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Joined at the hoop

Howland and Dixon, longtime friends and colleagues, will be facing each other for the first time

March 20, 2007|Robyn Norwood | Times Staff Writer

This is how close UCLA Coach Ben Howland is to Pittsburgh Coach Jamie Dixon.

Dial the number for the home Jamie and Jacqueline Dixon share with their two young children in the Pittsburgh suburbs, and Ben and Kim Howland's 22-year-old daughter, Meredith, might answer the phone.

A nursing student at Pittsburgh -- and a cheerleader at the school when her father was coach -- Meredith is a regular baby sitter for the Dixons.

This is also how close Howland and Dixon are: After Dixon's sister Maggie, the coach at Army, died suddenly at 28 last spring, Howland was a pallbearer.

It is a relationship that runs both long and deep.

Howland was already beginning his coaching career in the early 1980s when he first saw Dixon play at Sherman Oaks Notre Dame High.

Later, the pair would spend years together building programs at Northern Arizona and Pittsburgh before Howland left to become the coach at UCLA in 2003 and Dixon stepped into his old job at Pittsburgh.

On Thursday in San Jose, they'll be on opposite benches for the first time, each with the same purpose -- trying to get his team to the NCAA tournament's Elite Eight.

"It's exciting," Howland said. "Whoever wins that game, and obviously I hope it's us, we want to win it, but whoever wins is one game away from the Final Four."

The men talk "pretty much every day," Dixon said last week in Buffalo, N.Y., as his team got the two wins that earned Pittsburgh a trip to San Jose.

"Meredith is at our house all the time," he said. "We talk just about every day, but we talk more about family things than basketball."

The relationship started, quite naturally, with basketball.

Howland, 49, already was an assistant at UC Santa Barbara when Dixon, who is 41 and grew up in North Hollywood, was still in high school.

"The first time I remember seeing Jamie Dixon play was for Notre Dame out in the Valley, a CIF game," Howland said. "He had about 31 points.

"He was writing me letters all the time, saying, 'I really want to go to UCSB.' "

But Howland and Santa Barbara didn't find a place for him, and Dixon, a classic late bloomer, went on to a standout career at Texas Christian.

"I was the new guy on the block, 24, 25 years old," Howland said. "It was a big mistake, one of the hundreds I've made in 26 years in the business, but one I won't forget."

He didn't make another after Dixon's playing career ended, recommending him for a graduate assistant's job on Jerry Pimm's staff with him at Santa Barbara.

Dixon went on to become an assistant at Hawaii, but they reunited when Howland got his first head coaching job at Northern Arizona in 1994.

Five seasons and two NCAA tournament appearances later, Howland was hired at Pittsburgh, and Dixon, who had returned to Hawaii for a season, rejoined him.

They lived together in a run-down apartment near campus until their families joined them.

"People don't realize how far back we go," Dixon said.

When Howland left for UCLA, Pittsburgh hesitated to hire Dixon, looking for a bigger name.

Howland, frustrated that Pittsburgh might not see that Dixon was ready and had been a big part of his success, held open an associate coach's position for him at UCLA until Pittsburgh finally hired Dixon.

Howland was right, and the run that began under him continued under Dixon, who in four seasons has averaged more than 26 wins and reached two Sweet 16s among four consecutive NCAA tournaments.

Last season, when UCLA made its run to the Final Four in Indianapolis, Dixon and his sister Maggie were there, celebrating not only Howland's success but a season when Maggie, in her first year as a head coach, took Army to the women's NCAA tournament and was carried off the court on her players' shoulders after winning the Patriot League tournament.

They are believed to be the first brother and sister to coach in the same NCAA tournament.

Maggie was visiting with a friend a few days after the Final Four when she collapsed and died a day later. An autopsy showed she had an enlarged heart and a malfunctioning valve that might have caused her heart to beat irregularly and stop.

"Ben was one of the first people who knew about Maggie. I was on a flight and people were trying to reach me. The secretary, my wife," said Dixon, who was able to get to the hospital before his sister died.

His first year of grief is not yet over, and the rhythms of the basketball season both help and hurt.

"Some things have been a little more trying," he said.

A trip to play at DePaul, where Maggie had been an assistant, "kind of snuck up on me," he said. "Seeing people, coaches, the athletic director, ushers, statisticians."

Then there was the Big East tournament, where a year ago Jamie and Maggie and their sister, Julie, a Los Angeles attorney, celebrated Maggie's NCAA bid and Pittsburgh's run to the Big East title game along with their parents, Jim and Marge.

"The Big East tournament, that one was tough," Jamie said. "That's been kind of a family get-together the last seven years."

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