His suitemate has a key to Cole Field House, which means life is good. Life is good because he can go there on Thanksgiving eve or Duke eve and shoot the night away, shoot until 1 in the morning. In fact, the later the better, and the emptier the better, because then it’s his field house, capacity: one. At 1 in the morning, he can lie down at midcourt, using the ball as his throw pillow, and piece together the last five years. The job at the docks. The SAT fiasco. Coach K. The dumbasses from UVa. At 1 in the morning, he can shut his eyes in that field house and think of everything and nothing. How his parents and Len Bias are the same, how he and Len Bias are the same, how Duke and Maryland are the same.
Some players come out of school early, but this one is coming out late. It took him five years to get this done, to become not only his university’s most accomplished player, but also its most resilient. Only Juan Dixon has a video library of every Maryland game this season. Only Juan Dixon is up at 2:30 a.m. breaking down Mike Dunleavy’s head fakes. Only Juan Dixon cleans up after his suitemates. Only Juan Dixon can get away with calling his coach G-Dub. Only Juan Dixon knows what Duke knows.
If there is one player this March who can look into Jason Williams’ eyes and not buckle at the knees, it is the 23-year-old shooting guard with “Nita and Phil” tattooed over his left biceps. Those are the names of Dixon’s parents, both dead of complications from AIDS. And those are the reasons the son they left behind is the most tough-minded player in college basketball.
After this semester, Dixon will need only a three-credit internship to finish his degree in family studies, even though his life is a family study in itself: His parents were habitual drug users who caught HIV from dirty needles and died 13 months apart between 1994 and ’95. But that story’s already been told. What hasn’t been told is that before a game at Virginia on Jan. 31, a few Cavaliers fans behind the basket began the vile chant “Crackhead parents ... Crackhead parents.” What hasn’t been told is that Dixon, normally stone-faced, nearly climbed into the stands after them.
“I was about to yank one of them fans up,” he says. “They definitely crossed the line. I’m serious -- I was about to yank one of them dudes up.”
Instead, he told them politely to knock it off, and when they didn’t, he told them impolitely: “I walked up to one guy a couple of times, like, ‘Dude, you better watch your mouth or I’m gonna end up doing something to you.’ They kept on doing it, man. Those people are ignorant, man. That’s fine, though. I mean, if that’s their way to get me out of my game, then next time they better be careful. They better be waaaaay back in the stands somewhere to say something like that, because that’s cruel, man.”
Eventually, Dixon shut them all up -- by hitting a baseline teardrop to put Maryland ahead for good in the final 31 seconds. He’s hit a lot of those shots in his career. At 1 a.m. At 1 p.m. You name it.
They said goodbye to his field house the other night, after 47 years. They said goodbye to Juan Dixon, too, after five. The first time Maryland laid eyes on him, he was a 140-pound stick figure who could score. Today, he’s a 165-pound stick figure who did score: 2,000 points and counting. He’s on the cusp of breaking Len Bias’ school scoring record (2,149), and there’s irony in that. Bias was killed by a drug overdose; Dixon grew up confiscating heroin needles from his parents. And now here’s Dixon maybe surpassing Bias as the greatest Terp of all time.
“Could be,” says his coach, Gary Williams, when asked if that’s a fair assessment. G-Dub points toward the jerseys hanging far up in the rafters at Cole. “Let’s see. That’s Joe Smith, Walt Williams, Bias, Albert King, Buck Williams, John Lucas, Tom McMillen, Len Elmore, Gene Shue. None of those guys got to the Final Four, did they?”
If nothing else, Dixon is the most self-made Maryland star of all, one who, in some sense, has no business being here. While he was growing up in Baltimore, his parents were laying down the law one day, behind bars the next. He remembers finding their drug paraphernalia stashed in the basement and behind ceiling tiles, remembers taking their needles straight to the trash. He remembers never entering his mother’s bathroom -- “We knew she was using in there” -- and he remembers her in the hospital, looking half-dead.
It could have derailed him, but there was a certain structure in the Dixon home. The four children -- Phil III, Juan, Nicole and Jermaine -- had to stay off the living room couch, or else. They had to fold their clothes, or else. They had to finish their schoolwork, or else. One time at a baseball game, young Phil ran through a third base coach’s sign, and was spanked by his father for it. The Dixons had to be coachable, or else.
As he got older, Juan learned that his mother, Juanita (or Nita), had been raised a strict Jehovah’s Witness, but she rebelled when she began dating Phil Jr. He learned that his father was an educated man who tried to be a street con, but was ostracized for his light skin. He learned that his father often got into fights and that, to fit in, Phil Jr. ended up doing drugs. It all turned Juan into a 30-year-old teenager.
“Basketball saved me,” Dixon says. But so did these lessons of Baltimore: He remembers his father earning an associate in arts degree from Maryland while in prison. He remembers visiting his father’s deathbed with Phil III, and hearing an edict: Graduate yourself.
“Yes, our parents were addicts, but they weren’t bad parents,” says Phil, now a Baltimore cop who mentors children at the local Police Athletic League. “The worst thing we had to do was sit in the car and wait for them to go buy their drugs and come back. Sometimes, it’d be two hours and I’d take it out on Juan and Nicole. I’d cuss at them. I mean, sitting in one spot for so long can be annoying. But they wouldn’t have left us alone if we couldn’t handle it.”
Juan Dixon handled it, better than anyone knows. He remembers, not long after attending his parents’ funerals, being recruited to join a drug ring at the age of 17: “This guy said, ‘Come sling some drugs. Make some easy money. Come work with me.’ And I passed it up. I just wanted to lead a good life.”
His goal was to play on TV, for Maryland. But he had to graduate from high school first, and a business class was holding him up. His girlfriend’s mother, Gladys Bragg, had taught marketing at Morgan State, and she tutored him through it. But his SAT score, 840, was too low to get him into Maryland, and when that dropped to 690 on his second try, he spent the fall semester after high school cramming for a third test. He worked a minimum-wage job at the Inner Harbor during the day, tying up boats and distributing dock passes, and he studied with Bragg at night. He raised his score to 1060, a leap so high that the College Board negated it. Bragg and other family members petitioned on his behalf, but Juan said, “Miss Gladys, I’ll just take the test again.” He didn’t have to, because the board soon reversed its decision, but he went ahead anyway and scored 1010 the fourth time, proving his point. He enrolled at Maryland at midseason. Dixon was finally a Terp.
After redshirting in 1997-98, he spent the next year as Steve Francis’ backup. That’s why no one knew what to make of him, not until that day at Cameron Indoor Stadium his sophomore season. “The game that put me on the map,” he says. At the time, Duke had grown used to toying with Maryland, but Dixon had 31 points on 14-of-19 shooting, and the Terps won by 11. Afterward, Mike Krzyzewski said that, outside his own team, Dixon was his favorite player.
“Well, outside of G-Dub,” Dixon says, “Coach K is my favorite coach.”
He badly wanted to close the gap with Duke, and there were times during his junior season that he sensed the teams were equal. But then came the game at Cole, the night when Maryland blew a 10-point lead with 54 seconds left, the night Dixon began to obsess about Duke. He returned to his room that evening and watched the tape until 2 a.m. He watched it again before the rematch at Cameron -- but turned it off with 55 seconds left. He studied every Blue Devil and his tendencies: He noticed that Duke didn’t run an offense as much as let players drift to their favorite spots on the court, and he memorized every one of their tricks. “A day before we went down there, he watched the clip tape of Duke’s offense,” says a team manager, Brian Cavanaugh. “And he said, ‘I’m going to get seven or eight steals.’ ”
Dixon ended up with five -- to go with his 28 points -- in another 11-point Terps victory, and fans back in College Park renamed Duke’s home court Dixon Indoor Stadium. He knew then that his new field house ritual was working. Weeks before, after a devastating home loss to Florida State, he had stayed at Cole shooting until 1:30 a.m. He then started calling Cavanaugh, who had a key to the place, three nights a week. He’d shoot, mostly alone, into the early-morning hours, particularly on nights before a game. “You know how you get an urge for a candy bar at 2 a.m.?” says his brother Phil. “Juan would get an urge to shoot at 2 a.m.”
Sometimes he’d bring his girlfriend of six years, Robyn Bragg, to rebound. She’d hold a broom straight up for him to shoot over, and every time he’d miss, he’d diagnose the reason: “My shoulder wasn’t lined up” or “my fingers were off base.” Before he’d leave, he’d lie down flat on his back at midcourt “just to dream.” That was his routine straight through the team’s Final Four run.
By the start of this season, it was Juan, Robyn and Brian against the world. Bragg began taping every game. Cavanaugh moved into Dixon’s suite. “He knocks on my door at 11:30 at night a lot,” Cavanaugh says. “He’ll knock real light and say, ‘I know you’re in there. Come on, set the hoops real quick, man.’ He even did it on Thanksgiving. But he’s only woken me up twice.”
Dixon’s teammates respect his late-night diligence. They tolerate his other eccentricities. They notice how he brings his own toilet paper to the locker room -- “I guess the regular toilet paper is a little too hard,” forward Tahj Holden suggests -- and how he brings his own soap and shower shoes. They notice how he gets pregame manicures and how he reshowers 45 minutes before every game, and washes his hands again after pregame warmups, and how he lotions his hands right before tipoff. “That’s why sometimes the ball slips out of his hands,” says backup guard Drew Nicholas. “If you watch during games, sometimes he’ll go to shoot, and the ball just goes flying off in the air. I mean, lotion’s a lubricant. But I think someone’s convinced him to start using powder now.”
Nicholas is also one of Dixon’s suitemates, which means he hears constant complaints about the mess in the kitchen. “Oh, my god,” Robyn says. “Juan’s so clean he doesn’t have trash in his trash can. If there’s four pieces of trash in there, he’ll empty it. He says a trash can’s for decoration.” Adds Robyn’s mother, Gladys: “One day he was at our house and I was cleaning a little, and he said, ‘I’ll help you.’ I said, ‘What?’ ” He’s so clean he’s been known to bring plastic forks and knives to restaurants, or ask waitresses for hot water so he can wash the utensils. “I’m just clean,” he says. “I got that from my parents.”
So these are Juan Dixon’s obsessions: cleanliness and Duke, not necessarily in that order. Just last month, before another game with the Blue Devils, he walked into G-Dub’s office and lobbied the coach to put 6'10" Chris Wilcox on Dunleavy. Dixon had been studying Duke tapes in the middle of the night -- “I’ll get up to get something to drink at 2:30,” Nicholas says, “and he’s sitting there watching our games” -- and had concluded that Wilcox’s wingspan could hinder Dunleavy’s outside game. He then gave Wilcox a rundown on Dunleavy’s pump fakes. Sure enough, Wilcox held Dunleavy to 11 points. Dixon had 17, and Maryland won by 14. The night before, of course, he’d been at Cole, shooting with Robyn until 11:30.
Clearly, Dixon’s legacy at Maryland has more to do with Duke than Bias. On his watch, the Terps no longer cower at the sight of the Devils. And as Maryland enters this postseason, other players are paging Cavanaugh. Nicholas, point guard Steve Blake and center Lonny Baxter are all at Cole now, shooting at all hours of the night.
So maybe that’s Juan Dixon’s other legacy: the Cole Field House electric bill.
This article appears in the March 18 issue of ESPN The Magazine.
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