Dixons make a difference that counts

March 15, 2000|By Ken Rosenthal

On Feb. 9, Juan Dixon scored 31 points to help Maryland upset Duke. Two days later, his family celebrated an equally stirring achievement -- the graduation of Dixon's older brother, Phil III, from the Baltimore City Police Academy.

A 152-pound college basketball star, a rookie patrolman in Northwest Baltimore, an inspiration for a city.

If Phil and Juan can make it, then why can't Baltimore's crime rate be reduced, or its children educated? If Phil and Juan can make it, why can't their hometown be a better place?

Phil, 26, doesn't pose those questions directly, but they're at the core of why he joined the police force. His family made a difference for him; now he can make a difference for others. A boy can become first-team All-ACC or one of Baltimore's finest, even if his parents were heroin addicts who died of AIDS.

"I might see a kid, and his parents are on drugs," Phil said yesterday. "I can see myself or my brother, going through the same things that they're going through. I try to talk to them and say, `Look, the outcome of your life is not determined by what your parents do. It's determined by what you want to do.' "

And, in the case of Phil and Juan, by the love and support of relatives who refuse to allow a second generation to be sucked in by the streets.

Members of both their parents' families -- including Baltimore City Council President Sheila Dixon, a paternal aunt -- continue to nurture Phil and Juan, their sister, Nicole, 19, and Jermaine Cooper, 12, their mother's fourth child.

An uncle, Mark Smith, is encouraging Phil to write a book about his experiences. The story would be one of unity amid tragedy, a painfully vivid portrait of all that Baltimore is, and all that it can be.

Juanita and Phil Dixon both spent time in jail for drug-related offenses. Their oldest son became a law-enforcement officer.

"Life is full of ironies, right?" Smith asked. "His parents were on the other side of the criminal-justice system all their lives. I never thought Phil would be involved in drugs or the street scene. This is the ultimate confirmation of that."

Smith said Phil has the ideal disposition for a policeman, a non-confrontational approach that gives him the ability to defuse tense situations. Phil also is well-acquainted in the community. Many times when he responds to calls, he knows the parties involved.

Still, Smith and other relatives tried to talk him out of becoming a police officer.

Phil, a former Division III All-American at Shenandoah (Va.) College, was the first member of his mother's family to earn a college degree. Juan said he was "kind of nervous" about Phil entering such a dangerous line of work -- a natural reaction, given all the brothers have experienced.

"If they weren't concerned about me, I would think something's wrong," Phil said of his relatives. "It's all how you treat people. Of course, you're going to have some people out here who are just nuts. But if you treat people with respect, they treat you with respect. That's my motto. Not looking at this job as giving you some type of power. Not letting it change you where you start to hate people.

"I don't want to be known as a police officer. I just want to be known as Phil."

If only he hadn't been the first-born, he might have become better known as a basketball player. The 5-foot-11 Phil is four inches shorter than Juan, but his uncle Mark believes he could have played for Baltimore's IBL franchise, and possibly even in the NBA.

"I don't know if I'm better than Phil yet," Juan said yesterday before practice at Cole Field House. "I beat him a couple of times last year one-on-one. But I'll find out this summer how much better I got."

So, why didn't Phil pursue basketball?

"I didn't know certain things I knew when Juan was coming up, like you should play for Cecil-Kirk [Recreation Center], because they're going to travel," Phil said. "I didn't know how important AAU was. I didn't know how important camps were."

Basketball was a new experience for the family. Phil was only 5-6 coming out of high school. And he ultimately decided that he wanted a steady job.

Which leads to the obvious question, one an uncle in Ohio asked just the other day:

Does he envy Juan?

"I'm nowhere near jealous of my brother," Phil said. "I got the same type of respect in the basketball sense that he does. I accomplished a lot in college. The knowledge I can pass on to him, that's all I try to do.

"As long as he respects me, as far as my game and anything else, how can I be jealous? He speaks of me in every article, letting 'em know where some of his talent comes from. How can I be jealous? I'm proud of him."

It's not as if Phil has failed to leave his own mark. He helped point Juan, Nicole and Jermaine in the right direction. He achieved his own measure of basketball glory. He graduated from college and the Baltimore City Police Academy.

"My family is proud of all four of us, because of the things we had to deal with, as far as our parents," Phil said. "It's been a tough ride. I guess it's rewarding now to see us going in the right direction, doing positive things."

His family made a difference for him. Now he can make a difference for others.

"Just as long as I have an effect on one kid," Phil said. "If one kid can say, `Man, you became an officer, maybe everything ain't so bad.' "

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