Long-shot family nets a Dixon win Terp: Having lost both parents to drugs, Calvert Hall alum Juan Dixon only returns to Baltimore in triumph today thanks to the combination defense of a wide range of loving relatives.

December 19, 1998|By Ken Rosenthal | Ken Rosenthal,SUN COLUMNIST

The names are listed under his biography in the Maryland media guide. Grandparents. Aunts. Uncles. Cousins. And, last but not least, big brother.

These are the people who raised Juan Dixon in place of his parents, the relatives who continue to give him love and shelter, discipline and support.

Juan for all. All for Juan.

Dixon's parents were heroin addicts who died of AIDS while he was at Calvert Hall; his mother when he was a sophomore, his father when he was a junior.

Tonight, he returns home to Baltimore as a redshirt freshman guard for the fifth-ranked Maryland men's basketball team, a symbol of hope, resilience and yes, the power of love.

Dixon, 20, was the second of three children born to Juanita and Phil Dixon Jr. His brother, Phil III, is 24. His sister, Nicole, is 17. His other sibling, Jermaine Cooper, 11, was his mother's fourth child.

Rather than face neglect, the children have been embraced by members of both their parents' families through almost two decades of turmoil and tragedy.

"It was like a finely tuned team," recalled Mark Amatucci, Dixon's coach at Calvert Hall. "Everyone had their role. Everyone carried it out. And it worked."

Dixon's relatives indeed formed a cohesive unit, stepping forward at different times, contributing their own strengths, compensating for each other's weaknesses.

The point guard, offering direction to his siblings, was Juan's big brother Phil, a Division III All-American at Shenandoah (Va.) College and the first member of his mother's family to earn a college degree.

The wings, providing long arms of shelter, were Juan's maternal grandmother, Roberta Graves, 70, and his cousin, Sherrice Driver, 33.

The post players, standing tall for education, were Juan's paternal aunts, Janice Dixon, 47, and Baltimore City Councilwoman Sheila Dixon, 44.

Finally there was the sixth man, Dixon's uncle, Mark Smith, 45, who remains a father figure to Juan more than a decade after his divorce from Sheila Dixon.

In a weaker family structure, Smith said that the older boys "easily could have become candidates for the judicial system."

"I'd probably be on the streets, to tell you the truth," Dixon said. "I had guys around my grandmother's home in Northeast Baltimore asking me and my brother to sell drugs.

"My brother kept me focused. And I had basketball to keep my mind off all the tragic things that happened in our lives, all the people coming up to you wanting to offer you things."

Dixon talks about the "crazy obstacles" he faced growing up. His household, if it could be called that, was far from normal.

Yet, he loves his parents still.

Juan has a tattoo of their names -- " 'Nita and Phil" -- on his left biceps. He has another tattoo of his mother's name and face over his heart, and honors her memory by rubbing his chest on the free-throw line.

"My mom's my heart, man," Juan said. "I've got her right here close to my heart."

His parents separated when he was about 4. His father spent time in jail in the mid-'80s for drug-related offenses. But Juan said he was always "real close" with his mother.

"I could tell her anything, and she'd have the answer for me," Juan said. "She was a wonderful woman. She just hooked up with the wrong people."

The same could be said of his father, Phil.

Dixon's paternal grandmother, Winona, was a civic activist who would go into public housing projects to find truants and take them to school. She died on Oct. 22 at the age of 77.

Each of her four children graduated from college -- Phil while in jail. Janice and Sheila went on to earn master's degrees. Sheila, who represents the 4th District, is considered a possible candidate for mayor, or president of the City Council.

Near the end, Phil seemed headed in the right direction, too.

"The last five years of his life, he actually started having a life -- he was working, he had his own place, he bought a car," Janice said. "He started having a life when it was too late."

Through it all -- the absences, the addictions, the battles against AIDS -- the children always believed that their parents loved them.

"We were blessed with some people who really helped us in tough times," said Juan's brother Phil. "We always had someone we could lean on.

"Even though our parents did bad things, they never abandoned us. There wasn't a time when they put us in the arms of people who didn't care."

Dixon's grandmother, Roberta Graves, raised her own six children, then Phil and Juan. But she isn't finished yet. Nicole and Jermaine still live with her in Northeast Baltimore.

"She's getting tired now," Juan said.

Phil was 8 and Juan 4 when they went to live with Graves and her husband, Warnick, 75, a retired truck driver.

Roberta accepted the children without complaint -- she didn't want them separated as their parents struggled with drug habits.

"It was something I knew had to be done," she said.

But she couldn't do it alone.

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