Juan Dixon on the sidelines is the right move for Maryland

Juan Dixon on the sidelines is the right move for Maryland

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Over the past few days, we’ve been treated to  some excellent college basketball, propelled by some exceptional, fantastic guard play.

If you have not seen Oklahoma State’s Marcus Smart this year, you should be slapped.

If you missed UCONN’s Shabazz Napier and Indiana’s Yogi Ferrell going at it the other night, you missed a goodie. UNC’s Marcus Paige has been spectacular, Michigan State’s Gary Harris is an offensive and defensive dynamo and ‘The ‘Ville’s’ Russ Smith, probably the best player in college hoops last year, is back for more Russdiculousness this year.

Last night, Dayton’s Jordan Sibert and Syracuse’s freshman sensation Tyler Ennis played some majestic ball in their semifinal games at the Maui Invitational in Hawaii.

And I’m just trying to let you know right now, the young little fella at Arizona State, Jahii Carson, is about to blow up on the worldwide stage like D’Angelo when he dropped that Brown Sugar album. Trust me, when you see him play, he’s gonna leave a Jonz in your Bones!!!

It seems only fitting that as we’ve been marinating on the early-season excellent guard play, that one of the best guards in NCAA history is making his re-entrance to the college game as a coach.

Hearing that University of Maryland legend Juan Dixon has been added to Coach Mark Turgeon’s staff brought a sincere smile to many this morning, and not just to people with a rooting interest in the Terrapins.  Because in Juan Dixon, the skinny kid who led Maryland to the 2002 championship, many people can still see a little bit of themselves.

juanThrough a childhood rife with disappointment and tragedy, he propelled himself through hard work and determination to become one of the most beloved and respected players in the modern history of the college game.

At the age of four, Juan moved into the home of his grandmother, Roberta Graves. His parents, Juanita and Phil, were unfortunate victims of Baltimore’s heroin plague. But despite their broken promises and frequent disappearances into Charm City’s drug labyrinth, they imbued a fortitude in their children.

“Through their love, they showed us how to love,” Juan’s older brother Phil told the Miami Herald in 2001. “They never once abandoned us. They always placed us in the arms of an aunt or grandmother or cousin. Whenever they disappeared, we knew they’d be back.”

Embraced, sheltered and showered with love by the extended family tree, Juan was steered in the right direction during his youth and adolescence. His brother Phil was his role model, the one who provided the road map.

“Basketball was definitely an escape for me. In the summertime, my brother and I played all day long and all night long,” Dixon told the Miami Herald.

Instead of running scared, the boys became more determined not to live their lives within the poisonous bottle that had ensnared their parents.

“We were adults at the age of 10,” said Phil in the Miami Herald. “In one sense, our parents prepared us for the toughest moments. We witnessed their downfall, and that made us more determined to succeed.”

Juan followed behind his older brother and emulated his every move as Phil became the father figure to his younger siblings.

“We were trying to survive,” Phil once told cstv.com. “We weren’t thinking about toys, we were thinking of how to get out of the situation. And being close … that’s the choice we made.”

“Everything I know, I know from Phil,” Juan told cstv.com.

That includes getting busier than a horny rabbit on the basketball court. During one game when Juan was nine years old, his rec league coach reduced him to tears. 14-year-old Phil stomped out of the stands and came down to the bench to intervene.

“Phil popped me in the chest a few times,” Juan told Sports Illustrated’s Tim Crothers. “He told me, ‘Stop that crying. You can’t be scared. No Fear!’”

When it came to fearlessness on the court, Juan’s big brother made sure that it was a family affair.

Phil played at St. Frances Academy and was an unstoppable guard. But the recruiters slept on him and never gave him the type of attention that many around the city thought he deserved.

So the 5-foot-9 player took his skills to Shenandoah University in Virginia, a Division III school. After earning his degree in four years, Phil left as the school’s all-time leading scorer and assist man, earning the Dixie Conference Player of the Year honors twice. As a senior, he was named a First Team D-III All-American.

On some weekends, young Juan would travel down to Shenandoah to hang out with his big brother and watch him play. He’d internalize Phil’s fearless on-court demeanor and how he put every ounce of energy into being the best.

juan1Over the summers, Phil would run Juan through the drills he learned in college.

“He would bust my butt,” Juan told cstv.com. “He made me cry, he beat me up. He is one reason why I’m tougher mentally. I got that from him, being strong.”

“Because of our situation with our parents … you wanted to prove to people how good you were,” Phil told cstv.com. “It’s just in you … you don’t want to leave your fate in anybody else’s hands.”

As a diminutive, skinny player at Calvert Hall College High School, Juan proved that, like his brother, he was a fearless competitor who was capable of  getting buckets.

In August of 1994, a few days before starting his sophomore year at Calvert Hall, his mother Juanita was diagnosed with AIDS. She passed away soon thereafter.

The day after their mother’s death, Juan and Phil hit the basketball court.

“Ever since we were little kids we used basketball as an escape to forget our troubles,” Phil told SI. “Going to the court that day was healing, because we were mad at the world. I told Juan that basketball could be his ticket out.”

A year and a half later, their father also succumbed to AIDS. Against Atholton High School a few days after the funeral, Maryland assistant coach Billy Hahn witnessed Juan, who sat out the first quarter because he’d missed practice all week, drop 25 points.

Like Phil, Juan wasn’t being heavily recruited. But Maryland coach Gary Williams was intrigued by a comment made by Calvert Hall’s legendary coach Mark Amatucci.

“Juan shoots three’s like other players shoot layups,” Williams was told.

His mind hearkened back to another diminutive shooter he once coached at Boston College in the early ’80s named Michael Adams. The 5-foot-10 Adams went on to play 11 pro seasons.

juan4“Michael taught me to never measure a player by how big he is,” Williams told SI. “In Juan, I saw a great shooter who was motivated by people telling him what he couldn’t do.”

Juan stood 6-foot-1 and weighed 145 pounds as a high school senior.

It was during the summer before Dixon’s senior year when Williams became convinced of his future worth. At the Peach Jam in Augusta, Georgia, Juan’s team was being blown out by more than 20. With two minutes left in a meaningless game whose outcome had already been determined, in a stiflingly hot gym, Juan dove head-first for a loose ball.

“You see that and you say, ‘Well, he’s probably going to work pretty hard when he gets to college,’” Williams told SI.

After sitting out as a redshirt during his first year in College Park, Dixon suited up for the Terps during the 1998-1999 season. He averaged seven points in 14 minutes of action per game.

But behind the closed practice doors, he was improving every day by battling All-American Steve Francis. In the process, he studied video and digested the nuances of the college game. He improved his defensive footwork, hit the weight room and added some muscle.

And by the time the next year rolled around, it was time for some lights, camera, action!

Nobody expected him to explode on the scene the way he did as a sophomore — averaging 18 points, six rebounds and four assists per game. In the Terps upset of Duke on Feb. 9, 2000, he raised eyebrows with a scintillating 31-point gem. The 69-67 Maryland victory put a halt to Duke’s 31-game Atlantic Coast Conference winning streak.

Coach K was among the many impressed observers. “He was sensational,” Krzyzewski said after the game. “The best performance this year by an individual.”

People were unaware that he was playing with a controlled anger, not only to prove himself, but to also validate his brother’s under-acknowledged legacy.

“Phil wasn’t fortunate enough to play at this level,” Juan told cstv.com. “I’m definitely doing this for me and Phil.”

As a junior, he led the Terps to the program’s first ever Final Four.

As a senior Juan was honored as the 2002 ACC Men’s Basketball Player of the Year and ACC Athlete of the Year. He averaged 20 points and six rebounds for the season.

The legend blossomed during the NCAA Tournament in 2002. In the opening round game against Siena, his coach berated him when Juan tossed up an early, ill-advised three. Dixon turned toward Williams on the bench and yelled, “Coach! Shut the F*** Up!”

In the Final Four, in Atlanta, against a Kansas roster stock-piled with former McDonald’s All-Americans and studs like Drew Gooden, Kirk Hinrich, Nick Collison, Aaron Miles, Jeff Boschee, Keith Langford and Wayne Simien, Juan erupted for 33 points. Teammate Drew Nicholas said afterward in astoundment, “Can you say a guy had a quiet 33? Everything he got was in the context of the offense. It was amazing.”

In the title game against Jared Jeffries and coach Mike Davis’s Indiana Hoosiers, Juan was his usual unflappable self. After the Hoosiers erased a 12 point Terps lead in the second half, Juan looked at Phil in the stands and told him, “Don’t worry. It’s alright. I got it!”

He proceeded to knock down three’s and mid-range fade-away jumpers that Sports Illustrated described as “preposterous.” Maryland – with Lonny Baxter, Byron Mouton, Chris Wilcox, Steve Blake and others – then took off on a back-breaking 22-5 run.

At the end of his illustrious college career, Juan surpassed the incomparable Len Bias as Maryland’s all-time scoring leader, as well as becoming the school’s most prolific three-point shooter. His #3 jersey now hangs in the rafters of the Comcast Center.

juan3When asked, after winning the tournament’s Most Outstanding Player trophy, if he was nervous when the lead disappeared in the second half of the NCAA Championship game, he shook his head and responded, “I wasn’t nervous at all. I’ve been through tougher situations in my life. This was nothing. I knew we were going to win.”

It was something he’d learned a long time ago, through family tragedy that was healed by some tough, unconditional and brotherly love.

So in the spirit of Thanksgiving, we’d like to thank Juan for his personal example of being triumphant through tragedy. We’re happy to see him back in College Park.