Juan Dixon has cried plenty in his life, but he hasn't wept out
of fear since the time, when he was nine years old, that an
angry rec league basketball coach reduced him to tears. Dixon's
parents weren't at the game, so his 14-year-old brother, Phil,
came out of the bleachers to settle Juan down. "Phil popped me
in the chest a few times," Juan says. "He told me, 'Stop that
crying. You can't be scared. No fear!'" Juan had every right to
take inventory of all the trouble he had seen in his young life
and reply, "Are you kidding me?" Instead, he filed away the
Thirteen years later Juan, who's now a sophomore guard at
Maryland, caught Phil's eye during a timeout in the closing
seconds of a December 4 game against Illinois at the MCI Center
in Washington, D.C. The same thought--No fear!--came into his
head, and moments later he sank the game-winning jumper in a
69-67 Terrapins victory. Phil repeated the magic words during a
pep talk the night before Juan scored 31 points at Cameron
Indoor Stadium on February 9 to help Maryland snap Duke's
31-game ACC win streak.
As the catalyst for the surprisingly successful, 17th-ranked
Terps, Dixon may be the feel-good hit of the 1999-2000 season.
Though he'd never started a game before this season, he was
second in the ACC in scoring (18.5 points per game), first in
steals (2.9) and sixth in assists (3.5) through Sunday. He also
was averaging 5.4 rebounds. More stunning is how favorably his
stats compare with those of Steve Francis, last season's
Terrapins star, who was picked second in the '99 NBA draft
(chart, page 48).
Thanks in large part to Dixon's productivity, what was supposed
to be a rebuilding year for Maryland has turned into a banner
season. Through Sunday the Terrapins were on a school-record
eight-game ACC winning streak that had propelled them to second
place in the conference with a 10-4 record (21-7 overall).
Dixon seems an unlikely candidate for such heroics. His teammates
call him the Kid, on account of the braces on his teeth and his
wiry 6'3", 152-pound frame. Dixon is the lightest player in the
ACC, yet he might carry the most weight.
When Juan was four years old, he moved in with his maternal
grandparents, Roberta and Warnick Graves, because his parents,
Juanita and Phil, were heroin addicts who would both do jail
time on drug charges. Juan, his two brothers and his sister were
raised in Baltimore by the Graveses, with help from various
uncles, aunts and cousins, a coordinated network of extended
family members who kept Juan out of trouble. One week Juanita
would be a doting mother, and the next she would disappear,
constantly shifting between heroine and heroin.
Then, in August 1994, just before the start of Juan's sophomore
year in high school, Juanita fell ill with AIDS and died
quickly. The next day young Phil and Juan went to shoot hoops.
"Ever since we were little kids we used basketball as an escape
to forget our troubles," Phil says. "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."
Sixteen months later the boys' father also died of AIDS. Two
days after the funeral Juan's high school, Calvert Hall, played
Atholton High, and Maryland assistant coach Billy Hahn was in
the stands. Juan sat out the first quarter because he had missed
practice all week, but he still scored 25 points. As a 135-pound
pip-squeak, Juan wasn't heavily recruited, but Terps coach Gary
Williams was intrigued when Calvert Hall coach Mark Amatucci
told him that Dixon "shoots threes like other players shoot
layups." Dixon reminded Williams of Michael Adams, a 5'10" guard
Williams coached at Boston College in the early 1980s who went
on to play 11 seasons in the NBA. "Michael taught me never to
measure a player by how big he is," Williams says. "In Juan, I
saw a great shooter who was motivated by people telling him what
he couldn't do."
Amatucci says Juan at that time was "a raw diamond with very
rough edges." He recalls one road trip when the team bus passed
the Antietam battlefield, and he discovered that Juan had no
idea that part of the Civil War had been fought in Maryland.
Juan was an undisciplined student who admits he had never
finished a book until his sophomore year at Calvert Hall, when
he read The Catcher in the Rye and identified with the
disenchantment of Holden Caulfield as Caulfield drifted through
adolescence with limited parental influence. Still, "Juan has
always been very driven to live a better life than our parents
did," Phil says. "We grew up asking ourselves, Why would you
ever let yourself fall through the cracks when you've seen up
close what it does to people?"
Juan has benefited from some accomplished mentors, most notably
his aunt Sheila Dixon, who in November became the first black
woman elected City Council president in Baltimore, and Phil, who
graduated from that city's police academy three weeks ago. Juan
credits Phil with teaching him everything he knows about
basketball, so before this season he paid tribute to his big
brother by changing his jersey number from 5 to 3, the number
Phil wore as a 5'10" Division III All-America guard at
Shenandoah (Va.) University. Juan honors his parents with a
tattoo on his left arm that reads 'NITA AND PHIL and another
over his heart that's a likeness of his mother, which he rubs
before shooting his free throws.
"Juan has come to view his upbringing as a positive because it
taught him how to persevere," Sheila says. "Nothing gets him
down, and that helps him through the tough times in basketball."
An hour after making five three-pointers and scoring 23 points
in an 81-73 win over North Carolina last Saturday at Cole Field
House, Dixon signed autographs for 20 minutes before begging off
to visit with waiting friends and family members. The same posse
that helped him cope with a lack of parental attention is now
mobilized to ensure that he doesn't lose his way in the flood of
attention that comes to big-time athletes. "My supporting cast
has helped me tremendously, so I play ball for myself and for
all of them," Juan said. "Living out this hoop dream is my best
way of saying, 'Thank you.'"
More Than Picking Up the Slack
When All-America Steve Francis (23) left Maryland last spring
for the NBA, the Terrapins appeared to be facing a rebuilding
year. Sophomore guard Juan Dixon has proved a terrific
replacement, however. His statistical averages through Sunday
compared favorably with those put up last season by Francis.
PLAYER GAMES POINTS ASSISTS STEALS REBOUNDS FG% FG % FT%
Juan Dixon 28 18.5 3.5 2.9 5.4 46.7 36.3 80.4
Steve Francis 34 17.0 4.5 2.8 4.5 52.3 38.8 79.0