Mac Engel

Jamie Dixon and the worst day of his life

His voice softens, his eyes turn red, and in that moment Jamie Dixon is back in the worst day of his life.

By the time his parents and sister arrived to the hospital, his younger sister Maggie was all but gone. Doctors had kept her on life support so the family could say goodbye.

“The toughest part was telling my parents,” the TCU basketball coach said. “Hardest thing I’ve ever done. ... They still can’t talk about it, and any time she comes up with them I change the conversation. It’s just too hard.”

Maggie Dixon was 28 when she died on April 8, 2006, in Westchester, N.Y. Doctors said she had an enlarged heart with a mitral valve that did not shut properly.

TCU’s appearance in the NIT semifinals on Tuesday in Madison Square Garden in New York is a high point for the program under Jamie Dixon, in his first year as the Horned Frogs coach. It’s also a painful reminder to a life that should have been longer.

And of a scar that will never heal.

Jamie Dixon was 17 when he left home in California to play for TCU. Maggie was 5. The family would watch Jamie play for the Horned Frogs on Raycom telecasts, available through those giant satellite TVs.

The oldest brother of three had no idea the impact he had on his youngest sister. Because of her interests in art and music, he assumed basketball wasn’t her thing.

Maggie started basketball late, but she was good enough to play at the University of San Diego. She was good enough to earn a tryout with the WNBA’s LA Sparks.

She just wasn’t good enough to make it in any further.

Shortly after being cut by the Sparks, without invitation, Maggie walked into the women’s basketball office at DePaul in Chicago. She wanted to coach. DePaul had no jobs, but gave her one working camps while she also waitressed.

Within one year she had a full-time job at DePaul. Five years later, she was DePaul’s top assistant.

By then Jamie was entrenched as the head coach at Pitt. A friend of his was the athletic director at Army and needed a head women’s basketball coach just 11 days before the start of practice.

Taking an interview was a good idea, but Jamie knew Army could be a career-killer. The service academies are notoriously hard.

“She calls me and says, ‘I have to coach those girls. They need me.’ She had spent a day with the players,” Jamie said. “She was so excited.”

In her only season at Army, she asked the male cadets to attend the women’s games. They did. When they beat Holy Cross to win the Patriot League, those male cadets carried her off on their shoulders.

In only six months, Maggie led the Black Knights to their first appearance in the NCAA Tournament. It was the first time any of the three service academies had earned a trip to the tournament.

Maggie had just returned from the women’s Final Four to her home in West Point, where Jamie was staying while on a recruiting trip. In the six months since she had taken the Army job, the two had become closer than ever. The age gap was no longer an issue, and neither was geography.

They worked out, after which Jamie said goodbye. By the time he landed in Virginia, she had collapsed and been rushed to the hospital. His cellphone was loaded with messages.

“I knew it wasn’t good,” he said

Had Maggie collapsed in her own home, which was across the street from the base hospital, she might have been saved. She also might have been saved had she had quick access to an automated external defibrillator.

But she was a visiting a friend who lived on the opposite side of the base.

“They had told me to get there quick and when I saw her she looked peaceful,” Jamie said. “There was no decision to be made (regarding life support).”

Their parents and their sister Julie arrived around 4 a.m. the next day from California.

“Telling my parents was the hardest thing I ever had to do. For a parent, losing their child is the worst,” Jamie said.

There was a service near the Dixon California home. She is one of the few civilians buried at West Point, not too far from the resting places of Army Heisman trophy winners Doc Blanchard and Glenn Davis.

It’s been more than a decade, and Dixon said he has never gotten over it, but that he wants to talk about her.

“There is a benefit in that, but my dad can’t. He loses it every time,” he said. “My mom can’t either. But I made the decision to continue to talk about her at any opportunity.”

Not long after her death, Jamie Dixon was approached by ESPN basketball reporter Andy Katz about doing something in his sister’s honor. From that was born the Maggie Dixon Classic, a one-day event featuring some of the nation’s top women’s teams.

The event began in 2006 in West Point but through some of Dixon’s connections was moved to MSG. Since then, women’s basketball events in Maggie’s name have begun at her alma mater, San Diego, as well as DePaul. There is also the Maggie Dixon Division I Rookie Coach of the Year Award, as well as the Maggie Dixon Courage Award.

Everything in her honor has been used as a platform to raise heart health awareness.

When Jamie Dixon speaks highly of Madison Square Garden and why it’s so special to his family, it is a living reminder of a sister who built an endless legacy in a life that was cut tragically short.

Listen to Mac Engel every Tuesday and Thursday on Shan & RJ from 5:30-10 a.m. on 105.3 The Fan.

Mac Engel: 817-390-7697, @macengelprof

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