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appreciation

Cambridge basketball icon Medina Dixon was a local treasure, a transformative talent, and a special friend

Medina Dixon earned the nickname "Ice" because, former coach Alfreda Harris said, "she was so cool."Courtesy/Old Dominion

Before the Olympic medal, before the international basketball career, before the NCAA championship, and before the state championship at Cambridge Rindge and Latin, Medina Dixon walked with an easy and assured confidence that people noticed as soon as she stepped foot in the gym.

Sharlene Sturgis-Blake noticed it 40 years ago when they were teammates and friends, lighting up courts together. She notices it now whenever she sees a Cambridge Rindge and Latin girls’ basketball team take the court, the generations who came after Dixon carrying her gifts forward.

After her playing days, Blake coached the varsity and freshman teams at Rindge and Latin and every so often would remind her players where that confidence came from.

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“I ask them to look her up, do the research,” Blake said. “That swagger that Cambridge Rindge and Latin basketball has was built on Medina Dixon. After our class won those championships, any class after that walked in the gymnasium, they had Cambridge swagger. I don’t know how to explain it, but it was an aura.”

Medina Dixon won a bronze medal in the 1992 Olympics as the US' leading scorer.Courtesy/Old Dominion

Dixon, who died Monday at 59 from pancreatic cancer, was a before-her-time talent, a 6-foot-3-inch prodigy with the size, finesse, and feel for the game that allowed her to do anything on the court. She would become a transformative figure in women’s basketball — the leading scorer on the bronze-medal Olympic team in 1992, a gold medalist at the World Cup in 1990, and an NCAA champion at Old Dominion in 1985.

At every step, Blake watched from afar, even if they weren’t in touch. But when they reconnected a couple years ago, and Blake learned Dixon was battling pancreatic cancer, she wanted to help.

Blake’s idea was to rebuild bonds. She rounded up coaches and teammates from Rindge and Latin and set up regular Zoom sessions.

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Dixon was touched seeing all the faces.

“She would cry,” Blake said. “She was emotional. The first one was very emotional because none of us had talked to each other in over 30 years. So to hear your head coach’s voice 30 years later, it was amazing.”

Sharlene Sturgis-Blake looks over a newspaper clipping about her former teammate Medina Dixon.Suzanne Kreiter/Globe Staff

As the weeks went by, more and more faces popped on, with more and more memories. Patrick Ewing made an appearance. So did former Rindge and Latin boys’ coach Mike Jarvis.

“Every week it was different people, which was great,” Blake said. “She was so surprised. Every week it was someone she hadn’t seen in years. We just became her village, her support system.”

High school sensation

There was a time when it seemed every local talented basketball player came through Alfreda Harris’s gym at the Shelburne Community Center in Roxbury.

Years ago, Harris got word from a friend about Dixon.

“She called me one day and she said, ‘You know, there’s a girl out here that plays out in front of my door. She plays with the guys. She’s really good. You need to come take a look at her,’ ” Harris remembered.

Harris introduced herself. Dixon had heard of her. Harris convinced her to come to the Shelburne. Dixon joined the Shelburne’s AAU program. It took practically no time for a buzz to form.

“We put her on the map and she put us on the map,” Harris said.

Harris could see Dixon’s potential even at 15 years old.

“If you knew anything about basketball and what athletes look like and the attitude they had about the game and if they wanted to work hard, that’s what happens when you do that,” Harris said.

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But what stood out was how easily the game came to Dixon.

“We used to call her ‘Ice’ because she was so cool,” Harris said.

Even at that young an age, Harris could see Dixon paving a path.

“That’s exactly what she did for a lot of my players here in Boston,” Harris said. “Once Medina got out there, all the other players that came behind from my program, all went to major colleges and universities across the country. Some of them are coaching, some of them are assistant coaches.”

Dixon had a way of making a first impression. JoAnn O’Callaghan would coach Dixon in her first two years at Rindge and Latin, but knew nothing about her the first time she saw her at an AAU game.

“Honestly, the first time I ever saw her, she blew me away,” O’Callaghan said. “She came down the floor and she dunked the ball. It’s the first woman I’ve ever seen dunk the ball. You have to imagine what that feels like. She was just commanding.”

Terry Riggs coached Dixon in her last two years at Rindge and Latin. The memories are still vivid.

“I have nothing to compare it to,” Riggs said. “To have the amount of attention that was given to this young woman at age 17, it was amazing. I remember having games at home and Pat Summitt is sitting in the gymnasium.

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“Any given day that we would have a home game, there would be scouts sitting up in the stands just watching, observing, getting stats, talking to me afterward.”

‘“Honestly, the first time I ever saw her, she blew me away She came down the floor and she dunked the ball. It’s the first woman I’ve ever seen dunk the ball. You have to imagine what that feels like. She was just commanding.”’

Joanne O’Callaghan, Dixon's former coach at Rindge and Latin

It didn’t stop once the games ended.

“Every Sunday night at 7 o’clock, my house phone would ring,” Riggs remembered. “It was, at that time, the head coach of Ohio State, Tara VanDerveer. It was just almost surreal to me.”

Dixon had offers from upward of 200 schools.

“She could set that attention aside and just handle the task at hand,” Riggs said. “They didn’t call her Ice for nothing.”

Medina Dixon played at Old Dominion, where she helped the Monarchs win a national championship in 1985.Courtesy/Old Dominion

The time was special at the school. Ewing was the top boys’ basketball recruit in the country. Dixon was the top girls’ recruit. In 1981, they both led their teams to state titles. They brought a rock star atmosphere to high school basketball in Cambridge.

Jarvis toyed with the idea of asking Dixon to play on the boys’ team.

“Back then, girls didn’t play on boys’ teams,” Jarvis said. “In this day and age, she probably would’ve been playing and starting on my team. That’s how good she was.”

Dixon, however, knew the significance of playing for the girls’ team.

What Ewing was to the boys, Dixon was to the girls. At the time, the exposure and their options were different. The WNBA was still 15 years away. There were professional leagues for women, and Dixon played 10 years in Italy, Japan, and Russia.

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Harris said there’s no doubt Dixon would have been one of the greats.

“She’d be up there with the best of them,” Harris said. “Diana Taurasi and them, they ain’t have nothing on her, really.”

What Dixon was able to do was lay a foundation. Michelle Edwards came through the Shelburne Center just like Dixon. They played AAU together briefly, but before Dixon left for college, she told Edwards, “You’re going to be ‘Little Ice.’ ”

It worked because Edwards’s favorite player was George “Iceman” Gervin. At the same time, Dixon’s game ran parallel.

“She was like the true point forward in some programs,” Edwards said. “She probably could play the point guard, but just her skill set at her height in that era was was just unique. Like, today’s players would be someone like Elena Delle Donne — could bob and weave in traffic, IQ was crazy. She was tough too.”

Edwards went on to play college ball at Iowa. In 1997, she was taken by the Cleveland Rockets in the WNBA draft and spent five years in the league. She’s now an assistant coach at Rutgers.

She popped in on the Zooms as well. Whenever someone said “Ice,” she made sure there was no confusion.

“She ain’t talking to me,” Edwards said. “She’s talking to the real Ice.”

Facing adversity with grace

One day, Dixon invited her oncologist, Colin Weekes, to join the Zoom.

Weekes had recognized Dixon from the time she walked in his office. He had seen her play for Old Dominion and at the Barcelona Olympics while he was in medical school. He spotted a tattoo of the Olympic rings on Dixon’s neck, and he had to ask.

“Are you . . .” he said.

He didn’t have to finish the sentence.

“Yeah,” she said.

Weekes considered the Zoom a gift.

“Sometimes when a patient’s in front of you, you’re just focused on the patient and you don’t really think that much about what that patient means to a whole other set of people,” Weekes said. “And to be able to experience that, to see her in her environment, that was really cool.”

They bonded from the time they met. He watched her battle the disease on her own terms.

“She was a special patient in that we had some similar backgrounds,” Weekes said. “I could see my relatives in her in terms of being a Black female who’s relatively young dealing with this problem.

“She was just very graceful. Most people didn’t have a sense of how bad she was hurting, how much pain she was really in. She didn’t really compromise sort of her being to actuate things. At the end of the day, there was this authenticity to her that I think was quite remarkable.”

They talked about pancreatic cancer. Weekes explained that by the end of the decade, the disease is expected to become the second-most deadly form of cancer behind lung cancer. The Black community would be affected disproportionately.

“It is going to affect America in a big way,” Weekes said.

In the last few years, the deaths of congressman and civil rights leader John Lewis, legendary soul singer Aretha Franklin, Supreme Court justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, and “Jeopardy!” host Alex Trebek have crystallized the impact of the disease to the nation. Dixon wanted to raise more awareness.

“I think with anyone, when you’re first diagnosed with this problem, that’s what you focus on,” Weekes said. “And then I think as time goes on and you’re more living with the disease, then it becomes, ‘What can I do to help others?’ ”

‘It’s about relationships’

Katani Sumner met Dixon playing AAU basketball when they were 14, but their friendship wasn’t rooted in the game. Sumner loved the game, but more so loved being a good teammate.

Life took them in different directions. Dixon went on her basketball journey. Sumner got married and started her own life. But Dixon would often call Sumner when she needed advice from someone she could trust.

“I think she knew that I was nonjudgmental, that I had nothing but love for her, and that her being an athlete or not being an athlete didn’t really make a difference to me,” Sumner said. “I wasn’t a fan. I was just a friend.”

A week before Dixon died, she had Sumner set up a Zoom for her birthday, which was Nov. 2.

When the day came, Sumner couldn’t get in touch with her. She went to the hospital. She wanted to make sure Dixon was able to see the love from her friends.

“She saw the Zoom,” Sumner said. “She saw the people say happy birthday and she said, ‘That’s beautiful.’ ”

In those moments, Sumner could see the appreciation — from Dixon and from everyone on the Zoom.

“I just think it’s important for people to know that it’s about relationships,” Sumner said. “The value of a person is not based on what they’ve done or the titles that they’ve gained. It’s about a heart connection.”

Medina Dixon was honored at a WNBA event this past summer in New York. The league didn't exist during her athletic heyday.Al McClain

Julian Benbow can be reached at julian.benbow@globe.com.