Brotherly love helps Dixons in tough times

March 14, 2002|By Kevin Cowherd

I MET Officer Phil Dixon on the corner of Monument and Broadway yesterday, as he sat in his police booth near Johns Hopkins Hospital watching the rain fall from skies the color of mushroom soup.

"You're not going to watch your brother play Friday, are you?" I asked. "What's the point?"

Phil Dixon smiled. You may have heard of his brother. His name is Juan Dixon, and he plays a little basketball for the University of Maryland, enough to be named ACC Player of the Year and first team All-American, enough to be considered maybe the best all-around player to wear a Terps uniform since Len Bias.

Tomorrow night at the MCI Center in Washington, Juan Dixon and Maryland play their first game of the NCAA men's basketball tournament against lowly Siena, which must feel like Macaulay Culkin climbing in the ring against Mike Tyson.

"I'll be there," Phil Dixon said. "Going down with a few members of my family. Me and Juan, we'll talk."

Juan Dixon, the Calvert Hall kid, the silky-smooth shooting guard for the Terps, is one of the great Baltimore stories this March. But so, too, is Phil Dixon, if you think about it.

What they had to overcome in life would make a hell of a feel-good movie. Both grew up in a hardscrabble neighborhood of East Baltimore with parents who were heroin addicts and died of AIDS.

Yet one kid went on to become an All-American at Division III Shenandoah University in Virginia, then a city cop with the Police Athletic League - when he isn't picking up overtime pay working near Hopkins.

The other kid has had a storybook career for one of the best college programs in the country, and now a real shot at a national championship. Plus he's this close to an NBA contract, which is like having a Brinks truck back up to your door and uniformed guards stack bags of money in your living room.

And the cop - he's just fine with the way things turned out.

"I love my job," Phil Dixon, 28, said quietly. "I'm giving back to the community and helping kids in the same predicament as me and Juan were in."

"Predicament" - that's a delicate way of putting it when your mother and father were both drug addicts, and you and your brothers and sisters lived with your grandparents and tried your best to deal with the madness.

But Phil Dixon wants you to know something else about his mother, Juanita Graves, and his father, Phillip Dixon. They weren't exactly the Huxtables. But there was love there, too.

"We loved our parents," said Dixon, police officer for three years now. "We respected our parents. They were good to us, taught us so much about life. They taught us about hygiene, they protected us.

"I might have found some tools for getting high around the house when we were young. But I never saw them get high. They would go into the bathroom, out of respect for us. They never abandoned us, never left us with people we were uncomfortable with. ... They could get high one day, and you couldn't tell they were high. They weren't the type of addicts who were dirty and nasty-looking."

His voice trailed off for a moment.

"They were loving parents who had an addiction," he said finally.

Juanita Graves died of AIDS in 1994. Phillip Dixon died of the same disease the next year. The suddenness of both deaths rocked Phil and Juan, along with their younger sister Nicole and brother Jermaine Cooper.

"When they got it, they got it, and they were gone," Phil Dixon said.

In memory of his parents, Phil Dixon has a picture of his mother tattooed on his left bicep, and a picture of his father on his right. Juan has his parents' names tattooed on one arm.

Both boys dealt with their parents' deaths by immersing themselves in sports and vowing not to get sucked into drugs and the street life that made zombies out of so many others they knew.

Phil played varsity ball for St. Frances Academy and went on to be a fine point guard at Shenandoah, where he scored a school-record 2,237 points and dished out more than 800 assists.

Juan starred at Calvert Hall and Maryland, where he's lit up the toughest conference in college basketball. But maybe some of his roughest competition has come in furious games of one-on-one against Phil.

The last time they played each other was two years ago, on the old court at Garden Village apartments in Cedonia, where they grew up. Juan, 6-foot-3 and a leaper, took the first three games. Phil, 5-foot-10, used his quickness - and maybe he hacked a little bit, too - to take the next three.

Then Phil Dixon did the only sensible thing you could do when your little brother is on track to lead Maryland in scoring three years in a row and make bucketfuls of NBA cash.

"I retired from the game," said Phil Dixon with a laugh. "I gotta stay king of the hill. If he makes it to the NBA, he'll be crowned king of the hill."

Phil Dixon said the brothers remain close and talk on the phone every day.

Two days ago, when Juan was summoned to Maryland coach Gary Williams' office to be told he'd been named ACC Player of the Year, he dialed Phil on his cell phone as he walked.

"Phil, I think I got it! I think I got it!" Juan whispered.

Phil Dixon will be there tomorrow night at the MCI Center, hooked up with some good seats, close enough to study his little brother's face and all the emotions that play across it.

"We have direct eye contact," Phil Dixon said. "And I give him tips. I might say, `Go hard to the hole' or `Pick it up! Play harder!'"

What he won't do, Phil said, is watch Juan bury a jump shot, listen to the roar of the crowd and think: What if?

"I never say `I wish that was me,'" Phil Dixon said. "I believe what was meant to be was meant to be. Every time you [read] a story about Juan, he gives me credit. That's enough for me."

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