy Cross by a single point to win the tournament and advance to the NCAA tournament, cadets lifted Dixon onto their shoulders.

It was that picture that graced the cover of the program for Dixon’s memorial service.

Army Athletic Director Kevin Anderson said it had taken him only a single interview last fall to know that hiring the inexperienced Dixon was the right move.

“And after she met with this team for the first time, I knew I was absolutely right,” he said.

The suddenness of her death seemed to reflect the way Dixon had lived. Rob DiMuro, then Dixon’s coach at Notre Dame High, said Dixon would sometimes act as a 6-1 point guard for his team, as well as being a ferocious defender and an excellent passer.

Kathy Marpe, Dixon’s college coach, said that although her former player had been an agile all-purpose player, she didn’t quite have the speed to be a perimeter player in the pros, nor the muscular strength to be an inside player.

Still, after graduating from San Diego, Dixon tried out for the WNBA’s Sparks because her good friend Michael Cooper was the coach.

She didn’t make it, and after she was cut, she and a friend drove to Chicago because Dixon had heard the DePaul women’s team might be looking for a graduate assistant coach.

Doug Bruno, DePaul’s coach, remembers Dixon’s arrival seven years ago.

“I was in our old Alumni Hall, which was about to be torn down,” Bruno said. “It was Friday afternoon, I was taking a shower, ready for a night out with the guys, all soaped up, and our trainer comes running in saying there’s two 6-foot-1 girls in the gym that wanted to see me.”

Bruno’s great wish was that two mysterious 6-1 players had come to join his team. Instead it was Dixon and her traveling companion, Dixon looking for a job. Bruno said he gave her a courtesy interview the next morning.

“All I had to offer was an $8,000 grad assistant job,” he said. “You can hardly live on that in Chicago. But she was so eager. So we got her another job at a great Italian steakhouse. She waitressed and coached.”

Anderson called Dixon last October.

“I had to call her five or six times before she returned the call,” he said yesterday. “I got on a plane and flew to Detroit. We met there.”

In front of the altar and guarding Dixon’s casket were a basketball, the Patriot League trophy won so recently and a team photo of smiling young women surrounding Dixon.

Seniors Magnani; Micky Mallette, a 5-8 guard from Elmira Heights, N.Y.; Adrienne Payne, a 5-6 guard from Petaluma, Calif.; and Megan Vrabel, a 6-1 forward from Stafford, Va., spoke emotionally of their coach.

“Maggie didn’t let us lose that many times, but when we did, she told us to keep our heads up and to learn from the loss,” Vrabel said. “Maggie, we’ll learn from this and we will keep our heads up. We’ve learned from you how to be a loving daughter, a great sister, an aunt, a mentor and a best friend.”

Magnani said she’d felt an immediate connection to Dixon because “she was as easily distracted as I am. We were both always kind of dancing to our own beat.”

One of Dixon’s first acts after accepting the job in October was to talk 54-year-old Dave Magarity out of his job as assistant commissioner of the Mid-American Conference and into the job as her assistant. He had been coach at Marist College in Poughkeepsie, N.Y., for 18 years before moving into administration two years ago.

His voice breaking, Magarity said, “I came to West Point last fall as an assistant commissioner and left [the interview] as an associate head coach, and I’m not sure how it happened, except Maggie talked me into the job in about a minute. She was somebody who had such a great energy about her. That’s the only way I could explain it.”

Magnani said her favorite memory of Dixon was a day at practice when Magarity had given a 10-minute lecture about “the dreaded gold play and telling us to get rid of the high screens because we weren’t any good at them anyway. After he was finished, Coach Dixon walked over and said, ‘Coach, what was that?’ She’d been walking around the baseline in her own world.”

Funeral arrangements are still incomplete. Bruno said he and his DePaul team would be in Southern California for the wake and funeral. Army’s team will be there as well.

Anderson said there must be a reason for what happened.

“Maggie was in my office Wednesday, and we were talking about how she was inundated with phone calls offering her other jobs, all of a sudden. She told me, ‘Kevin, I’m not leaving.’ God apparently wanted her to coach his team, though, and I can’t fight that. God bless you, Maggie.”