Dixon closer to alma mater

alma mater closer to rebirth

Acc Basketball

March 08, 2007|By DAVID STEELE

Juan Dixon was still engaging a small group of local media at Verizon Center when his coach, the Toronto Raptors' Sam Mitchell, yelled from an adjoining hallway, "You played at University of Maryland, didn't you? They're not going to get far."

"We're the hottest team in college basketball," Dixon responded to the ribbing.

Quickly, Mitchell shot back: "They haven't won since you were there, right?" Dixon's answer, of course, was, no. "Oh, well," Mitchell said, turning away in mock dejection.

Dixon - the northeast Baltimore product, Calvert Hall grad and Most Outstanding Player of Maryland's 2002 NCAA championship win - couldn't help laughing about the exchange. Especially because at that very moment, at the end of Tuesday's game-day shoot-around before the Raptors were to meet the Washington Wizards, he had been talking about the rise, fall and rise again of his alma mater - and how the same comments had been made recently, just not in jest.

"Yeah, I'd heard rumors that they were saying they should get Coach [Gary] Williams out of there," Dixon said, adding that one benefit of his recent trade from the Portland Trail Blazers to Toronto was that he could keep up with the Terps more easily. "But when you're the state school and you're the center of attention, when you've won a national championship - Coach Williams has turned that program around - people are going to criticize you, no matter what, when you win or you lose."

Criticize you hastily and unfairly, he might have added, not to mention prematurely.

Dixon went through much of what the current players did at various times throughout his Maryland career, and you'd think naysayers would have reflected on that when they aimed their barbs at the program. You'd also think they'd have remembered, while they gripe about the elite players Williams lets get away, that the championship team was built not on those players but on guys like Dixon - guys who, as the old coaches' joke goes, aren't McDonald's All-Americans but who eat at McDonald's.

Somehow, the five seasons since Dixon led the Terps to the mountaintop ended up being equated with the 13 years of renovation and anticipation that preceded it. At least they were until tangible evidence to the contrary was offered, to offset the sudden and complete loss of (not-so) long-term memory. Good thing Dixon is too diplomatic to call out those "supporters" the way they need to be.

"I'm sure Coach Williams will continue to work hard and recruit players and get them back to the level they were," he said.

Dixon would have loved to give those words of encouragement to his former coach, but the timing of his visit home was unfortunate. The trade two weeks ago today was advantageous for Dixon and the family and friends for whom he was hustling tickets to get into the game, but it was also the day Williams and the Terps left for Tampa, Fla., and today's Atlantic Coast Conference tournament opener. Williams was disappointed, too ("It's a shame I won't be able to see him," he said Tuesday), and both pledged to talk by phone.

It was once too easy for the two to make contact; Dixon's first three NBA seasons were with the Wizards, and Williams was in attendance frequently. Then Dixon signed as a free agent with the Trail Blazers after the 2004-05 season and endured a season and a half of losing and logjams at the guard position before being sent to the NBA Atlantic Division-leading Raptors.

Dixon has played very well throughout, even if his new team hasn't; he scored a season-high 24 points in a blowout by the Cleveland Cavaliers on Saturday and 14 in his first Raptors start, Tuesday in a 20-point rout by the Wizards. But home, naturally, remains special, and being about an hour away by plane is something he cherishes. It was different when he first returned as a Trail Blazer last year - "There was somewhat of a hangover; I still felt like a Wizard" - but the improved chances for his circle of support to see him are something he welcomes.

That includes his College Park family. He feels close enough to empathize with their struggles at midseason and to share the triumph of their renaissance. Naturally, he still vividly remembers when his edition of the Terps was hearing the skepticism of the masses, in his junior year of 2000-01.

Williams might have come off as whistling past the graveyard back when he was continually referring to that season during the poor start in ACC play, but the similarities are eerie. Fans were antsy about never getting past the NCAA Sweet 16. After a strong regular-season start, high expectations were not being met. The team hit mid-February with five losses in six games, including several blowouts, to drop the Terps to .500 in the conference. And Williams kept preaching patience, to his players and everybody else.

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