October 22, 2006

Army women's team trying to move forward following death of young coach

WEST POINT, N.Y. -- On a rainy September day, coach Dave Magarity invited the Army women's basketball team to his house -- the one that used to belong to Maggie Dixon.

He wanted to be sure the players felt comfortable with him living in the home where they'd spent countless hours with their former coach, friend and mentor, who died April 6 of heart arrhythmia at the age of 28.

To help ease their pain, Magarity took a suggestion from his wife, Rita -- an impromptu backyard memorial service. The team read a poem, planted a flower bed and placed a stone, painted in Army's black and gold, as a centerpiece.

It's adorned with two words: "Maggie's Garden."

"It was something good to have as a remembrance and acknowledge the fact that she is gone and we miss her and wish she could be here," said Micky Malette, a senior captain last season and now the team's director of basketball operations.

Junior Cara Enright, the Patriot League player of the year last season, said she thinks the garden will help the team move on.

"I think it gives us a sense of closure and helps us to keep her in our hearts," she said.

Always in their thoughts, Dixon is buried at West Point Cemetery -- an honor rarely given to civilians.

That was not an easy decision for the Dixon family.

"It was very tough for me and my parents, especially my mom," said her brother, Jamie Dixon, who coaches Pittsburgh's men's basketball team. "The initial thought was to have your daughter as close as possible. As we thought about it, we figured it was the best thing to do as we saw how important it is and how inspirational the cemetery is."

Dixon's family visited the cemetery in June for the first time, coming across a group of strangers on a tour bus who also had made the pilgrimage.

"A couple of the girls have been to her grave," captain Jen Hansen said. "Just to say hi."

Six months after her death, Dixon's grave is just one of the constant reminders of her lone season at West Point.

Take Magarity, an assistant coach for Dixon last season.

He wasn't looking to get back into coaching when he first met Dixon last October. Magarity was at West Point representing the Mid-American Conference at a football game when he ran into Dixon.

"She had such a vibrant energy about her. She had a passion for the game," said Magarity of that initial meeting that lasted four hours. "After calling a few friends, I just knew it's what I wanted to do."

Magarity, who spent 30 years at Marist, Iona and St. Francis (Pa.), never had coached women's basketball before. But the team quickly took to him, joking about his fashion sense and advancing age. He quickly became a father figure to the players and Dixon.

"She really knew what she was doing," Magarity said. "I didn't want to step on her toes. I just wanted to help her along the way."

Before Dixon passed away, good friend and New Orleans Hornets general manager Jeff Bower offered Magarity a job with the team -- director of college scouting and player personnel. But Dixon's death changed everything.

Despite his inexperience with the women's game, Magarity was athletic director Kevin Anderson's clear choice to coach the Cadets this season.

"My biggest fear was Dave not taking the job and someone else fighting the ghost of Maggie," he said.

When the team began practice last week, Magarity smoothed the transition by keeping Dixon's system and staff, which includes Magarity's daughter as an assistant coach. Dixon hired her just days before her death.

"I could never give them what she gave, but what I can give them is some continuity because they knew me," he said.

Magarity has tried to change little from last season's team that went to the NCAA tournament for the first time in school history.

"Everyone's really pumped for the season, but the team realizes she isn't here," Hansen said. "There's always going to be a different feel to it as you still expect her to walk through the door."

The Cadets, who return four starters, including Enright and rookie of the year Alex McGuire, will open their season Nov. 12 in the Maggie Dixon Classic.

The men's-women's doubleheader will feature the women of Ohio State vs. Army after Pittsburgh's men's team plays Western Michigan.

"Jamie was the motivating force behind it," Magarity said. "He wanted to do something to honor the memory of Maggie."

Jamie Dixon's working to make the Classic an annual women's basketball event at Madison Square Garden.

Before the game, Army will raise its 2006 Patriot League championship banner and a banner honoring Dixon's coach of the year award. The Cadets also will present Dixon's championship ring to her parents.

They'll continue to honor her throughout the season.

The players will keep Dixon close to their hearts, wearing shirts that say "We will ..." referring to a pregame routine -- saying "we will rebound, etc. -- that Dixon brought to the program from her time at DePaul. Also on the shirts are the initials MD inside a clover, similar to Dixon's tattoo.

"I want them to always feel that she's with us," Magarity said.

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