Coach Bob Turco knew exactly what the Twitter tagline would be for his Notre Dame High basketball team this year, and feels that senior Manny Dixon picked up on it back in June.
“It all started probably in the summer time when he looked around and it hit him square in the face that basically our team was ‘#mannyandthekids,’” Turco said. “That’s basically who we are.”
The Irish became that way in a flash, as Dixon’s world on the basketball court changed swiftly from one year to the next.
Last season, he was a junior in a rotation that featured seven seniors. Notre Dame finished 27-3 and won the Mercer County Tournament, while Dixon averaged 14.4 points, 7.9 rebounds, 2.7 assists and 2.7 steals.
This year, Manny is a senior in a startling lineup that includes a junior and three sophomores, but the youthful landscape has hardly made a difference. Through the Irish’s 19-3 start, the Hamilton Township product was averaging 16.2 points, 3.4 rebounds. 2 assists and 2 steals.
Not to mention, he has the added responsibility of elder statesman.
“It was a challenge that I had to face,” Dixon said. “Basically it was just me becoming a mentor and maturing. That was the challenge. Me trying to become the best basketball player I could be and the best teammate I could be.”
He got help from Irish assistant Rahsaan Thompson, saying, “He’s been in my shoes, so he knows basically what I’m going through, what I’m trying to do for this team. Basically he tells me what I should do and gives me advice.”
Dixon takes that advice, along with the experience of being a four-year starter, and passes it on to his younger teammates. He has seen a lot in four years, including the lows of losing a county final and the highs of winning one.
Last year, he also endured a tremendous disappointment when forced to miss the state tournament due to disciplinary actions. In the end, however, both Dixon and Turco felt the experience helped the player grow as a person.
“You always learn from your mistakes,” Turco said. “Unfortunately for him, he made a mistake. I know for a fact he’s grown from it, and I know for a fact our coach-player relationship has grown from it. There were some communication issues during the course of his three years, even though he was a starter. I guess my expectations were never expressed the way he could understand them. And his actions were never all in the way I could understand them.”
Fortunately for all involved, things got ironed out through last March’s adversity.
“Sometimes in life bad things happen and good things come out of them,” Turco said. “I think that was a bad thing that happened, and I believe great things came out of it. It turned him as a person, it turned him as a player and helped me as a coach to understand player-coach relationships better.”
Dixon could not agree more.
“We sat down, had lunch and had a long talk,” Dixon said. “Ever since then, we’ve been eye to eye with each other. The whole thing helped me grow a lot as a person. It taught me not to keep my head down, and just focus on what’s important in life and not focus on the negativity and the bad stuff that happened. It helped me a lot.”
The result has been a free and easy Dixon this year. Returning to a starting five that includes junior Cartier Bowman and sophomores Travis Cumber, Isaiah Wong and Peter Sorber, Dixon has fought the urge to score 30 points every night.
That comes from the maturity of understanding the talent he has around him.
“I knew last year I wouldn’t have to do it all myself because we had Isaiah coming off the bench giving us 20 minutes, Travis was coming off the bench giving us like 10,” Dixon said. “I wasn’t worried about me doing it all. Sometimes we’ll run plays for me, sometimes for Isaiah. And we played well together this summer, so I knew we could be good.”
It may seem like a simple thing but it was imperative that Dixon understand his role, which is to do a little bit of everything and rise to the occasion when a big play is needed. Were he to decide to set the school scoring record rather than fitting into the flow, ND could have struggled. But he has made a concerted effort to be an all-around player while providing guidance.
‘Every day I’m just happy because I have a good opportunity and I can just be myself and just play basketball.’
“We’re only successful because of the pure fact he’s taken on so much of the responsibility of telling these kids what wearing the Notre Dame shirt means, and what the program is and what we expect out of you day in and day out,” Turco said. “He’s been awesome. He’s doing a tremendous job. Not just on the court but in the hallways, the locker room. He’s always lending an ear for the young kids like (freshman) Julian McGowan and the sophomores who got a little bit of time last year but had to step into some serious roles this year. So he’s taken it, and he’s pretty much run with it.”
He has done all that while still performing at a high level. Notre Dame has an array of shot blockers, scorers, rebounders, ball handlers and ball hawks, and Dixon is a combination of each.
“I feel like my role is a little of everything,” he said. “I kind of want to be a stats fill-up guy. Maybe like 15 points, seven assists, 11 rebounds, something like that. I want to be effective any way I can. When coach needs a bucket or a big play, I try and help him with that.”
Turco, who is quick to admit “I’m not a Notre Dame historian,” wonders if Dixon might be the first Irish player to collect over 1,000 points, 600 rebounds and 300 assists in his career.
“I don’t know if there’s been a bigger stat stuffer in the history of the school,” the 7th-year coach said. “I’m not sure there’s been somebody that’s played over 100 games and started all four years.”
Of those four years, this one is the most enjoyable for Dixon. Not only does he jokingly state that his underclassmen teammates “help keep me young”, but he is playing without the shackles that come with making a college decision. This past fall, Dixon opted for St. Peter’s over NJIT, Bowling Green and Rider.
“I wanted to go where I could be effective and grow as a player and a person, become a great student and also go where I could play,” Dixon said. “I want to play right away, they have like six seniors there right now. So it was a good fit for me. I feel like I can do well in the MAAC Conference.”
Deciding early has allowed him to not only do well in his final high school season, but to enjoy the experience to the max.
“Let’s say I’ve been lucky enough to coach 10 true, Division I scholarship players,” Turco said. “There have only been two kids that committed before the season started. I could tell you without a shadow of a doubt that both of those two have had successful seniors years compared to the other eight just because of the pressure being off.”
Turco feels it’s probably the first time since sixth grade where they can just play the game for fun.
“They don’t think about who’s in the stands, what they have to do, what they have to prove,” the coach continued. “They just go out there and the love of the game is back for them. It’s not a job. And that just takes your game to another level. It’s a big difference.”
There is still pressure to win, of course. Especially at Notre Dame, which is every team’s big game. But that’s a different kind of pressure; the kind that Dixon enjoys. He’d rather be playing for the team than for his future.
“It’s so much easier for me,” he said. “Now I can just play the game, just let it come to me. I don’t have to force anything. I don’t have to do a fancy play because somebody’s watching. I can just play my game. I don’t have to do all that extra. It helps a lot. Every day I’m just happy because I have a good opportunity and I can just be myself and just play basketball.”
Sounds like a great situation. Perhaps it’s even time to extend that hashtag to #happymannyandthekids.