Senior Dion Dixon will play his final home game at Fifth Third Arena on Wednesday as one of the top 30 scorers in program history and the epitome of resiliency. (Photo courtesy Lacking Focus Photography)
CINCINNATI - Dion Dixon stood near midcourt of Madison Square Garden with his hands planted firmly atop his head. On the conference's biggest stage, in the mecca of basketball, Dixon dribbled the ball off his leg out of bounds.
A 20-year-old sophomore at the time, Dixon's gaffe served as the glaring memory in his then-less than memorable career.
In the following seconds West Virginia's DeSean Butler would bank a 3-pointer to squash any NCAA aspirations of the 2010 Bearcats.
Two years later, on the eve of playing in his final home game with the Cincinnati Bearcats, Dixon doesn't hesitate characterizing the dark moments of that night the days which would follow.
"That was the lowest point of my career," Dixon said.
And he couldn't be happier it happened.
The replays on SportsCenter eventually subsided, but the replays in his head never did. He remembered the moment vividly. Each time he felt the same pain over again. Then, each time, he hit the gym.
"That's what really helped me forget about it, too, was going in the gym and working at it," he said. "When I think about it, I really appreciate it, actually. It really helped me get in the gym more."
During his first two seasons, Dixon averaged 6.1 points per game and saw his playing time cut down to under 16 minutes his sophomore year. Then came the turnover.
"It helped turn my career around," he said. "That was the turning point in my career here, going through that. It was hard on me at the time, but the thing that helped me was (teammates) just being by my side and telling me forget about it. I just went to work."
It paid off.
Over the last two years he's earned the trust of Mick Cronin to start 58 of 63 games, including all 29 this season. He averaged 11.6 points per game his junior year and 13.1 this year. He just crossed into prestigious territory as the 47th member of the program's 1,000-point club. He currently ranks 28th in program history with 1,183 points.
Few would have predicted such a fate for the raw, but talented kid from Chicago.
"He's definitely a guy that wasn't highly recruited," Cronin said. "He may not want to admit that, but it was early on in our tenure and we were digging for guys we thought could outperform the level they were being recruited at. He's definitely done that. He's had a more than productive career here. He's gotten better, one thing about him, he does a great job in the offseason."
Dixon became notorious for borrowing gym keys from the janitors during his offseason following the turnover. He'd spend all hours in the gym, striving to erase that haunting memory in the eyes of Bearcats fans and even himself.
Throughout every stage of his Bearcats career, work ethic and determination defined Dixon's ascent.
Among the lore of UC's great scorers, Dixon won't be remembered for his sheer size and athleticism like Yancy Gates. He won't be remembered for pure gunslinging accuracy like LaZelle Durden. He won't be remembered for fearsome ferocity like Eric Hicks.
Dixon will be remembered for the grind. He'll be remembered as the guy who earned every bucket through sweaty nights alone in the gym.
Even he can admit, developing that reputation took time - and a turnover.
"I came in as a kid - coming out playing, not really taking things seriously," said Dixon, who averaged .32 points per minute his first two seasons and .42 points per minute the last two. "As I got older, I take everything more seriously. Off the court, too, it translates to on the court, as far as work ethic and everything."
Dixon used to be frustrated talking about that moment at MSG. Today, he looks back with a smile and thankful nod. He knows he beat the rap. He refused to let it define him. He knows it shifted the direction of his career.
As he walks out on the court Senior Night to an ovation from fans, he can smile knowing his legacy far overshadows his lowest point. On Wednesday, he knows the work he put in made him a centerpiece in creating the highest point in his career.
"Just us turning the program around, that was amazing," Dixon said. "Coming in with nothing here and make the tournament our junior year and the push to make it again our senior year, I think that's the high."