Few can say they were left to face the world on their own earlier in life than Sheila Dixon.
Coming from as close to nothing as possible, the Schenectady native feels she is within reach of her goal of playing professional basketball. She completed a bachelors degree at Brown University while playing Ivy League ball there, and now is working on a Masters degree at Edinburgh University in Scotland while playing for its women’s team in the National League and BUCS (British Universities & Colleges Sport) league.
“Right now, I’ve been training and gotten to a fit level I hadn’t reached. I’m playing and performing at my best level, right now,” she said. “I would love to play professionally, just being paid to play basketball. There’s a lot of things involved in that, though, and I know there’s no guarantee.”
She was almost born into the foster care system, as she was 12 days old when she came into the care of Phyllis Dixon, who also had taken in her then-1-year-old biological brother.
Four years later, Phyllis adopted them both when their birth father abandoned attempts to gain custody.
“I’ve adopted 11 children, and some of them had rough beginnings,” Phyllis said. “Yeah, but that wasn’t going to stop her. She is special, very special. She’s been a big light in my life.”
Sheila said life with Phyllis Dixon was an active life, and not just because she had as many as 10 siblings in the house at times — six of them within three years of each other.
“My mom, she would do these athletic competitions, just for fun,” Sheila said. “We’d be in the swimming pool, and she’d say, ‘Alright, you guys, let’s race.’ And everybody’s racing through the swimming pool. Or we’d run races in the backyard. We also played basketball and played other sports. We got involved in Little League. She had us involved in sports from a young age.”
Sheila was one of 11 children Phyllis has adopted through the last 35 years, and she still cares for foster children.
“We’d have some kids for a year, some kids for a month, some kids for three or four or five years,” Sheila said. “Their family situations may have been up in the air. She always devoted the same love and attention to these kids as she did to me and her own biological kids. So I think she’s a special person.”
She and some of her brothers, and on occasion a couple other siblings, eventually found their way to the basketball courts in Central Park.
Basketball took hold, and it turned out to be more than just fun.
Sheila had to be smart to be accepted to an Ivy League school like Brown, and she was — she took honors courses at Schenectady High School and had good grades — but there are a lot of smart kids trying to get into Brown. She credits basketball for opening that door for her.
“No doubt about it. I did pretty well in high school, but that extra recommendation from the coaching staff and athletic director definitely helped me,” she said. “I know so many people whose grades were better than mine. I took honors classes in high school and everything, but you know so many people don’t get admitted just because there’s too many applications and not enough seats.”
Her community service must have helped, as well. Helping others is a habit she got into in high school and carried through her time at Brown, then across the Atlantic Ocean to Scotland.
The honors program at Schenectady required community service work. She had a sister who worked with the Schenectady Community Action Program, and Sheila got involved with SCAP’s Head Start program through her.
“I enjoyed it, but I felt more involved doing something that ‘A,’ I had more of a passion for, and ‘B,’ I could still be involved in the community,” Sheila said. “So in college, I did more stuff that was involved with basketball and academic work with young kids at the high school level.
“My mom always was like, ‘If you’re able to do it, help others.’ I was helped significantly by the people in the Schenectady and Capital Region area, people giving me so much support, and I benefitted greatly from it. I’ve realized I’ve been given opportunities I may not have seen without these people. Now, I can provide these kids experiences and give them skills that could lead to opportunities they may not ordinarily have.”
Each week, Sheila promotes girls’ basketball at several schools throughout the area around Edinburgh. She works with developmentally disabled kids from a pair of elementary schools, and several other schools in the area.
Each Friday, she also works with the Boroughmuir Blaze U14 girls’ basketball program in the afternoon, as well as a youth boys’ program and U15 girls in the evening.
“I fully enjoy being a figure these girls can look up to,” she said. “That’s why I’m there — to help develop the youth program and give them the confidence to play basketball and the knowledge to play basketball at a different level than they’re used to.”
It’s just one more way Phyllis Dixon’s influence shows up in her daughter.
And to be clear, when Sheila speaks of her family, Phyllis is “my mom” or “my mother.” Not foster mom, not adoptive mother.
Adjectives are reserved for “birth mother.” Even so, not once in a trans-Atlantic conversation did “birth mother” come across the line with any hint of bitterness or sadness. Maybe that’s because Sheila’s life is shaping up pretty well.
Her degrees, one in political science from an Ivy League school and another a post-graduate degree in sports policy management and international development, will set her up for a post-basketball life she anticipates as a fulfilling one.
By degrees, on the court, she is working toward a professional career. She was a two-time first-teamer on the Gazette All-Area team while playing for Schenectady, helping the Patriots to their only Big 10 championship, in the 2008-09 season. With Brown, she earned All-Ivy League honorable mention (2012-13), two All-Ivy League second-team nods (2010-11, 2011-12) and Ivy League Player of the Week once as a junior and once as a senior.
Through 12 games with Edinburgh University in which the stats were compiled, the 5-foot-7 3⁄4 guard is averaging 24.5 points per game, 12.3 rebounds, 5.3 assists and 4.4 steals.
On Feb. 7, Sheila was recovering from bronchitis, but played for Edinburgh University in a Scottish National League game, scoring 20 points in a 58-39 win over the Falkirk Fury. That performance put on exhibit one of her strongest characteristics, Phyllis said.
“She’s very determined and driven,” Phyllis said. “Last week, she was so sick. I told her, ‘I don’t think you should play tomorrow.’ She said, ‘I have to play.’ I said, ‘You can’t even breathe!’ She was really in bad shape. But they won that game, and she did very well.”
Sheila hopes to catch the eye of some European pro teams, or even eventually land a tryout with a WNBA team. The perfect opportunity, she said, would be to try out for the New York Liberty and have that opportunity to work with coach Bill Laimbeer.
“There’s a lot of things up in the air. I think my aspirations are becoming more realistic, though, more likely,” she said. “Given the rest of this year and how I do, the continued progression I seem to be making, I hope to secure a contract. I should know sometime this summer if I’m able to get on a European team or in the WNBA. I’m still hoping for it. I put it in God’s hands.”