The biggest overachiever in Maryland basketball history -- maybe in the modern college game -- is trying to beat the odds again.
At age 33, a decade after leading the Terps to the NCAA men's championship, three years removed from his last NBA game and now rehabilitating an injured left knee, Juan Dixon is plotting his comeback.
"Don't count me out," Dixon said Thursday in his first extensive interview since being banned in February 2010 from playing in Europe after failing a drug test the previous season.
In short, Dixon is trying to rewrite the last chapter of his basketball legacy.
"My goal in the next year is to get back into the NBA," said Dixon, who played seven years in the league after being a first-round draft choice (17th overall) of the Washington Wizards in 2002. "I'm going to get back to the NBA. My kids and basketball are my passions, and I want them to see me play in the NBA. I want to go out on my own terms. … I know I'm still an NBA player."
What Dixon is also trying to do is re-create himself by going back to his Baltimore roots, where as a child he overcame personal tragedy and was stereotyped as a kid who was too small to be a star.
Dixon was so scrawny coming out of Calvert Hall that Maryland coach Gary Williams decided to redshirt him. Five years later, Dixon left College Park as the school's all-time leading scorer and as the player who carried the Terps to their only national title.
'I cried this morning'
Dixon's Final Four heroics, which included scoring 33 points in a semifinal victory over Kansas and making key shots in an 18-point performance to lead Maryland past Indiana at the Georgia Dome two nights later, came 10 years ago this weekend.
He doesn't live in the past, but he doesn't run away from it either.
"I start thinking about Atlanta when the NCAA tournament begins every year," Dixon said. "I think about all the great times we had and what we were able to accomplish."
Asked whether that 2002 Maryland group could compete with the teams in this year's Final Four, Dixon said with typical bravado: "Without a doubt. We had every piece."
Part of that confidence stems from what Dixon sees in today's game -- incomplete teams built around two or three players, their starting lineups filled with freshmen or sophomores -- programs that are the polar opposites of the Maryland and Duke teams that dominated college basketball during his career.
"I feel like college basketball has regressed," he said. "No offense to some of the teams that have won the title the past few years, like the Duke team with Nolan Smith and [Kyle] Singler that won it two years ago. That team would have been killed by the Duke team with [Shane] Battier, [Elton] Brand and William Avery. Guys go to the NBA. It's not as consistent."
Dixon, who backed down to no one, including his coach, gave Maryland the persona that helped turn an up-and-coming team into a national power. He might not have had the physical prowess of Len Bias, whose scoring record he broke, or the otherworldly schoolyard skills of Steve Francis, who he played behind as a redshirt freshman, but Dixon had the mental toughness that came from having to fend for himself after his drug-addicted parents died from AIDS-related illnesses when he was a teenager in Baltimore.
What Dixon is hoping to do now is become the adult incarnation of the kid he was at Calvert Hall, looking for another chance to prove himself.
Instead of the college scouts who didn't think he had the strength and body type to play major college basketball, let alone in the then-dominant Atlantic Coast Conference, Dixon wants to quiet those who think of him now as an over-the-hill journeyman guard whose professional career ended with a tainted image after he tested positive for steroids while playing in Greece.
Though Dixon doesn't like to talk about the specifics of the case that resulted in him receiving a one-year ban from FIBA, the sport's international governing body, he readily acknowledges: "I've cried whenever I think about what I've been through the past two years. I cried this morning."
The comeback is in its infancy, Dixon concedes. His left knee required surgery to repair a torn meniscus, and he more recently underwent two treatments of an experimental procedure called platelet-rich plasma therapy to help promote healing of the patellar tendon.
"The knee is feeling better than it has in a long time," Dixon said.
He has been working with trainer Troy Jones in Eldersburg and said he hopes to begin working with Dodd Romero, a Miami-based trainer whose Ten Commandments of Health have become Dixon's doctrine. Dixon said he knows he wants to look like a different player if an NBA team invites him to try out.
"It's not about how much I weigh, it's how strong I am, it's the kind of shape I'm in. I can't be that skinny guy," said Dixon, who is 6 feet 3 and never weighed more than 170 pounds while playing in the NBA. "You've got to look the part. [NBA general managers] are going to look at me and not see the guy they saw a few years ago."
There have also been off-court distractions, including his divorce from his college sweetheart, Robyn, that was finalized March 14. They remain friends, Robyn Dixon said Friday, and she says what he has gone through the past few years has helped him mature.
"When you're a normal 22-year-old getting your first job, you start at an entry-level position and work your way up, but when you're a 22-year-old professional athlete, you're thrust into the spotlight and you don't get an opportunity to grow [as a person]," Robyn Dixon said. "I think what he's gone through has been pretty humbling, and I think if he gets another opportunity, he'll do things differently."
Dixon's aunt, former Baltimore Mayor Sheila Dixon, said she has seen her nephew open up from the "quiet kid who kept things to himself" and had the same "middle-child personality" she did. Given the way her political career ended in scandal, she can relate to what he is going through.
"He's still a very popular figure in Baltimore, people are always asking me how he's doing," Sheila Dixon said Friday. "For him, it's being able to write a new chapter -- not a new ending -- and clarify some things and be portrayed in a positive light the way he should be."
Dixon says part of the reason for his attempt to play again -- hopefully in the NBA, but more realistically in Europe to start -- is for his two sons, 4-year-old Corey and 2-year-old Carter, to think of their father as more than their playmate, who they sometimes refer to as "LeBron James" when they are playing with a basketball.
"I have two little boys who look up to their father every day," Dixon said. "I want to be a good role model for them, a mentor. As much as I want to do this for myself, I want to do it for them. I want them to know what I did, what I can do."
'He can get back'
Williams, who was as close to if not closer to Dixon than any player he ever coached, saw his former star struggle as his role changed over the course of his professional career.
"What made Juan great, in addition to his work ethic, was that he had this extreme confidence," Williams said. "He never could adjust to being an eighth man or something like that. That wasn't part of his makeup. The other side of it is, that's what got him to the NBA."
Ed Tapscott, who served as Dixon's last NBA coach when he was interim head coach of the Wizards for the last 71 games of the 2008-09 season, said he thinks a comeback is realistic if Dixon gets himself in shape and "comes back with a new attitude." Tapscott said Dixon was in a "tough position" as a little-used veteran on a Washington team ravaged by injuries.
"He signed on to a team that he thought was going to be pretty good," said Tapscott, who returned to the Wizards' front office after that season and works in scouting and player development. "Then Gilbert Arenas couldn't play [because of knee injuries]. Brendan Haywood, our center, got hurt. We had to find out what our young guys can do. I said to Juan, 'You've got to be a good vet and be ready.'"
Tapscott said Dixon did that until the last month of the season "when he slipped a little." When Tapscott needed Dixon to finish out the last few games as a starter, he was out of shape and played poorly. He wasn't close to the player who averaged nearly a point every two minutes over his first six seasons. He barely tried, to the point where teammates questioned his heart.
"But that is not Juan Dixon," Tapscott said. "Juan Dixon is a highly competitive, highly trained, hard-working guy. He's also one of the smartest basketball players I've ever coached."
Tapscott points to other players who have returned to the NBA after missing more than a season or two. Mike James, 36, is back with the Chicago Bulls after playing in Europe or the NBA's D-League the past two years. Former Boston Celtics star Antoine Walker, 35, is trying to get back into shape in the D-League.
"Given the drive that got Juan into the NBA, he can recapture that," Tapscott said. "Anyone who is trying to get back to the NBA can take inventory of what they do well and try to improve things that they struggle with, and most importantly, try to be a positive guy in the locker room regardless of the role you're asked to play. If he finds the right situation, sure, he can get back to the NBA."
Given his private nature, Dixon does not want to divulge what happened toward the end of his NBA career. But he is quick to say: "I have nobody to blame but myself for that. If I get another chance, I will do things differently. I will take care of my body better. I will eat better, get more sleep. I think I could do a lot of things better."
Said Robyn Dixon: "I think he really struggled with the roles he was given. Everyone in the NBA was a star in college. Then you get drafted, you still think of yourself that way. How many superstars can there be on a team? I think Juan would do whatever it took, even if it meant being the 12th man on a roster. I don't think it's about proving anybody wrong. He just loves to play basketball."