Juan Dixon forges relationship with the father he didn't know existed

WASHINGTON — On road trips with the Maryland men's basketball team during his three seasons as a special assistant, Juan Dixon admired how coach Mark Turgeon involved his own family, and particularly his father Bob.

Dixon, 38, lost both of his parents to AIDS when he was a teenager. Phil and Juanita Dixon weren't around to see the former Calvert Hall standout lead the Terps to their only national championship in 2002 — the year he was a consensus All-American and the Most Outstanding Player of the Final Four.


They didn't share in the ups and downs of his NBA career — a seven-year journey from Washington to Portland to Toronto to Detroit and back to Washington, with only one season as a starter.

"I said to Coach Turgeon, 'It's awesome that you get the support that you do from your dad, traveling with the team, being there for you, no matter if things are going well or not,'" Dixon said.


"I told him, 'I wish I could have had that with my own father.' "

Dixon smiled. His eyes moistened.

"Now I do," he said.

The Baltimore native learned in late August that Phil Dixon was not his biological father.

For Juan Dixon, it was another turn in a tumultuous year.

In June, the University of Maryland's all-time men's leading scorer learned the school would not be renewing his contract as a special assistant to Turgeon.

In October, he was hired to his first head coaching job, with the women's basketball team at the University of the District of Columbia.

In between, he began building a relationship with Bruce Flanigan.


A blood test the men took in September revealed that the retired Baltimore County correctional officer, a former boyfriend of Dixon's mother, was his biological father.

Flanigan long suspected the connection.

Until this year, Dixon didn't know Flanigan existed.

He grew up believing Phil Dixon was his father. When Phil and Juanita died in 1995, the extended Dixon family — including eventual Baltimore Mayor Sheila Dixon — joined in helping to raise him.

Now Juan Dixon talks to Flanigan every day.

Juan Dixon, shown in 1998, has a tattoo of his late mother, Juanita Dixon.

"It feels so natural," he said. "He's someone I can talk to, just dealing with stuff here [at UDC].


"It's great."

'Don't go there'

Growing up in Baltimore, the second of three boys, Dixon would ask his mother why he didn't look like his father, when his older brother was Phil's double.

Juanita's response sounded like a warning: "Don't go there."

The Dixons, both addicted to heroin, died in the year Juan turned 17. He thought he would never get an answer.

Sheila Dixon, Phil's younger sister, says she never suspected her brother wasn't Juan's father.


Juan called her in September. He told her he had "met someone and he was going to have a [paternity] test done to find out."

"I told him he had to do what he had to do," she said. "But he never called me to tell me what happened."

Dixon called her last week to share the full story.

Bruce Flanigan watches the Columbia Ravens, coached by his son Juan Dixon.

"I'm happy," Sheila Dixon said. "I'm just surprised. He'll always be my nephew and nothing has changed in that respect.

"I hope this helps him close some things. What I told Juan was this doesn't change the love and commitment we have for him; he's still part of the Dixon family."

Flanigan says he dated Juanita Graves in the early 1970s, when she was attending Northwestern High School, and he was a basketball star at Southwestern.


The relationship ended, and Juanita started dating Phil. But Flanigan says he and Juanita stayed in touch.

I knew his name and the first time I saw him play, I said, 'That's my son. He reminded me so much of myself. … It was like we could have been twins."

—  Bruce Flanigan, Juan Dixon's biological father

He says she came back to him briefly, before she returned to Phil and married him.

A couple of years later, he bumped into one of Juanita's sisters.

"She said, 'You need to go by and see your son,'" Flanigan recalled. "I would call and ask about it. Every time I asked [Juanita], she would always deny it."

Flanigan bumped into Juanita a few months before she died. He says she told him her middle son played basketball, as Flanigan had.

"When I asked her for more information, she just got agitated and changed the subject," Flanigan said.


Flanigan attended Juanita's funeral. He didn't see Juan, or hear him mentioned.

Nor did Flanigan follow Dixon's career at Calvert Hall, where the guard wore No. 12 — the number Flanigan had worn 20 years earlier at Southwestern, where he was a third-team All-Metro selection of The Baltimore Sun as a senior during the 1973-74 season.

Terrapins guard Juan Dixon reacts after sinking a 3- pointer against the Kansas Jayhawks in the 2002 NCAA Final Four at the Georgia Dome.

"I went on and had my own life, and had my own kids," Flanigan said. His daughter, Whitney, is now 34. He also has a stepchild from a former marriage.

The first connection

Dixon landed at Maryland, and changed his number to the iconic No. 3. He said this summer it was to honor his mother, who told him he would play on three levels of basketball — high school, college and the NBA.

Early in Dixon's first season at Maryland, Flanigan turned on the television to watch the Terps play.


"I knew who he was. I knew his name and the first time I saw him play, I said, 'That's my son,'" Flanigan said. "He reminded me so much of myself. … It was like we could have been twins."

Dixon had no idea who Flanigan was.

"When he started to watch me at Maryland, it was just like the eye test," he said. "He learned that I was Juanita's son. He did the math, and that was when they were dealing with each other and it all added up."

One morning during Dixon's freshman year, the deputy director of the Baltimore County Detention Center called Flanigan into his office and told him to close the door.

"He said, 'Have you seen that kid Juan Dixon playing for Maryland?'" Flanigan said. "I said, 'Yeah,' and I asked him why.

"He said, 'If I didn't know who you were, I would have thought that was you on that court.' "


Flanigan told the man in confidence that he believed Dixon was his son.

A few months later, Flanigan stopped in a department store in Towson. Dressed in his uniform, Flanigan bumped into Dixon. The emerging star saw a law officer walking toward him and thought he was in trouble.

"I just told him, 'I knew your mother in high school really well, and I know your whole family,' and he relaxed," Flanigan said. "I told him that I had played ball, and I told him three things to work on: pace — he was always in high gear — dribbling and defense. 'If you work on those things, you're going to be good.' "

Why didn't he tell Dixon he was his father?

"I didn't want to interfere with his career," Flanigan said. "A stranger walking up to a young kid and saying, 'I'm your father,' that could have been devastating to him. I said to myself, 'God will put us together one day.' And I believed in that."

Three years later — after Dixon led the Terps past Indiana at the Georgia Dome for the 2002 NCAA championship, and the 6-foot-3 guard was drafted in the first round by the Washington Wizards — Flanigan's family was having a barbecue in Baltimore.


Flanigan's mother, Eileen McCloud, bragged that her grandson had just helped Maryland win a national title and was headed for the NBA. P.J. Cole asked his great-aunt whom she was talking about.

"Juan Dixon," McCloud said.

McCloud, like her son, had suspected that Dixon was her grandson when she first saw him play at Maryland.

She put a 14-by-18-inch framed, signed photo of Dixon in his Maryland uniform that Flanigan purchased at an auction in her dining room, right above a picture of her favorite musical group, The Jackson Five.

"Deep down in my heart, I knew it," she said. "He played just like Bruce did, and he looked just like my son.

"But Juan had his life, the Dixons raised him and I left it alone. I thought, 'If God wants to reveal it, he'll reveal it in his own time.'


"I prayed to God that it would happen, and God answered my prayers."

After the 2002 barbecue, Cole told a friend — Marc Marcel, the brother of Robyn Dixon, Juan's then-wife. Marcel told his sister.

"When my brother said something to me, I brushed it off, assuming he was talking about Juan's younger brother, Jermaine, who has a different father," Robyn Dixon said.

She didn't think much more about it. And she never told Dixon.

Over the next 14 years, Dixon played his seven years in the NBA, and a few more in Europe, before returning to Maryland as a special assistant to Turgeon.

Flanigan rose to become the second African-American to serve as a major in the Baltimore County Department of Corrections.


The men made no connection.

The reunion

Over the summer, Marcel again brought up the possibility that Juan's biological father might still be alive. Robyn and Juan Dixon divorced in 2012, but live together with their two sons in Howard County.

Robyn and Juan had been talking about a story they had seen on television in which a person found a long-lost parent the person hadn't known existed.

This time, Robyn spoke with Juan.

"It triggered a memory in what his mother had said to him," Robyn said. "Then we started trying to find out a little bit more."


Dixon got Flanigan's number. He made the call on Aug. 31.

"I was speechless," Flanigan said.

They agreed to meet the following day at a sporting goods store at Arundel Mills. Robyn went, too.

The moment Dixon saw Flanigan — a smaller, older version of himself — he had a strong feeling they were father and son.

"I saw his demeanor. I looked at Robyn and said, 'That's my dad,' " Dixon recalled. "It's crazy. I appreciated everything my father did for me" — he meant Phil — "but this is my real dad."

They took the blood test.


Dixon called "Aunt Reesie" — Sherrise Driver, who is actually a cousin. Dixon lived with Driver throughout high school because her home was near Calvert Hall. The two have remained close.

Dixon suspected his family had known the truth.

"He was in tears," Driver said. "He was like, 'Why did you do this to me?'"

"I said, 'Honey, for the life of me, if I had any indication that your dad was alive, I would have brought it your attention. That's a joyous moment. Why would anyone want to keep that from you?' "

Before they got off the phone, Driver left Dixon with a parting thought.

"It's better now than not knowing at all," Driver said. "In certain times, some things are better left alone. If it's meant to be, it would be. And in this case, it was meant to be."


'An amazing development'

Nearly four decades after Dixon's birth, he has started a relationship with his biological father.

Flanigan was available.

"He said, 'I want you to be in my life, to have a dad I can rely on and can come to if I want some advice,'" Flanigan said. "I said, 'I want to be the dad that you always should have had in your life.'

"He said, 'Bruce, I'm very disappointed that once you realized I could be your son, why didn't you pursue me a lot further?'

"I didn't want people to think I was claiming him because of his fame and fortune."


Flanigan said his strong religious faith makes him believe this was some sort of divine intervention.

"If God wanted us to know, he would push us together," Flanigan said. "God directed Juan's career for him. He put Juan in the perfect light so I could see him. When I saw him, there was no mistake that he was my son. I would never know who Juan was if I never saw him on TV. …

"When I saw him, that's when all the pieces in my past started to surface."

Robyn says she doesn't think about what might have happened if the men had connected years ago.

"There's so many what-ifs, why and why now?" she said. "Had Juan had a father in his life and not had that chip on his shoulder, he may not have led Maryland to a national championship and made it to the NBA.

"Not that it's important, but sometimes things happen for a reason. That's how it was supposed to happen."


Dixon said he doesn't have any hard feelings about his biological father not contacting him.

"I'm not trying to make up for lost time," Dixon said. "We're family, we're just trying to move forward. It's a great development. An amazing development."

The connection to Flanigan seems to be changing Dixon. He has at times been aloof and abrasive, even to friends and family. Now the rough edges are smoothing, the personality softening.

"I think it has literally opened up a new life for him," Robyn said. "He's not only excited for himself, he's excited for our boys that they have a grandfather on Juan's side of the family. It's definitely something that has filled a void in his life."

Last week, Flanigan joined the family at Cedar Lane Park in Columbia to watch his grandson, 8-year-old Corey, play football.

Now Dixon is leading the Division II UDC women's basketball team. As he drives to the gym for the team's 7 a.m. practice, the voice of the man he calls "Pops" comes over the car speaker.


After opening the season with four losses, the Firebirds edged Lincoln University 65-63 last week to give Dixon his first win as a head coach.

When Dixon took the team to Temple for a preseason scrimmage last month, Flanigan, McCloud, Flanigan's daughter and two other relatives met them in Philadelphia.

"Juan came up to me and gave me a big hug and said, 'I finally get to meet my grandma,' " McCloud said.

It was just how Dixon remembered the Turgeon family reunions.