Juan Dixon stood in front of a hundred wide-eyed schoolchildren.
One by one he took their questions like lob passes. What number do you wear? What would you be doing if you didn't play basketball? Did anybody ever tell you that you were too small to play?
Most of his answers were short and simple, but that last one, that one made him pause.
"People didn't think I'd make it because I was so small," he said last week at the annual basketball camp he runs with Jimmy Patsos, the Loyola Greyhounds' coach. "I wanted to prove people wrong. I knew if I worked hard enough, I could do whatever I wanted, no matter how small they thought I was."
Sitting cross-legged on the floor in front of Dixon was 14-year-old Matt Jeffers. He listened quietly, never taking his eyes off the 6-foot-3 Portland Trail Blazers guard in front of him. Too small to play basketball? Yup, Matt had heard that one before. Often, in fact. That's part of what attracted Matt and Dixon to each other.
The pair first met at the camp a couple of years earlier. Matt was shooting and Dixon came up from behind, tapping Matt on the shoulder.
"Hey. I'm Juan," he said.
Dixon could see Matt was different from the other kids. Of course, he first noticed that Matt suffered from a type of dwarfism, but Dixon saw something else, too.
"The first time I saw him, I could see what he was all about," Dixon says. "Matt's found this thing that he really loved, and he was committed to working hard to get better at it."
There's texture to the pair's relationship.
There are shared hardships and life struggles and a connection so much bigger than anything you can measure with a growth chart.
Matt was just 5 months old when his parents, Mike and Marcie, of Pikesville, noticed that something wasn't quite right. They took him to see a doctor, and the news wasn't good. Not only did their newborn have skeletal dysplasia, one of approximately 200 types of dwarfism, but he also needed a tracheotomy procedure.
What followed were years of surgery, sleepless nights, prayers and more surgery. Matt spent entire summers in body casts. He had to breathe through a trach tube in his neck and wasn't able to say his first words until he was 5. Doctors weren't certain how tall he'd grow, but they knew it wouldn't be a normal height.
"I'm not going to lie," Matt says. "There are times when I think, 'Geez, what are the odds that this happened to me? Why couldn't I have been like LeBron James or Terrell Owens? Something athletic?'
"But everyone, athletic or not, everyone has got their faults. Whether it's personality, something physical, we all have some faults. People look at themselves, 'I don't like my nose. I don't like my hair.' So this is just my setback."
He stands 4 feet, 1/2 inch. He enjoys table tennis, acting and basketball. In fact, Matt likes basketball so much, he attended a dance last year and took his ball with him.
And you should see him on the court. Matt handles the ball with ease, dribbling, head fakes, cross-overs.
"He has a high basketball IQ," Dixon says. "He probably can't do what some other kids his age can do, but that doesn't stop him. He knows this game very well. Put him against any other kid in the gym, guys in college even, and he knows more about the game."
While it's easy to look at Matt and see what he's lacking, Dixon instinctually took the opposite approach. Dixon saw someone who has had every reason to quit, to walk away, to burn his sneakers and hate ESPN.
Matt wasn't like that. He embodied the same thing as Dixon.
Both of Dixon's parents died before he was 18. The basketball court was where he felt normal, his sense of peace. Even there, he was told to enjoy it while it lasted because he was too small to make a living by playing ball.
Dixon was a scorer at Calvert Hall - thin as a walking stick then - and blossomed into a star at the University of Maryland. He memorably led the Terps to a national championship and left for the NBA as the school's all-time leading scorer.
"They tell Matt he's too small, he can't get his shot off, can't play defense. That's the same stuff I always heard," Dixon says. "To see someone in a situation like that, I feel for him. He doesn't want nothing for free. He wants to be treated like all the rest of the kids in there. He'll just work harder."
The two talk on the phone now and then. Matt called to wish Juan happy holidays. He called again a couple of weeks ago when the NBA season ended. They both look forward to the camp each year.
Matt was at the gym bright and early all last week. On the courts, no one looks at him funny. The coaches love him, and the other kids seemed to treat his height like a quirk more than a disability. At one point, a 7-year-old stepped toward Matt, passing his hand back and forth from forehead to forehead. Matt didn't seem to mind that someone half his age was 4 inches taller.
"When I was 11 or so, I really wanted to be in the NBA. I used to look up to Muggsy Bogues," he says. "But there's some things that you just have to realize."
A part of getting older is probably realizing that we can't really do everything we want. Matt adjusted quickly. He realized that basketball wasn't his only passion. Last year, he played the lead in Lend Me a Tenor at Beth Tfiloh Dahan Community School.
What I haven't told you is that what Matt lacks in height, he makes up for in just about every other category. Even Dixon says that speaking to Matt is like talking to an adult.
Oprah Winfrey recently visited the school for a fundraiser. She asked Matt, "What are you thinking about doing when you're older?"
"Thinking?" Matt said. "You don't think about what you want to do. You know it. You know you're going to become something. I know I'm going to be famous, that I'm going to change people's lives.
"Just like Juan. I've been through a lot in my life, and it's something people can learn from. Juan has a very unique story; I have a very unique story."
The afternoon was waning at the Loyola gym. Matt's camp had finished for the day, and Dixon was taking a break from playing pickup games. The two sat side by side, sharing a chair at one end of the court.
They talked, they laughed, they watched basketball.
Both of them much too small to succeed in the world around them and much too determined not to.
Read Rick Maese's blog at baltimoresun.com/maeseblog
Points after -- Rick Maese
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