For a guy who was supposed to be having a hard time walking, Phil Dixon is playing some remarkable basketball already this season. He has rebounded from the shark bite quite nicely, thank you.
Well, OK, it wasn't exactly a shark bite. But a lot of people back home in Toronto don't have to know that. I mean, here you are, a neighborhood basketball legend, a gifted athlete who spent some time with the Canadian National Team, as a teenager no less. When you were a senior at Bathurst Heights High School you averaged 40 points, 15 rebounds and 12 assists a game, and what are you going to tell them when you come back home from college with a scar on the left side of your leg that looks like a diagram for a wide receiver running a Z-pattern - a long Z-pattern?That you fell through a plate glass window?
"I told them I got bit by a shark," says Dixon, grinning.
You want freak accidents? It was exactly a year ago yesterday, Dec. 15, 1989, that Dixon and his University of Utah teammates had finished eating at their training table in the union building and were on the way to the parking lot. Several players were ahead of Dixon, a new 6-foot-5 recruit from Toronto who had already made his mark by setting a school record for three-point field goal percentage by hitting five-of-six three-pointers the night previous in a 91-55 win over Denver.
He ran to catch up with them, slipped on the floor, fell into a display case, gashed open his left leg, and was rushed to the emergency room at the University Hospital.
He had severed 80 percent of the superficial peroneal nerve that runs between the knee and ankle. The incision that the surgeons made took 50 stitches and looked like a graph showing the rise and fall of the stock market. Either that, or a shark bite.
Dixon was gone for the season, at least. Only time and rehab would tell if he could regain the use of his leg enough to play basketball again.
Ironically and coincidentally, Rick Majerus, Utah'snew head coach, had undergone bypass heart surgery the day prior to Dixon's accident. The coach and player convalesced in the hospital together. Those weren't the happiest days of their lives.
"We were both scared that we'd never coach or play again," remembers Majerus.
Now, here it is a year later. Majerus is coaching again, and Dixon is playing again - and isn't the healing process wonderful.
Majerus is trying to cut down on cholesterol and stress, and Dixon is trying to come back carefully.
"We're probably being too cautious with his leg," says Majerus. "But we don't want to rush it. I played him 28 minutes one night and was kicking myself the next day. I haven't played him more than 17 minutes since."
Through the Utes' first eight games, and seven wins, Dixon is averaging 18 minutes - or just less than half the game. He ranks 10th on the team in minutes played. At that, he is among the team leaders in points and field goal percentage, and is the team leader in steals and three-point baskets.
Not bad for a player who is still on the way back and has practiced only sparingly. "I'm still going through a lot of rehab," says Dixon. "My shot's falling, and that's my greatest strength right now. But I need my jumping ability back, and my lateral movement. I can tell it's got a ways to go. My jumping is about half what it was last year. I'm not dunking. I gotta settle for doing these little finger rolls. And I'm missing them."
That's the bad news. The good news is that there is constant improvement, and that Dixon will be around for four more years. Because of the injury, the NCAA ruled that last season won't count toward Dixon's eligibility.
"The posture I'm taking is Phil's a freshman and he's just working into the program," says Majerus.
"The injury really could have ended his career," says Bill Bean, Utah's trainer. "There was real concern that the nerve would come back and allow him to fire up the muscles in his ankle. He's made good progress. As good as we could have hoped for."
Dixon's goal now is to put it all behind him, the injury and the lost year. "It's a nasty scar," he says, "but it's healing."