HE APARTMENT on Bellefield Avenue in the Oakland section of Pittsburgh had no air-conditioning, which made the summer of 1999 a sweltering one for roommates Jamie Dixon and Ben Howland. "It was like boot camp in an Army barracks in Georgia," says Howland, now UCLA's coach but then Dixon's boss as the first-year coach at Pitts told the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review. Their friendship survived that sweatbox, just as it will surely survive the Sweet 16 confrontation between Pitt, now coached by Dixon, and UCLA on Friday in San Jose. Regardless of the outcome, Howland's daughter, Meredith, a senior at Pittsburgh, will still babysit Dixon's two children, the two families will still go on vacation together this spring, and Howland and Dixon will still talk on the phone nearly every day.
Even so, neither coach is thrilled by the prospect of having to beat his closest friend to reach the West Regional final. Howland and Dixon's relationship has taken on many forms in the 26 years they've known each other. They have been college coach and prospective recruit, fellow assistants, mentor and apprentice--but until now they have never been opponents. "I don't enjoy playing against my best friend," Howland said after UCLA beat Indiana last Saturday. "That's not something I would schedule on purpose."
Though the Bruins lean heavily on guards Arron Afflalo and Darren Collison while Pittsburgh's main strength is up front with 7-foot center Aaron Gray, the teams are stylistically similar, sharing an emphasis on tough, bruising defense. They have a stereotypically East Coast feel, which is surprising since both Howland, 49, and Dixon, 41, were raised in Southern California. That's where they first met, when Howland was an assistant at UC Santa Barbara and Dixon was a guard at Notre Dame High in Sherman Oaks whom Howland was recruiting. Howland eventually decided not to sign Dixon, a decision he readily admits was a mistake. "He didn't think I was good enough," says Dixon, who went on to become an All--Southwest Conference guard at TCU. "We still get into that all the time."
Howland made up for the error in 1991, when he helped Dixon get hired as a graduate assistant at Santa Barbara. When Howland moved on to head-coaching jobs at Northern Arizona and Pittsburgh, he hired Dixon both times, sharing that oven of an apartment with him before their first season with the Panthers. "You form a very close bond with a person when you go through as many things together as Jamie and I have, both good and bad," says Howland, who was a pallbearer at the funeral of Dixon's younger sister Maggie, the former women's coach at Army who died last April at age 28 of complications from heart arrhythmia.
The Sweet 16 matchup of UCLA and Pitt will be another shared memory for the buddies, no doubt a bittersweet one. "We've always said we're not going to play each other in the regular season, but if it so happens that we're playing in the NCAA tournament, we're both going to show up," Dixon says. The losing coach will probably need some postgame consolation. You can be sure that the winner will show up then, too.