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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

March 31, 2012|By Don Markus, The Baltimore Sun

"It's not about how much I weigh, it's how strong I am, it's the kind of shape I'm in. I can't be that skinny guy," said Dixon, who is 6 feet 3 and never weighed more than 170 pounds while playing in the NBA. "You've got to look the part. [NBA general managers] are going to look at me and not see the guy they saw a few years ago."

There have also been off-court distractions, including his divorce from his college sweetheart, Robyn, that was finalized March 14. They remain friends, Robyn Dixon said Friday, and she says what he has gone through the past few years has helped him mature.

"When you're a normal 22-year-old getting your first job, you start at an entry-level position and work your way up, but when you're a 22-year-old professional athlete, you're thrust into the spotlight and you don't get an opportunity to grow [as a person]," Robyn Dixon said. "I think what he's gone through has been pretty humbling, and I think if he gets another opportunity, he'll do things differently."

Dixon's aunt, former Baltimore Mayor Sheila Dixon, said she has seen her nephew open up from the "quiet kid who kept things to himself" and had the same "middle-child personality" she did. Given the way her political career ended in scandal, she can relate to what he is going through.

"He's still a very popular figure in Baltimore, people are always asking me how he's doing," Sheila Dixon said Friday. "For him, it's being able to write a new chapter -- not a new ending -- and clarify some things and be portrayed in a positive light the way he should be."

Dixon says part of the reason for his attempt to play again -- hopefully in the NBA, but more realistically in Europe to start -- is for his two sons, 4-year-old Corey and 2-year-old Carter, to think of their father as more than their playmate, who they sometimes refer to as "LeBron James" when they are playing with a basketball.

"I have two little boys who look up to their father every day," Dixon said. "I want to be a good role model for them, a mentor. As much as I want to do this for myself, I want to do it for them. I want them to know what I did, what I can do."

'He can get back'

Williams, who was as close to if not closer to Dixon than any player he ever coached, saw his former star struggle as his role changed over the course of his professional career.

"What made Juan great, in addition to his work ethic, was that he had this extreme confidence," Williams said. "He never could adjust to being an eighth man or something like that. That wasn't part of his makeup. The other side of it is, that's what got him to the NBA."

Ed Tapscott, who served as Dixon's last NBA coach when he was interim head coach of the Wizards for the last 71 games of the 2008-09 season, said he thinks a comeback is realistic if Dixon gets himself in shape and "comes back with a new attitude." Tapscott said Dixon was in a "tough position" as a little-used veteran on a Washington team ravaged by injuries.

"He signed on to a team that he thought was going to be pretty good," said Tapscott, who returned to the Wizards' front office after that season and works in scouting and player development. "Then Gilbert Arenas couldn't play [because of knee injuries]. Brendan Haywood, our center, got hurt. We had to find out what our young guys can do. I said to Juan, 'You've got to be a good vet and be ready.'"

Tapscott said Dixon did that until the last month of the season "when he slipped a little." When Tapscott needed Dixon to finish out the last few games as a starter, he was out of shape and played poorly. He wasn't close to the player who averaged nearly a point every two minutes over his first six seasons. He barely tried, to the point where teammates questioned his heart.

"But that is not Juan Dixon," Tapscott said. "Juan Dixon is a highly competitive, highly trained, hard-working guy. He's also one of the smartest basketball players I've ever coached."

Tapscott points to other players who have returned to the NBA after missing more than a season or two. Mike James, 36, is back with the Chicago Bulls after playing in Europe or the NBA's D-League the past two years. Former Boston Celtics star Antoine Walker, 35, is trying to get back into shape in the D-League.

"Given the drive that got Juan into the NBA, he can recapture that," Tapscott said. "Anyone who is trying to get back to the NBA can take inventory of what they do well and try to improve things that they struggle with, and most importantly, try to be a positive guy in the locker room regardless of the role you're asked to play. If he finds the right situation, sure, he can get back to the NBA."

Given his private nature, Dixon does not want to divulge what happened toward the end of his NBA career. But he is quick to say: "I have nobody to blame but myself for that. If I get another chance, I will do things differently. I will take care of my body better. I will eat better, get more sleep. I think I could do a lot of things better."

Said Robyn Dixon: "I think he really struggled with the roles he was given. Everyone in the NBA was a star in college. Then you get drafted, you still think of yourself that way. How many superstars can there be on a team? I think Juan would do whatever it took, even if it meant being the 12th man on a roster. I don't think it's about proving anybody wrong. He just loves to play basketball."


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