He'll be on a Greyhound somewhere,and total strangers will be spilling their guts to him, their life stories. But he never spills his. He'll eventually be asked why he's traveling by himself, at his age, without even a cell phone, and he'll say,"I'm a cornflakes salesman." It's good for a laugh, and that will be that, and he'll be alone again with his thoughts, alone on his way to the next game. What would he tell these people, anyway? That he's hanging on by a thread? That he wrote the inscription on her tombstone? If he had to tell them anything, if he had to bare his soul, he'd talk about the time his boy, Jamie, got offered a college basketball scholarship. The call came at night, from TCU, and when they hung up the phone, he said to his son, "Look what you did!" Jamie, always the reserved one, said, "Dad, it's what we did. I didn't do it alone. I did it with you." Hell, that hit home, that moved him. He quickly left for the backyard so he could cry without anyone's looking. But someone was looking: his 6-year-old daughter. She'd heard the news too, so she tugged on the sleeve of her sobbing father, the funniest man she knew, and said, "Don't cry, Dad. I'll play basketball with you." Yep, if he had to bare his soul, that's the story he'd tell. That sums it up. That's Maggie Dixon.
The day after Maggie died, Jimmy Dixon woke up in a sterile hotel room, shouting at the heavens. He turned to his wife, Marge, his sidekick of 42 years, and said, "This is the end of me. No more Joker Boy."
Maggie's death made no sense. A month before, she had prowled the Army sideline in high heels and earrings, chomping on her gum a mile a minute. Given the head coaching job just 12 days before the season began, she'd taken the Black Knights to the Patriot League championship game, and oh, was she a chip off the old block.
As a girl growing up in North Hollywood, Calif., she'd call a cantaloupe an antelope, and Jimmy would tell her, "Perfect talking!" He'd walk with her into a restaurant and trip on purpose, making her giggle. He'd take her to his acting auditions, and if he saw gridlock on the freeways, he'd say, "Don't ever be in that line. Go the other way. Go your own direction."
She took his advice. After college and a failed shot at the WNBA, Maggie showed up on DePaul's doorstep in 2000 and within a year had blabbed her way into an assistant's job. When she took over at Army, five years later, she was slapping three-star generals on the back like long lost buddies. She dressed up like Big Bird on Halloween, threw ice cream parties for her players and twitched her big eyebrows for laughs. Before long, those generals were coming to games in face paint. "She said whatever came into her head—just like her old man," Jimmy says.
She knew how to work a room, and an arena. In the Patriot League title game at home, during a tense timeout in the final minutes when the score was tight, she went into her schtick. Maggie waved her players close, pointed to her white blazer and said, "Before the game, some old lady asked if I was an usher." That's all she said. The team broke the huddle in stitches and, loosened up, won by a point, sending Army to its first-ever NCAA Tournament. Jimmy was courtside as Maggie was carried off the floor by two large cadets.
That same week, Jamie's Pitt Panthers were sailing through the Big East tournament at the Garden. Maggie was behind their bench for the semis and the finals, chirping at the refs. "I'm like, 'Uh, Maggie dear, shhhh,' " Marge remembers. That basketball season was the first time in forever that Maggie and Jamie—who is 12 years older and used to change her diapers—had lived in the same time zone. So whenever Jamie recruited in New York that year, he stayed at her five-bedroom house in West Point, which she'd never had time to furnish. On one visit, he surprised her with a rocking chair, and it became Maggie's favorite place to sit.
Theirs was a made-for-TV story: the first brother/sister tandem to coach their teams to the NCAAs. When a studio show offered to put Jamie up at one of those boutique New York hotels, he invited Maggie along. But the closetsize room had only one narrow single bed for the 6'4" Jamie and 6'1'' Maggie to share. "I think Jamie is officially sick of me now," Maggie told her older sister, Julie, the next day, cracking up.
A few weeks later, on the night of April 4, 2006, Jamie stayed one more time with Maggie, hanging out on the new leather couch she'd finally bought. Their teams had both been eliminated—Maggie's in the first round, by Tennessee, Jamie's in the second, by Bradley. The next morning, he flew to Virginia to cheer on a former Panther during an NBA showcase, and Maggie drove to see a friend who'd just lost her job. Maggie made her smile, and they sat for tea. Then, at about 2 p.m., Maggie said, "I don't feel well," and collapsed.
Marge fielded the call from the hospital. "I knew it was over," she says. "I asked the doctor, 'Could she die?' and he said yes. When you tell me that, I know it's over."
Marge, Jimmy and Julie flew to New York and were greeted by two Army officers. Jamie, already back from Virginia, broke the news to them at the hospital: heart failure. She'd never had a chance. She was still on life support, but there was no discernible brain activity. She was gone. On April 6 the Dixons decided to end life support, and Maggie was pronounced dead, at 28.
Jim Harrick said at the time that no previous death had shaken both the men's and women's games the way Maggie's did. Everybody knew her. As a 12-year-old, she'd worked at a camp run by Adidas recruiting gurus Dana and David Pump, and when no one approached the standoffish John Thompson, guess who walked over to chat him up? Years later, Jamie saw Maggie with John Calipari, and it was the mouthy Calipari who couldn't squeeze in a word. Dana Pump says, "You know who Maggie was going to be? Pat Summitt."
But all that was irrelevant when 69-year-old Jimmy Dixon—actor, screenwriter, hoops junkie—awoke in that sterile hotel room and couldn't talk to his daughter Maggie. When he told his wife he'd never be funny again, she paused. Then she shook her head hard.
"Jimmy, Maggie wouldn't want that," she said, both of them now in tears. "It's the last thing she'd want. She'd want you laughing. That's what she loved about you. Loved about us."
In the minutes, hours, days, weeks and months that followed Maggie's death, a vivacious man tried not to surrender. Every morning, he accompanied his wife to the door, watched her leave for work, then "sat like a douche bag on the couch." Maggie's old leather couch.
Being alone in his own house was, in his words, killing Jimmy Dixon. He walked with his head down to avoid seeing the photographs on the end table and the 2006-07 Army basketball schedule on the desk. He says he "moaned and groaned and thought about what could've been." And that was not Jimmy.
You should have seen him before.
Some 42 years ago, he and Marge drove to Hollywood from the Throgs Neck section of the Bronx to pursue his acting dreams. The neighborhood guys they left behind said, "You'll end up selling oranges on the freeway," but he landed commercials, then a minor role in Tora! Tora! Tora! and then a major role in the It's Alive horror trilogy. "I was always an Irish cop," he says. "Always McCarthy. "
He was the kind of man who called women "dollies" and dollar bills "clams." The kind of man who, when he was discharged from the Army in 1962, hitchhiked from Sparks, Nev., to Manhattan with $300 in his shoe. He and Marge would dance and drink Guinness in the Irish pubs there and would regale their children with stories about it later.
The kids were his life. When Jamie got married, Jimmy was his best man. And when Maggie started playing basketball, he raised their back yard basket three inches—"the better to get lift on her shot." He rarely missed any of her games in high school or at the U. of San Diego. That was the best part of being a struggling actor sometimes: Jimmy had free time.
But with Maggie gone, free time was poison. Marge had her job in the marketing department of Warner Bros., and Julie had a high-powered job in the LA district attorney's office. Jimmy? He piddled. Years before, he'd written a screenplay called Gym Rats, about some misfit hoops players who start their own fake college team, and a director friend was still shopping it. But none of the studios had bitten yet, so all Jimmy really did was read, take walks, babysit Julie's 6-year-old twin boys and stare at the eight duffel bags in his office that held Maggie's belongings. "My wife can't go near them," Jimmy says. "Somebody said to her, 'Maybe you should see somebody.' In other words, go to some meatball shrink. And she said, 'I don't have to see anybody. I know what's wrong with me. My kid died.' " It was torture.
If ever a family needed a light moment or an escape, the Dixons did. But who could provide it? Jamie, the rock of the family, was in Pittsburgh, trying to cope himself. He is a private, stoic man who, friends say, won't even kiss his wife in public. But on the day that he and Marge cleaned out Maggie's house in West Point, he broke down. His wife, Jackie, had called and asked him to take a pair of Maggie's earrings for their daughter, Shannon, Maggie's goddaughter. Jamie searched and found the ones his sister had worn against Holy Cross, the biggest night of her life. He brought home one other item: the rocking chair.
Pitt started practice in the fall, immersing Jamie in basketball again, and he knew it was probably the escape his father needed too. So whenever he called home, he asked the same question: "Dad, when are you coming?" Jimmy was conflicted. He still wore the wristwatch that Jamie had gotten for playing in the 1986 NIT, but basketball was painful for him now. Pitt was in the Top 10, but the wins weren't as sweet.
Jimmy felt off center. He'd written the inscription on Maggie's tombstone, "So Good, So Wise, So Young," but he didn't particularly want to go visit it. He stopped watching women's games entirely. He and the family attended the first Maggie Dixon Classic at West Point, but he described the pregame ceremony as "tumult." His close friend Paul Lichtman saw him weep one day and said later,
"Jimmy will never be the same. I think a part of him died with Maggie."
So seven months later, was Jimmy ever going to crack a joke again? Marge and Julie finally broached the subject at the kitchen table.
Marge: "We should have just crumbled and never surfaced again. But that's not what we do."
Julie: "That's not what Maggie would've liked."
Marge: "Maggie would've said, 'Kid, get over it.' "
Julie, who would still weep when she was alone in her car, was trying. Nine years older than Maggie, Julie was the uncoordinated sibling, the one who didn't ball. But one day she simply announced she was going to coach her twins' team. "Maggie would've fallen down laughing," Marge says.
Levity! Soon, Jimmy was helping Julie out at practice, and some ice thawed. And the next time Jamie asked, "Dad, you coming?" the answer was, damn straight he was coming. Jimmy had been taking buses and trains to Jamie's games for 20 years—the more obscure the route, the better—and now he was amenable to traveling again. So late last December, Jimmy began making treks east, using the airlines as little as possible, trying to be Joker Boy along the way. When a team manager asked how he got to the Pitt-Oklahoma State game in Oklahoma City, Jimmy answered, "Coal barge." Another game, it was, "Tugboat." Another, "Zeppelin." Jamie wished his dad would fly with the team or at least carry a mobile phone, but Jimmy had used a cell only once in his life—and had tossed the distracting thing into a lake.
Still, Jamie kept asking him to come, and before his final regular-season trip this February, Jimmy dug into Maggie's duffels, looking for something to bring along. And on that Greyhound to Pittsburgh, there was Jimmy, wearing a knit cap with an "A" for Army. If any of those strangers had asked about it, who knows how Jimmy would have answered. Who knows if he'd have told the truth and said, "It's Maggie's."
But this time, nobody asked the cornflakes salesman nothin'. He started working again, writing another screenplay. About Maggie.
There'd been some interest in Hollywood about her story, and if anyone was going to write it, damn it, Jimmy was. "It will be like Something for Joey or Brian's Song," says Dana Pump. "It will be huge."
But only if Jimmy decides to finish it. The script is halfway done, but there is Marge to consider. Jimmy is afraid that reliving it on the big screen will bring her more heartache, so the family is going to have to sign off on the idea first. It also means reliving Maggie himself. He won't show the script to anyone, but there's a scene that always chokes him up: the night that she gets lost on a recruiting trip in Kansas and he rescues her over the phone by consulting an atlas.
This winter, the more Jimmy thought about Maggie, the more he wrote. "Maggie meant so much to so many people—maybe we can do some good with this," he says. On those long bus rides, he'd picture the scene with the generals following Maggie around like schoolboys, and it would make him chuckle. It had possibilities.
He traveled with the family in March back to the Big East tournament, this time by plane, back to the scene of last year's Camelot. He sat composed, then uncomposed, behind the bench as Pitt lost to Georgetown in the finals, and then he followed Jamie's team throughout the NCAAs. When Pitt
staffers asked how he got to the games, Jimmy again created some cockamamy story. "He's Maggie, isn't he?" one of the staffers said.
"Listen," Jimmy says, "people can go through life pissing and moaning, or they can go through life laughing. And, well, I'll take the latter. See, some are born with that twinkle in their eyes, and some people don't have it. I have it. So does my wife, so do my kids. Maggie had it in spades. She loved being Maggie Dixon. She never had a bad day."
Neither do his grandsons, James and Henry. It's Jimmy's job now, when he's not on the road, to pick up the twins from school. He takes them to the park and to the store to pick up "dashboard food," just as he did with Maggie. It's funny how children can repair you—"They're the argument against retirement homes," Jimmy says—and that's what has started to happen to Joker Boy now, on the one-year anniversary of the worst day of his life.
At least it gets him out of the house. He takes the boys swimming at the swanky homes of his actor friends. He teaches them baseball—by pitching oranges, which are more fun to hit—and basketball, on the backyard rim that is 10'3". He hoses down the dirt in his backyard and lets them roll in the mud. He teaches them words like "wiseguy," and he's tempted to point at freeway gridlock and say, "Don't be in that line, boys. Go your own direction."
But there will be time for that later. Now he just lets them be kids. So when they come to visit, he makes sure the playroom is full of toys. And they love that playroom.
It's Maggie's old room.