Long-shot family nets a Dixon win Terp: Having lost both parents to drugs, Calvert Hall alum Juan Dixon only returns to Baltimore in triumph today thanks to the combination defense of a wide range of loving relatives.

THE BALTIMORE SUN

The names are listed under his biography in the Maryland media guide. Grandparents. Aunts. Uncles. Cousins. And, last but not least, big brother.

These are the people who raised Juan Dixon in place of his parents, the relatives who continue to give him love and shelter, discipline and support.

Juan for all. All for Juan.

Dixon's parents were heroin addicts who died of AIDS while he was at Calvert Hall; his mother when he was a sophomore, his father when he was a junior.

Tonight, he returns home to Baltimore as a redshirt freshman guard for the fifth-ranked Maryland men's basketball team, a symbol of hope, resilience and yes, the power of love.

Dixon, 20, was the second of three children born to Juanita and Phil Dixon Jr. His brother, Phil III, is 24. His sister, Nicole, is 17. His other sibling, Jermaine Cooper, 11, was his mother's fourth child.

Rather than face neglect, the children have been embraced by members of both their parents' families through almost two decades of turmoil and tragedy.

"It was like a finely tuned team," recalled Mark Amatucci, Dixon's coach at Calvert Hall. "Everyone had their role. Everyone carried it out. And it worked."

Dixon's relatives indeed formed a cohesive unit, stepping forward at different times, contributing their own strengths, compensating for each other's weaknesses.

The point guard, offering direction to his siblings, was Juan's big brother Phil, a Division III All-American at Shenandoah (Va.) College and the first member of his mother's family to earn a college degree.

The wings, providing long arms of shelter, were Juan's maternal grandmother, Roberta Graves, 70, and his cousin, Sherrice Driver, 33.

The post players, standing tall for education, were Juan's paternal aunts, Janice Dixon, 47, and Baltimore City Councilwoman Sheila Dixon, 44.

Finally there was the sixth man, Dixon's uncle, Mark Smith, 45, who remains a father figure to Juan more than a decade after his divorce from Sheila Dixon.

In a weaker family structure, Smith said that the older boys "easily could have become candidates for the judicial system."

"I'd probably be on the streets, to tell you the truth," Dixon said. "I had guys around my grandmother's home in Northeast Baltimore asking me and my brother to sell drugs.

"My brother kept me focused. And I had basketball to keep my mind off all the tragic things that happened in our lives, all the people coming up to you wanting to offer you things."

Dixon talks about the "crazy obstacles" he faced growing up. His household, if it could be called that, was far from normal.

Yet, he loves his parents still.

Juan has a tattoo of their names -- " 'Nita and Phil" -- on his left biceps. He has another tattoo of his mother's name and face over his heart, and honors her memory by rubbing his chest on the free-throw line.

"My mom's my heart, man," Juan said. "I've got her right here close to my heart."

His parents separated when he was about 4. His father spent time in jail in the mid-'80s for drug-related offenses. But Juan said he was always "real close" with his mother.

"I could tell her anything, and she'd have the answer for me," Juan said. "She was a wonderful woman. She just hooked up with the wrong people."

The same could be said of his father, Phil.

Dixon's paternal grandmother, Winona, was a civic activist who would go into public housing projects to find truants and take them to school. She died on Oct. 22 at the age of 77.

Each of her four children graduated from college -- Phil while in jail. Janice and Sheila went on to earn master's degrees. Sheila, who represents the 4th District, is considered a possible candidate for mayor, or president of the City Council.

Near the end, Phil seemed headed in the right direction, too.

"The last five years of his life, he actually started having a life -- he was working, he had his own place, he bought a car," Janice said. "He started having a life when it was too late."

Through it all -- the absences, the addictions, the battles against AIDS -- the children always believed that their parents loved them.

"We were blessed with some people who really helped us in tough times," said Juan's brother Phil. "We always had someone we could lean on.

"Even though our parents did bad things, they never abandoned us. There wasn't a time when they put us in the arms of people who didn't care."

Dixon's grandmother, Roberta Graves, raised her own six children, then Phil and Juan. But she isn't finished yet. Nicole and Jermaine still live with her in Northeast Baltimore.

"She's getting tired now," Juan said.

Phil was 8 and Juan 4 when they went to live with Graves and her husband, Warnick, 75, a retired truck driver.

Roberta accepted the children without complaint -- she didn't want them separated as their parents struggled with drug habits.

"It was something I knew had to be done," she said.

But she couldn't do it alone.

She needed help, help from her husband, help from the father's side of the family. "I can't imagine what we would have done if not for them," Roberta said.

Juan lived with relatives on his mother's side, first his grandparents, then his cousin, Sherrice Driver, a widowed mother of two who lives in Towson, closer to Calvert Hall.

His father's sister, Janice, a supervisor with Bell Atlantic, paid most of Juan's tuition at Calvert Hall, with financial aid covering the rest.

His father's other sister, Sheila, also helped financially and landed Juan a job at the dock master's office that helped him pay for his SAT preparation courses.

Janice and Sheila did not have children at the time.

"They always said, 'Books, books, books,' " Juan said, " 'if you didn't get your books together, no sports.' "

"Tough love," Sheila called it, as opposed to the nurturing Juan received from other relatives, particularly on his mother's side.

One love.

"It's for the kids -- you have to look out for their well-being," Driver said. "In order to do that, you have to come together and be one."

Uncle Mark Smith, remarried for nine years, technically is no longer part of the family. But he took the boys on weekend outings when they were younger -- swimming, go-cart rides, Orioles games. And he never left Juan's life.

Smith, along with his ex-sister-in-law Janice and Juan's brother Phil, met with college coaches during Juan's recruitment.

"There are a lot of heroes, but I guess none of us considered ourselves that," said Smith, a graduate of Case Western Reserve who works in sales. "We were just doing what we had to do."

And the children listened.

"They were determined within themselves not to follow in the footsteps of their parents," Janice Dixon said. "That came from the things we exposed them to.

"We told them there's more to life than just the streets. We instilled that in them. Both sides of the family had some people we would not have wanted them to emulate. But they picked the best of everyone."

And now it's Juan's turn.

His brother Phil helped him with sports, pushed him with homework, kept him with the right crowd.

Juan wants to be the same type of role model for his younger male relatives -- his brother, Jermaine, and his cousins, Marcus Graves, 12, and Brandon Driver, 11.

"It's understood," Juan said. "My brother was there for me. I want to be there for them."

Especially Jermaine, who is nine years younger.

"He made me cry," Juan said. "After I came home from our trip to Puerto Rico, I went home Sunday evening. I hadn't seen my little brother in a while.

"I picked him up at my aunt's and took him back to my grandmother's. Just seeing him made me cry. I love him to death. I need to spend more time with him."

Phil sees it. Amatucci, his old high school coach, sees it. Maryland coach Gary Williams sees it, too.

Juan is maturing, becoming a man.

This is a kid who said he never read a book until he entered Calvert Hall. A kid who took the SAT "five or six times" to get the score required to play at Maryland. A 6-foot-3, 152-pound kid who is not afraid to mix it up in the ACC.

"He's made up his mind -- and I'm not talking about basketball -- that he's going to be successful as a person," Williams said.

"I don't know how you get where he came from to that point, but he has. You can see it on the court. He doesn't think anyone can beat him individually or beat us as a team."

So what happens on Senior Day three years from now?

The tradition at Maryland and other schools is for players to be introduced with their parents. But who would accompany Juan?

Brother Phil? Uncle Mark? Cousin Sherrice?

Aunts Janice and Sheila? Grandparents Roberta and Warnick?

"I'd let him bring as many people as he wanted," Williams said.

Juan for all. All for Juan.

Pub Date: 12/19/98

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