In appearance, there could not be two more dissimilar basketball players than Evelyn Johnson and Medina Dixon, the prized forwards of the University of South Carolina Lady Gamecocks. While it might seem that Johnson, a bulky 5'10" junior from Lansing, Mich., could never keep up with the pace of a 40-minute college game, Dixon, a 6'1" whippet who hails from the Mattapan district in Boston, looks as if she were born to rebound, shoot and pass a basketball. The mind's eye conjures images of Johnson bulling her way inside, leaning for position, forcing the action, working hard, while Dixon is smooth—the glider, slider, flyer.
The fact is that both players are integral to South Carolina's quest to unseat heavily favored Louisiana Tech as the national champions of the women's game. Evelyn, the 20-year-old kid sister of the Los Angeles Lakers' Earvin Johnson, has been a do-it-all player for the Lady Gamecocks the past two seasons, while Dixon, the outstanding player in this summer's National Sports Festival in Syracuse and herself a member of an athletically gifted family, is the nation's finest freshman. Despite their differences, a common thread binds their games. Both are formidable open-court ball handlers and passers; each has a deadly outside shot. And both have the capacity to transform a mundane pass or move into an action that can galvanize a crowd. "Medina is a performer and Evelyn is, too," says Pam Parsons, the flamboyant coach of the Lady Gamecocks. "But Evelyn has had to reach the point where she feels comfortable enough to perform in games as well as in practice. I don't think Evelyn believed she could ever do the things Magic Johnson's sister was expected to do."
And who could blame the soft-spoken Johnson if she found the Magic Man's act a difficult one to follow? That's why in the spring of 1979, while Earvin was leading Michigan State to the NCAA title in Salt Lake City, Evelyn, who had just concluded a brilliant three-year career at Lansing's Everett High School, would quickly eliminate the Spartans from her college choices. "Everyone expected me to go to Michigan State," she says, "but I didn't want to follow in Earvin's footsteps. I wanted to make a name for myself."
After two seasons at South Carolina, Johnson, now known as Sweet E around the Columbia campus for her fluid, yet powerful style of play, has an identity of her own. It didn't come easily. When she arrived at South Carolina in the fall of '79, most everyone she met asked the same annoying question—What's it like being Magic Johnson's sister? Magic Johnson's sister would sometimes reply with disgust, "I don't know. He's just like any other brother. But a little richer." He may have been like any other brother to Evelyn, but to the fans who were all too aware of her family ties, only a Lady Magic would do. "I felt the pressure of being his sister," Evelyn says. "I thought everyone wanted me to go out and perform the way he did. I felt I had to do everything right."
"Evelyn had all kinds of potential, but when she got out on the court she was really shy in terms of performance," says Parsons. "She'd score a few baskets and then play spottily."
Another distressing problem during the first half of the 1979-80 season was Evelyn's weight, which early in the year reached 217 pounds. "People couldn't believe she was a ballplayer when she arrived," says Parsons. Evelyn had some doubts herself. "I don't think I had a lot of confidence in myself, because I was heavy," she says. "But by the time the regional came around I had lost some weight and I had more confidence. I thought to myself, 'Hey, I'm as good as these guys.' "
Once Johnson got untracked, she was a marvel. She averaged 13 points and 5.3 rebounds a game and was second on the club in assists (62) as the Lady Gamecocks stormed to a surprising third-place finish in the AIAW national finals. She as brilliant late in the year, averaging 17.7 points in South Carolina's final eight games. Last season she was second in scoring (16.7) and rebounding (5.9) to All-America Center Sheila Foster, but South Carolina, plagued by internal dissension, was eliminated by Old Dominion in the first round of the Region 2 playoffs.
A month earlier, South Carolina had upset the Lady Monarchs 74-64 in Columbia, and Johnson, who scored 27 points and had six rebounds, had played her finest game of the season. But for the most part, last year was a bust. "I guess I let all the dissension going on with the players last year get to me," she says. "At one point in the season I didn't care who was playing." It didn't help that Johnson had merely coexisted with her coach. Parsons can be charming, but her four-year record at South Carolina (94-43) is only slightly more notable than the number of players (17) who have either quit or have been dismissed from the squad. The point of contention was Parsons' "my way or Trailways" coaching philosophy. "You just can't stand up and voice the way you feel," says Evelyn. She and her brother even discussed the possibility of her transferring to a West Coast school, possibly USC-West, but she chose to remain at USC-South to work out her problems.
Now, with a freshman group considered the nation's best, and a more harmonious atmosphere, Evelyn exudes confidence. "I'm mentally and physically stronger than last year," she says. "She's quiet, but when she talks she says a lot," says Magic Johnson. "She's a tough woman."
If tough is the word for Evelyn Johnson, then cool characterizes Medina Dixon. Like Sweet E's, her athletic bloodline is rich: One brother, 25-year-old Zack, is a third-year running back with the Baltimore Colts; another, 20-year-old Robin, is a starter at guard for the University of New Hampshire basketball team. "People expect a lot out of me," says the low-key Dixon, whose confident, almost cocky, demeanor has earned her the nickname Ice Woman. "But I'm not here to live up to anyone's expectations." And you can be sure that there are expectations.
"Signing Medina put the icing on the cake of a great recruiting year," says Parsons, who, besides Medina, signed four other blue-chip players, two of them high school All-Americas from right there in Columbia. "Medina is the best incoming freshman I've ever seen," she says. That's high praise, indeed, from the coach who recruited Nancy Lieberman while at Old Dominion.
Marianne Stanley, Parsons' successor at Old Dominion and the coach of Dixon's East team at the National Sports Festival, calls her "the most ferocious re-bounder I've ever seen. The opposing players shudder when Medina goes up to get the ball."
Last season Dixon averaged 20 points and 17 rebounds per game in leading Rindge & Latin School of Cambridge, Mass. to a fine 23-2 record and the state Division 1 finals. If the name of the high school rings a bell, it isn't surprising. It produced another pretty fair high school player last season—a 7' young man named Patrick Ewing, now gathering superlatives at Georgetown.
Surprisingly, Dixon hadn't even seen the South Carolina campus at the time she signed. While playing in an all-star game in the Catskills last summer, she renewed her acquaintance with Brantley Southers, a high school All-America forward from Columbia and another of Parson's coveted recruits. Southers recalls that when the talk turned to their choice of schools, "Medina said that South Carolina had stopped recruiting her. Later I told Coach Parsons that there was this girl who said she wanted to attend Carolina but that she was no longer being recruited. Coach Parsons asked me her name. When I said 'Medina Dixon,' she nearly had a fit." Parsons got in touch with Medina at once, needless to say but didn't have to do much selling. "I had my mind kind of made up," says Dixon. "I just had this feeling that Carolina was the best school for me."
Because of her considerable talents, the pressure is on Dixon to contribute immediately to a team that, despite four veteran starters, needs another strong re-bounder to take the pressure off Foster. Although the 6'1" Foster, a three-year starter, has made All-America at center she is really a power forward playing out of position. With both Dixon and Foster working the backboards, the Lady Gamecocks will once again add the offensive rebound to their repertoire, something they simply couldn't do last season.
Dixon's style under the boards is unique. She jumps off one foot, controlling the basketball with one hand and slapping it into the other palm. It's certainly exciting for the fans, but some basketball purists, and in a few cases her own teammates, have pleaded with her to use the old-fashioned two-handed method. But Medina isn't easily persuaded. "I've been rebounding like that ever since I've been playing," she says, "and as long as I get the ball people shouldn't worry too much."
Some observers do worry that Dixon's occasional lack of interest in the drearier routines of practice might spill over into game situations. She admits that there are aspects of practice that seem unnecessary, but, she adds, "I concentrate on certain things that I believe will help improve my game. The things I don't go hard on are the things I already do well." An adjustment Dixon has found difficult to make is "the freshman thing," as she puts it—in particular the group study hall in a large room on the first floor of the players' dormitory. "I feel like I'm being treated like a kid," she says. Parsons, who has been through this with some of her other precocious freshman recruits, says, "Sometimes I think she would rather play basketball than go to school. But she has to learn that you have to pay a price if you're going to play college ball. There are some things she won't like that won't necessarily be bad for her. There are some things no stars have ever liked." If Dixon doesn't believe it, she can ask Evelyn Johnson.
Johnson, Parsons and Dixon on a stairway for stars.
THE TOP 10
1. LOUISIANA TECH
3. SOUTH CAROLINA
4. OLD DOMINION
5. SOUTHERN CAL
6. LONG BEACH STATE
8. STEPHEN F. AUSTIN
9. CHEYNEY STATE