Thursday, April 4
Dixon allows ghost of Len Bias finally to rest

By Adrian Wojnarowski
Special to

The University of Maryland gathered for a goodbye to Cole Field House a month ago, the greats standing shoulder to shoulder and leaving Juan Dixon to develop a deeper understanding of the history. All the years and all the heartache tumbled down to the senior star, inspiring his mandate to turn a long history of Terrapins March angst into April glory.

Juan Dixon
Juan Dixon, left, jokes around with head coach Gary Williams, right, as assistant coach Jimmy Patsos, center, looks on Tuesday.
"It was amazing to see, to feel a part of it," Dixon said. And through the thundering ovations and teary eyes, the most important link to Maryland's yesterday and today was absent, unable to take his place with Tom McMillen and Len Elmore, Albert King and Buck Williams. And yet if Dixon couldn't see the late Len Bias, he always could feel him.

There was a connection with Bias that Dixon never understood until it was time to pass Bias' school scoring record of 2,149 points, until it was time to pass Bias as the greatest player in Maryland history. They'll always remember Bias as a cautionary tale, but Dixon is forever the fairy tale now, punctuated with his nylon necklace inside the Georgia Dome. The most outstanding player of the NCAA Tournament solidified himself as the most outstanding player in school history.

Before the Terrapins beat Indiana for their first national championship, before breaking the school scoring record earlier in the season, Dixon turned to Maryland assistant Dave Dickerson for the truth. Dickerson played with Bias for two seasons in the mid-1980s, when it seemed No. 34 lived in the air above the Cole Field House court, floating over everyone like his retired jersey still does there.

"When people look at Lenny, they looked at his junior and senior year and all those highlights," Dickerson says. "They automatically thought he was great as a senior in high school, as a freshman and sophomore. But they had no idea he wasn't a McDonald's All-American coming out of high school. He was a player from (Metro Washington) who was actually lucky to be coming to Maryland.

"A lot of people counted Lenny and Juan out. When Lenny came to Maryland, nobody considered him a great player. He worked his butt off to get to where he was, the same thing Juan did. A lot of people forget those games as a freshman making mistakes, when Lenny really wasn't doing a lot of things right. People just remember the end result, his junior and senior year. And here's Juan, a kid who's beaten all odds in his life. When we signed him, people gave us crap for it. He couldn't play here, they said. He was too skinny, too small ...

"And now, Juan can be considered the best player ever to play at Maryland."

Len Bias
Bias' athleticism often left fans doubting what they had witnessed.
Dixon represents closure for Maryland. The demise of Bias started the darkest days for the Terrapins program, pushing out Lefty Driesell, bringing in the bumbling Bob Wade and starting a spiral that left Gary Williams wishing he had never taken the job of resurrecting his alma mater. When Bias died of a cocaine overdose after the Celtics drafted him in 1986, Dixon was an 8-year-old with a resounding resolve, often hiding his parents' drug needles as he desperately tried to save them. He couldn't. Nobody could. Juanita and Phil Dixon died of AIDS within 16 months, but it wouldn't break Juan. Never.

The way Bias turned a life with everything into nothing, Dixon turned a life of nothing into everything. The measure of his mettle is transforming tragedy into triumph. When a kid like Dixon comes along, he makes everyone reevaluate the definition of greatness. Does Dixon leap like Bias did? Does he do the spectacular that leaves people speechless? As much as anything, Dixon's greatness could be found in the telltale moments of his journey.

After completely controlling the NCAA Tournament and scoring 33 points to beat Kansas in the national semifinals, all Dixon did with Indiana making its run was scream to his teammates, "We're going to win this game," and they believed him. Dixon made the immense shots, the steals, the plays to make his words hold true. He wouldn't let the Terrapins lose, and this had never happened in Maryland history. They never had the player to just grab the Terps, the season, and refuse to let them go.

Bias was a great player. I think Juan is as good as anyone that's ever played at the University of Maryland.
Maryland coach Gary Williams
"Bias was a great player," Williams said. And then, without hesitating he finished his thought: "I think Juan is as good as anyone that's ever played at the University of Maryland."

All those nights across his five years, Dixon used his key to open up Cole Field House, turn on the lights and shoot into the silence. No. 34 was always hanging over him, always watching. Finally, Dixon has delivered the national championship, and it's fitting Cole closes down. The greatest player in Maryland history leaves the court, and just maybe, the ghost of Len Bias can rest now.

Adrian Wojnarowski, a sports columnist for The Record (Northern N.J.), is a regular contributor to

 More from ESPN...
Kirkpatrick: Maryland completes climb from ashes
In 13 years, Gary Williams ...

Wojciechowski: More than Juan shining moment
Gary got his title; Steve got ...

Wojciechowski: Little Dixon, a big-time talent
Juan Dixon needs one more win ...

2002 NCAA Tournament
Let the madness begin.

Adrian Wojnarowski Archive

 ESPN Tools
Email story
Most sent
Print story