Basketball: Panthers kick off season with Fan Fest and Health Fair

By Kelly Flanigan

A crowd of more than 30 people watched as 6-feet-9-inch freshman forward Talib Zanna lifted a… A crowd of more than 30 people watched as 6-feet-9-inch freshman forward Talib Zanna lifted a 6-year-old Panther fan, Nathan, into the air for him to make a basket.

“I only come to a couple of games a year,” Nathan said, standing with his dad after he finally scored a basket.

Many kids shot basketballs at miniature and full-size hoops, while the Panther basketball teams rebounded for them at Saturday’s combined Basketball Fan Fest and Maggie Dixon Heart Health Fair, which kicked off the upcoming basketball season.

Some of the older guests played one-on-one with the players.

In an open, friendly and heartwarming atmosphere, the men’s and women’s basketball teams came together to celebrate the approaching basketball season and to honor the late Maggie Dixon, sister of Pitt men’s basketball coach Jamie Dixon.

Maggie Dixon, coach of the women’s basketball team at Army, was only 28 when she died of an enlarged heart in April 2006.

Agnus Berenato, head coach of the Pitt women’s basketball team, spoke highly of Dixon.

“Maggie Dixon was a vivacious, young and wonderful woman who portrayed great leadership,” she said. “She never failed. [She] was a hero. Today is a great opportunity for women and men. Many people believe that breast cancer is the number one killer of women, but they don’t realize that it is actually heart disease.”

Jamie Dixon said combining the Panthers’ Fan Fest with the Maggie Dixon Healthy Heart Fair was an opportunity to “add more to the event and for the University to give back and reach out to the community, the fans and the students.”

Guests participated in free heart screenings and learned the proper techniques for CPR. The University sold women’s basketball tickets and offered performances by the Pitt Cheerleaders and the Pitt Dance Team.

The players seemed every bit as excited to be a part of this cause as the fans.

“It is our job to take a cause and make it known,” 6-feet-9-inch McDonald’s All-American freshman Dante Taylor said. “Interacting with fans is great. For most, it’s the closest they’ll ever get to us. We like to show them love, because they mean a lot to us. We just want to have a winning season and for everybody to stay healthy.”

Activities at the Fan Fest consisted of behind-the-scenes tours of the Petersen Events Center’s facilities.

Fans got to see the men and women’s locker rooms, the team weight room, the press conference room, the scouting room and the athletic training facilities. One member of each basketball team led each tour.

Sophronia Sallard, a redshirt senior for the women’s basketball team, was positive and upbeat about the upcoming season and Saturday’s Fan Fest.

“It means a whole lot to have the team here and the men’s basketball team. It’s a great combination of athletes, and I’m happy to be a part of it,” she said. “It’s very difficult to find someone like [coach Berenato]. She’s one in a million. She really takes her players under her wing and makes them great students and people both on and off the court. I am happy to have someone of her caliber to be our head coach.”

With many young players, fans will expect returning veterans of the men’s basketball team to step up this season.

“Over the summer, I made myself become more of a leader and worked on my vocal skills,” junior guard Brad Wanamaker said.

Sophomore forward Nasir Robinson, who will see more playing time this year, said he was excited about the upcoming season and Fan Fest.

“You wake up to a nice event on a Saturday morning and get a chance to meet the fans, sign autographs and show them around the locker room,” Robinson said. “It’s going to be a good season. We want to keep the Pitt tradition alive.”

Fans have no doubt that Jamie Dixon will lead this team to another successful season.

Over the summer, Dixon and sophomore guard Ashton Gibbs shared their experience playing basketball overseas to older fans. The under-19 U.S. team, coached by Dixon, captured the gold medal after it defeated Greece 88-80 in the finals.

“There are no limits for this season. There is hard work and growth for our team,” Dixon said. “We will continue to improve throughout the years. I tell my guys there is no finish line.”

But for Dixon, the fans are important to the success of the Pitt basketball.

“You’re our best recruiter,” he said about the Oakland Zoo. “Anywhere I go when I travel, I try to represent this University in the best way possible. I want our students to share that same goal and passion.”