10 years after the national title, Juan Dixon says he's 'going to get back to the NBA'

Former Maryland star hopes to channel his improbable rise to success to pen the final chapter of his basketball career

  • Juan Dixon sits on the bench as a member of the Detroit Pistons in 2008. Despite long odds, the former Terps star says he's working to make it back to the NBA.
Juan Dixon sits on the bench as a member of the Detroit Pistons… (Kirthmon F. Dozier, MCT )
March 31, 2012|By Don Markus, The Baltimore Sun

The biggest overachiever in Maryland basketball history -- maybe in the modern college game -- is trying to beat the odds again.

At age 33, a decade after leading the Terps to the NCAA men's championship, three years removed from his last NBA game and now rehabilitating an injured left knee, Juan Dixon is plotting his comeback.

"Don't count me out," Dixon said Thursday in his first extensive interview since being banned in February 2010 from playing in Europe after failing a drug test the previous season.

In short, Dixon is trying to rewrite the last chapter of his basketball legacy.

"My goal in the next year is to get back into the NBA," said Dixon, who played seven years in the league after being a first-round draft choice (17th overall) of the Washington Wizards in 2002. "I'm going to get back to the NBA. My kids and basketball are my passions, and I want them to see me play in the NBA. I want to go out on my own terms. … I know I'm still an NBA player."

What Dixon is also trying to do is re-create himself by going back to his Baltimore roots, where as a child he overcame personal tragedy and was stereotyped as a kid who was too small to be a star.

Dixon was so scrawny coming out of Calvert Hall that Maryland coach Gary Williams decided to redshirt him. Five years later, Dixon left College Park as the school's all-time leading scorer and as the player who carried the Terps to their only national title.

'I cried this morning'

Dixon's Final Four heroics, which included scoring 33 points in a semifinal victory over Kansas and making key shots in an 18-point performance to lead Maryland past Indiana at the Georgia Dome two nights later, came 10 years ago this weekend.

He doesn't live in the past, but he doesn't run away from it either.

"I start thinking about Atlanta when the NCAA tournament begins every year," Dixon said. "I think about all the great times we had and what we were able to accomplish."

Asked whether that 2002 Maryland group could compete with the teams in this year's Final Four, Dixon said with typical bravado: "Without a doubt. We had every piece."

Part of that confidence stems from what Dixon sees in today's game -- incomplete teams built around two or three players, their starting lineups filled with freshmen or sophomores -- programs that are the polar opposites of the Maryland and Duke teams that dominated college basketball during his career.

"I feel like college basketball has regressed," he said. "No offense to some of the teams that have won the title the past few years, like the Duke team with Nolan Smith and [Kyle] Singler that won it two years ago. That team would have been killed by the Duke team with [Shane] Battier, [Elton] Brand and William Avery. Guys go to the NBA. It's not as consistent."

Dixon, who backed down to no one, including his coach, gave Maryland the persona that helped turn an up-and-coming team into a national power. He might not have had the physical prowess of Len Bias, whose scoring record he broke, or the otherworldly schoolyard skills of Steve Francis, who he played behind as a redshirt freshman, but Dixon had the mental toughness that came from having to fend for himself after his drug-addicted parents died from AIDS-related illnesses when he was a teenager in Baltimore.

What Dixon is hoping to do now is become the adult incarnation of the kid he was at Calvert Hall, looking for another chance to prove himself.

Instead of the college scouts who didn't think he had the strength and body type to play major college basketball, let alone in the then-dominant Atlantic Coast Conference, Dixon wants to quiet those who think of him now as an over-the-hill journeyman guard whose professional career ended with a tainted image after he tested positive for steroids while playing in Greece.

Though Dixon doesn't like to talk about the specifics of the case that resulted in him receiving a one-year ban from FIBA, the sport's international governing body, he readily acknowledges: "I've cried whenever I think about what I've been through the past two years. I cried this morning."

'Pretty humbling'

The comeback is in its infancy, Dixon concedes. His left knee required surgery to repair a torn meniscus, and he more recently underwent two treatments of an experimental procedure called platelet-rich plasma therapy to help promote healing of the patellar tendon.

"The knee is feeling better than it has in a long time," Dixon said.

He has been working with trainer Troy Jones in Eldersburg and said he hopes to begin working with Dodd Romero, a Miami-based trainer whose Ten Commandments of Health have become Dixon's doctrine. Dixon said he knows he wants to look like a different player if an NBA team invites him to try out.

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