malik dickson 88.
(photo credit: )
As the journalists flooded into the jubilant Maccabi Haifa locker room minutes after the team's stunning overtime victory over Hapoel Jerusalem in the BSL Final Four semifinals on Tuesday night, there was only one player they were clamoring to speak to.
Doron Perkins and Devon Jefferson may have led Haifa with double doubles, Moshe Mizrahi scored three three-pointers in the first five minutes, but the man of the night was undoubtedly Malik Dixon.
For the second year in a row, the 34-year-old American proved himself a winner who can rise to the occasion when his teammates need him most, scoring 10 of his 12 points in the last quarter and overtime.
Dixon led the Haifa rejuvenation in the last few minutes of the fourth, when Maccabi came back from eight points down to tie the game. And he took control of the game in overtime, when Haifa pushed on to the 98-93 victory.
The clutch performance brought back memories of last year's final, when the guard scored the winning basket for Hapoel Holon in its historic victory over Maccabi Tel Aviv with only two seconds to play.
On that night Dixon and his teammates were in full party mood, visibly overcome with adrenaline.
But Tuesday was only the 2009 semifinal, and the usually exuberant Dixon, who only returned to the Israeli league in March, was visibly serious as he focused on the job in hand.
"This is the semifinals now so we can't get too excited... because we still have another game left. But if we win the next game, I think it'll be a lot more exciting," he told The Jerusalem Post. "Now we've got to finish the job."
He may have a baby face, but Dixon is an experienced ballplayer who is in his third stint in Israel, having also played at Rishon Lezion in 2004/05. And he showed this experience on Tuesday.
"My job here is to try to help the team wherever I can. Everybody knows me as a heck of a scorer, but I just try to make plays for the other guys and make them feel happy too, because it's a team game, it's not just an individual sport," he said.
And it is clear Dixon is enjoying his time in the Holy Land and would like to be here next year.
"This is like my second home now, considering this is my third year. Maybe I will [stay next year], if the situation is right. I'm always open, because I love Israel as a place itself, so if the opportunity is right, maybe I'll be back," he added.
A telling moment came in the post-game press conference when Haifa coach Avi Ashkenazi suddenly interrupted Dixon.
The player had been asked what it meant to him to be back in the championship game after leaving Holon and Israel for Croatian team Zadar at the end of last season.
"I never thought that I would probably be back in Israel, but coming back to a team like Haifa, that's similar to my team last year in Holon, I just wanted to help these guys as much as possible," Dixon began before Ashkenazi interjected, telling him that since the start of the season he has been trying to make sure that very comparison is not made, especially not in the run in to the final, with the extra pressure it could bring.
"Well I sure don't want to put pressure on Haifa and sure don't want to put any more pressure on myself," Dixon continued, before laying out his credentials.
"I think three months ago it wasn't looking good. When I first got here we lost three games in a row. Everybody started to question, 'Why did they bring Malik Dixon in?'"
"But I think it was a credit to our team that we stuck together no matter what anybody else said. The guys on that court, the 15 guys or so, players and coaches and staff still believe in everybody and I think we got it together, and are playing a lot better now."
Unfortunately for the coach, it's extremely difficult not to see similarities between Maccabi Haifa and Hapoel Holon.
Like the 2008 Holon team, Haifa was promoted from the National League only last season and defied the odds to reach the final game of the season.
However, a major difference is in the way the organization is being run.
While Holon was left in financial difficulties in June 2008 after then-coach and owner Miki Dorsman abandoned the team despite the championship win, Haifa is backed by American businessman Jeff Rosen, who is showing no signs of giving up just yet.
Dixon has emerged as a key element of the team, and he is sure of his role.
"I guess I feel like when the game is not going so well that was the reason Haifa brought me here," he said. "One of the reasons is to be a leader, and when I'm on the bench to try to see what the team is not doing."
Reflecting on his contribution to Tuesday's win, he said: "I think we were having trouble scoring and getting good shots and that's when we started running high pick and roll and I wasn't really trying to create... [Later] I was really trying to create, just to make a play and sometimes I scored and sometimes we got wide-open shots.
"We didn't make all of them, but I think that's the important thing, to get good shots in and play good defense.
"And we were playing pretty good defense and I mean I guess I had a couple go in and got a pretty good rhythm."