Dixon saw teamwork in a family

Player:University of Maryland's Juan Dixon credits relatives and others who helped shape his life before and after he lost his parents.

March 30, 2001|By Todd Richissin | Todd Richissin,SUN STAFF

Easy enough to sum up the basketball life of Juan Dixon: Can shoot from medium range with the best of them, hands faster than any magician, defends his opponent like a mosquito flitting around a light bulb and plays, always, as if his life depends on it.

Easy enough to sum up his life off the court as well: From Baltimore's toughest streets, more than ample reason to believe he'd go wrong, parents among the thousands in the city lost to drugs, both of them dead from AIDS before he finished high school.

Problem is, Dixon's a bit tired of that story line. It's an ancient one, he says, only a chapter in his life. It's not the complete story for a 22-year-old counted on to help the Maryland Terrapins dump Duke tomorrow in the NCAA Final Four.

With the basketball tournament now a mega-sporting event, and with the Terps just one game away from playing for the national championship, media from all over the country have picked up on Dixon's story, and the questions about his parents are unending.

"I wish the whole thing about my past wasn't brought up so much," he says, flashing a smile to show it doesn't make him angry, just a little weary. "I guess people see it as a great story, and I understand that, and I'll talk about it. But there's more than what happened with my parents."

Dixon's story, he prefers people to know, is not just about dangerous streets and untimely deaths. It's more about having found another road and about life. It's about what can happen to a kid facing bad odds when a good family surrounds him, when an older brother steps in like an older brother should, and when a few neighborhood-type guys say enough is enough already, that we're not losing this one.

From his earliest days, through all the dark ones, Dixon has had that kind of support. "He started coming here when he was about in the fifth grade and he never stopped," says Anthony Lewis, surrounded by kids in the Cecil-Kirk Recreation Center, a cinderblock oasis in East Baltimore, where the area off East 25th Street can gobble up kids like Dixon.

"What we do here," Lewis continues, "is try to strengthen their values and get them to think about their morals and hope they become productive citizens. Juan took to it."

Dixon could have gone to a recreation center closer to his home in Northeast Baltimore. But he hopped on buses, flagged down rides and sometimes hoofed it to Cecil-Kirk, several miles a way.

Cecil-Kirk, physically, is really just a few dumpy rooms where kids can play pool or pingpong or work on computers and those values and morals Lewis speaks about. The young ones come in right after school, stay until about 6:30, then go home with relatives. Then the older kids, from junior high and high school, come in.

For many of them, the attraction is the adjoining gym, which has produced some of the country's best basketball players, both college and professional.

In Baltimore's recreation centers, basketball teams are intensely competitive, and none has had more success than Cecil-Kirk and Lewis, who coaches its team. That's why Dixon went there. It made it possible for him to go to high school at Calvert Hall in Towson and then to the University of Maryland, where he majors, appropriately, in family studies.

"It's inner-city and the inner city likes basketball but it's not about the basketball," Lewis says. "For some kids it's the computers and for some kids it's the crafts. But what it's really about for us is getting them in here. Then we have a shot."

That shot is helped immensely by a stable home, and, the situation with Dixon's parents notwithstanding, the rest of the family has wrapped around him as tightly as they can while still allowing him to breathe, granting him the independent streak he seems to cherish so much.

"I got more help than a lot of people get," he says. "My aunts, my brother ... everybody's always supported me."

He grew up with his maternal grandmother and grandfather. Roberta and Warnick Graves rose in the morning so she could clean other people's houses, and he'd get ready to hop in a dump truck and haul somebody else's debris.

But Juan, he belonged to them, their most important work - along with his two brothers and his sister - and they took their job as role models seriously.

"Everybody wants to talk about his mother, how my daughter died of AIDS," Roberta Graves says. "They need to know Juan always had a place to stay and people to watch him and love him."

He was smothered in love, in fact, by the women in his life, constantly counseled, criticized and praised by his older cousin, Sherrice Driver, by his paternal grandmother, Winona Dixon, and by his aunts, Victoria Roles, Janice Dixon and Sheila Dixon.

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