On scales of heart, Dixon heavyweight Terps: With all he's overcome in his young life, the slight ex-Calvert Hall star doesn't figure to be cowed by college basketball's big men.

November 03, 1998|By Paul McMullen | Paul McMullen,SUN STAFF

COLLEGE PARK -- Juan Dixon goes a couple of dribbles over 150 pounds, so how will he go over in the Atlantic Coast Conference?

Dixon can't wait to shut up the skeptics, and it's unwise to question his resolve.

He lost his parents to drugs, wondered if he would ever fit in at Calvert Hall and spent 1997 in a struggle with the SAT. Yes, Dixon is lean, but he has shown fiber enough to force his way into the rotation on the Maryland basketball team.

"Juan has a passion to play," said Mark Amatucci, who coached Dixon, 20, at Calvert Hall.

"Some of the stuff people were saying about him on the talk shows last year, that he was never going to make it, it was an insult. They don't know Juan. When he makes up his mind to do something, he's going to do it."

Dixon, all 6 feet 3 and 152 pounds of him, is a redshirt freshman guard for the Terps, who begin a campaign of great expectations with an exhibition game against the Australian All-Stars tomorrow (8 p.m.) at Cole Field House.

He has shown up later than expected, and it's a tribute to his extended family that he even showed up at all.

"As far as my parents go," Dixon said, "that's everyday life."

Hardly.

Grandparents, aunts and uncles have raised Dixon since he was years old. One of his male role models was his big brother, Phil, who was 8 when they moved in with their maternal grandmother in northeast Baltimore. When their parents became incapable, relatives reared them.

"Heroin," Dixon said of the addiction that led to the demise of his parents. "They both died of AIDS, my mom at the beginning of my sophomore year at Calvert Hall, my dad during my junior year. It was hard, seeing my mom come home when she had problems, not seeing my father for years. But I had plenty of people to fall back on."

Mark Smith, an uncle, helped raise the Dixon boys. They swam at Oregon Ridge, drove to Anne Arundel County in search of the best go-cart track and seemed to try every jock activity except sky-diving. Smith observed that Juan was both precocious and tough.

"I was coaching Phil's little league baseball team, and Juan was 8 or 9, too young to play," Smith said.

"Juan was our batboy, and a line-drive foul ball hit him in the eye. I was getting ready to rush him to hospital, but he didn't cry at all. He might have said ouch."

Juan quarterbacked his youth football teams in Gardenville and Overlea. Phil remembers one coach who allowed Juan, who wasn't any older than 10, to call his own plays. Basketball eventually became the boys' obsession, and Juan followed Phil to every lighted outdoor court between Overlea High and Dorsey Road.

The younger brother never liked being told he wasn't good enough. Juan said he was elevated to the varsity at the end of his freshman year at Lake Clifton, but still complains that he didn't get noticed on the JV "until half of the guys on the team flunked off."

Phil was a Division III star for Shenandoah (W. Va.) College at the time. He was among the people who steered the younger Dixon in 1995 to Calvert Hall, where Amatucci adored his ability to score and despised his defensive approach to inferior opponents.

"We had some classic run-ins," Amatucci said. "I can remember a Friday night, big game, Juan played really well and got the job done at both ends. We had Curley early the next week, and he was going through the motions. I said, 'This crap has gone on long enough,' and he started giving me some excuse. I put him on the bench and he didn't get back in.

"I probably should have dealt with it in the locker room, but in the long run, it might have been the best thing to happen to him."

Amatucci never complained about Dixon's scoring. He had 1,590 points in three varsity seasons at Calvert Hall, and was a two-time All-Metro pick. In December 1996, Dixon dropped eight three-pointers and a total of 46 points on an Anacostia High team that included fellow Terps freshman Lonny Baxter and finished No. 1 in the D.C. area.

Dixon signed early with Maryland, in November 1996, but his battle to get into the university was only beginning.

His high school grade-point average on the NCAA's sliding standards for freshman eligibility required a 930 SAT, and it did not come easy.

"I took it five or six times," Dixon said. "I usually scored in the 790-820 range. I got an 840 in April, and had so many tutors and strategies the next time, I dropped to a 690. I busted my tail the whole summer, and in October, I scored a 1,060. The test administrators reviewed my score, and said I couldn't have improved that much."

Dixon tested again last November, and a score of 1,010 made him eligible to practice and play with Maryland when the first semester concluded.

Coach Gary Williams toyed with the idea of using Dixon last year, but decided that his role would be restricted to practice, where he mimicked the upcoming opponents' top perimeter player.

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