Juan Dixon: from orphan to star

There's plenty to watch at this year's NCAA basketball tournament.

Cinderella will be there (she always is). So will the kids from Gonzaga, who have reason to be upset about their low No. 6 seed in the West. Even the real Bob Knight – a hair meaner than the guy portrayed by Brian Dennehy in "A Season on the Brink" on ESPN last weekend – will make a cameo, this time as the coach of Texas Tech.

But for my time, no one deserves more attention than the indomitable shooting guard for the University of Maryland, Juan Dixon. Dixon, a senior, is the best player for the Terrapins, who are the No.1 seed in the East and probably the most talented team in this year's field.

Not only is Dixon chasing a first national championship for Maryland, but he is 36 points away from becoming the all-time leading scorer at his school – an incredible feat for a lightly regarded recruit coming out of Baltimore.

The other top seeds are Duke, Kansas, and Cincinnati, all of whom have their fair share of star players – and reason to believe they can make it to the Final Four in Atlanta March 30. (Duke and Kansas began tournament play last night; Maryland and Cincinnati begin play tonight.)

Defending champion Duke, in particular, seems strong, with its dominant threesome of Jason Williams, Mike Dunleavy, and Carlos Boozer firing on all cylinders. On paper, their bracket in the South is the easiest.

Yet, it's hard not to like Maryland's chances, especially when they have Dixon in their backcourt, surrounded by Lonny Baxter, Steve Blake, Chris Wilcox, and Byron Mouton.

Dixon's story is well known. His parents were heroin addicts and died from AIDS before he graduated from high school. But his family was not without love. His brother, grandmother, cousins, and aunts raised him the best they could in a tough Baltimore neighborhood. Basketball was his diversion and salvation.

He went to Calvert Hall High School, where he was a 50-percent three-point shooter – a tribute to endless hours spent practicing with his brother Phil, a Division III All-America (and now a cop in Baltimore). In one high school game, against Anacostia, the then-No. 1 team in Washington, D.C., Dixon secured an upset by pouring in an incredible 47 points.

Few top colleges were interested, however, because Dixon, at just 150 pounds, was considered too frail to play with the big boys. But that did not deter Maryland coach Gary Williams, who was in the middle of rebuilding a program that was still hurting from NCAA sanctions and the cocaine-related death of All-American forward Len Bias.

Dixon was redshirted his freshman year, meaning he could practice with the team but not play in games – thus saving a year of eligibility. In his first regular season, he was considered primarily a three-point shooting specialist and got limited playing time as a back up to Steve Francis, who now stars for the NBA's Houston Rockets.

Then, in his sophomore season, Dixon became Maryland's best defender and scorer – a complete player. He helped the Terps win at Duke by scoring 31, and earned first-team all-conference in one of the country's premier leagues, the ACC. As a junior, he did more of the same, leading the team to its first-ever Final Four while averaging more than 18 points per game and leading the ACC in steals.

Duke Coach Mike Krzyzewski called Dixon his "favorite player" – other than his own.

This year, Dixon entered the season as a marked man – par for the course when your face is on the cover of magazines and newspapers. When I met him, after a preseason practice at Cole Field House, Dixon walked up, gave a firm handshake, and flashed a warm smile. Until recently, he had braces.

"Hi, I'm Juan Dixon," he said, not taking anything for granted.

He was most interested in talking about what he had done in the off season to keep improving. One thing he mentioned was borrowing a weight vest from the football team and running hills with it on.

"I have to work harder than everybody else," he explained. "It's the way I am."

That obsessive hard work has paid off. This week he was named First-Team All-America by The Associated Press, and Player of the Year in the Atlantic Coast Conference.

His game, despite his slight size (now up to 165 lbs. at 6 ft., 3 in.), is complete. He can shoot from the outside (19.3 p.p.g), drive the lane, handle the ball, and hit more than 90 percent of his free throws. Sometimes it seems like he doesn't sweat.

There are no finer defensive guards in the country, and certainly none better at stealing cross-court passes. Dixon is the only Division I player in history with 2,000 points, 300 steals, and 200 three-pointers. His jersey, No. 3, has been retired at Maryland.

If all goes as planned, and Maryland plays deep into the NCAA tournament, Dixon will break the school's scoring record, held by Len Bias. The tragedy of Bias has hung over the Terps for more than 15 years now, and Maryland fans will not soon forget the greatest player the program ever produced. But if anyone should break Bias's record, it should be Dixon, a squeaky clean player who got to the top more with grit than with pure athletic talent.

And, if there is any justice in the basketball world, Dixon will be a first-round pick in the NBA draft. While many rookies are overpaid prima donnas, Dixon would be worth every penny. No one is more deserving of a fat contract than he.

But, even if the NBA doesn't work out for Juan – and there are plenty of doubters, because of his size – we can all rest assured that he'll make out just fine.

In many ways, he already has.

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