Juan Dixon is accustomed to cajoling, pleading and coaxing players on his Coppin State men’s basketball team to listen to him and carry out his game plans. Coaching players who have dabbled in the NBA or are playing overseas professionally in the 5-on-5, $2 million winner-take-all The Basketball Tournament in Chicago was somewhat easier.
“When I got an opportunity to meet the rest of the team, I was like, ‘This is easy,’ ” Dixon said Monday. “I’ve just got to try to get these guys going as best as I can.”
The former Maryland star and Baltimore native guided Team Hines, a group of pros who had played in Europe and elsewhere, to the event’s semifinals. In three previous tries, Team Hines had never advanced out of their regionals, according to general manager Muhammad Smith.
Dixon and Smith were just two members of Team Hines that had connections to Baltimore and the rest of the state. Baltimore native and former Douglass High center Joey Dorsey and Owings Mills native and former Milford Mill High small forward Isaiah Miles got playing time, while former Towson forward Tony Durant — brother of NBA star Kevin Durant — and former UMES forward Tyler Hines served as assistant coaches.
Smith, who played at Northern in Baltimore and founded Full Circle Management last year with Tony Durant, said he reached out to childhood friend Dixon, who starred at Calvert Hall, to coach Team Hines.
“I thought this was a great platform for him for what he was trying to get accomplished,” Smith said Monday. “So I called him and asked him. I said, ‘Look, this would be a great opportunity for you. You’ve got the knowledge.’ So it was a no-brainer for him.”
Dixon echoed Smith’s sentiment, adding: “It’s pretty much the only basketball happening during this time of the year along with the BIG3 and the WNBA. We had our own time slot playing on ESPN, and to be out there coaching pros is always good. It’s good for your resume.”
Players like Miles, point guards Mike James (a former member of the Phoenix Suns and New Orleans Pelicans) and Thomas Walkup (Lithuania Basketball League’s Defensive Player of the Year in 2019), and power forwards Kyle Hines (two-time winner of the EuroLeague Best Defender award) and Aaron White (a Washington Wizards second-round draft pick in 2015) are clients of Full Circle. But others, like Dorsey, Greek national team point guard Nick Calathes and Belgian national team shooting guard Matt Lojeski, signed on for the chance to play with Hines and James, according to Smith.
Dixon said the players did not need much time to build on-court chemistry with each other before their first game July 19.
“Those guys are high-level basketball players,” he said. “So it wasn’t so much about getting the guys to play together. It was about keeping the guys organized and having them play with structure. So mainly, I talked about spacing and detailed player movement and just sharing the ball.”
Dixon said he was heartened by the players’ attitudes.
“We all understood that we had a common goal, and that was to win the tournament,” he said. “No one was going to get MVP or anything like that. The guys were a lot of fun to coach.”
Team Hines proved worthy of its No. 1 seed in the Greensboro Regional, winning all three games by an average of seven points. But the scores were deceiving, according to Smith.
“Every game we won, we thought we played terrible,” he said. “Honestly. Every game we won, we went back to the locker room and said, ‘We beat this team, but we didn’t play well. Imagine what we could do if we just buy in and lock in on defense.’ The first game that we played in the final eight [an 88-75 victory over No. 3 seed Brotherly Love on Friday] is when we played good basketball.”
Smith credited the Golden Eagles with crafting a strategy to keep the ball away from James (nine points on 3-for-12 shooting), and Dixon blamed himself for not adjusting.
“Unfortunately, we came up a little short, and I felt like I could’ve done a better job making the proper substitutions at the right time against Marquette yesterday,” he said. “We had an opportunity to win the whole thing, but we didn’t execute as well down the stretch.”
Smith said many of the players have pledged to return next summer, and Baskonia power forward Tornike “Toko” Shengelia, who spent three seasons with the Brooklyn Nets, and FC Barcelona SG Cory Higgins, the son of former Golden State Warriors shooting guard Rod Higgins, have inquired about joining the team.
Dixon said he is unsure if he will coach Team Hines again. He was too focused on the missed opportunity of capturing the tournament championship.
“We should have won it this year,” he said. “There’s no doubt that we should have won that game. The ball didn’t bounce our way a couple times. … But overall, it was a great experience having the opportunity to coach high-level pros that a lot of people here in the States don’t know about but have a ton of experience overseas. So those guys gave me a heck of an opportunity, and I enjoyed every second of it.”