Adversity proves no match for UM's Dixon

April 04, 2002|By Michael Olesker

WHEN IT WAS Juan Dixon's turn to speak, he told the big crowd at his feet to chill. Nobody listened. The cheers rose from all those gathered on the floor of Cole Field House, and they rattled around in the rafters high above, and again Dixon told everybody to chill. He was Elvis, trying to calm the masses. Or he was Charlton Heston, standing at the edge of the Red Sea and urging it to part itself.

But the big crowd would not listen. The cheers for Dixon seemed like a force of nature, like some tidal wave that might never stop until it overcame everything, defenseless players and entire buildings and, most of all, emotions.

"Chill," Dixon finally said again, "or y'all are gonna make me cry."

He's entitled to a good one. Dixon, more than anyone, knows the journey he has taken and the tears shed along the way. Only he understands how he held himself together those years with parents unable to stop their own demise, and the late-night telephone calls from police stations, and all the hours in empty gymnasiums where Dixon tried to gain some control over his little piece of the world by shooting one weary jump shot after another.

But his life has become part of our literature now. We know the essentials of the plot. And so the crowd gathered Tuesday at the old basketball hall in College Park to celebrate the University of Maryland winning a national championship. And they cheered all the players, one by one, who contributed to that scruffy Monday night triumph in Atlanta over the storied University of Indiana team.

But when Juan Dixon's turn arrived to say a few words, the cheers came from somewhere else, too. They came out of hot summer afternoons spent on Baltimore's tarred playground courts, and cramped little winter gymnasiums and sweaty locker rooms, and they contained the hoarse echo of every kid who ever heard an announcer's voice in his head crying, "At the buzzer ... for the championship," as another practice jumper dropped in.

There is greatness in Dixon now not only because he plays exceptional basketball. The greatness comes from the difficulty of the journey, which so many in Baltimore know so intimately. Dixon is one of our own, a child of a city where thousands of families come undone at the end of a needle, at the end of despair, and thousands have to make painful choices to give in or go on.

When Dixon's father died, Juan was a kid at Calvert Hall playing for Coach Mark Amatucci. He called Amatucci and said, "Tooch, can you open the gym for me?" He wanted to work on his game. He wanted to drive to the hoop, where the future could be found. It was his way of not giving in.

When college coaches scouted Dixon in those years, they saw a kid with pencil legs. Too skinny for big-time ball, they said. When Gary Williams looked at Dixon, he saw a kid with gumption. He knew the type. Forty years ago, when H.A. "Bud" Millikan coached Maryland basketball, he had the scrawny Williams as his starting guard.

"Gary Williams?" Millikan declared one day. "Why, he's no bigger than an old-time 5-by-9 bar of soap after a hard week's laundry."

He didn't have much size, and he didn't have much ability, but he believed in himself. Basketball players must be measured by more than runaway pituitary glands. What Williams saw in himself, he also saw in Juan Dixon.

Sheila Dixon, the City Council president who is Dixon's aunt, was saying this week how Juan was always "exceptional." She didn't mean basketball. She meant his determination and drive.

When Gary Williams addressed the big crowd Tuesday, he talked about the "class" of his team. He meant Dixon, and he meant all those who make tough choices in the course of difficult times. And the reference was clearly aimed beyond his team to those spoiled brats, with their sense of entitlement, who went to U.S. 1 on Monday night and trashed the place.

"This," said Williams, gesturing to the Cole Field House crowd, "is the best way we could celebrate the national championship."

The other way was the madness on U.S. 1. It is one thing to light bonfires along Fraternity Row - what the hell, they did the same things in the old MGM musicals, and everyone found it charming. But it's another thing to throw beer bottles at police, and jump atop cars and smash windows and loot.

Most of those arrested have not been Maryland students - but it was young people who sensed an air of anarchy in the college crowd and decided to take advantage. They tarnished an hour that should have been pure joy. They contributed to a feeling around the country, for all those who watched the ugliness, that the University of Maryland didn't have a student body worthy of its basketball team.

At such moments, they should think about Juan Dixon. Then they should chill a little. His triumph is enough to make everybody cry.

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