They were worried before the game they might be booed when introduced.
They were visitors now, Juan Dixon and Steve Blake. They entered the arena through the visitors' tunnel and walked into the visitors' locker room.
They put on, for the first time here, uniforms that didn't represent Maryland or Washington. They were preparing to be treated like players from enemy teams are treated. "Man, they booed Larry Hughes," Dixon said, "so I don't want to take anything for granted." And at one point Blake said to Dixon: "It seems like every guy who used to play here got booed when he came back. And we're in that position, right?"
Well, no. Those other guys didn't take the big neighborhood school, a joint that lives and dies with its basketball team, to its first Final Four and its only NCAA championship. Dixon and Blake did that. Dixon and Blake, not those other guys, were the ones who stayed four full years at a time when kids half as accomplished were jumping ship and turning pro after a year or two. It wasn't those other guys who stayed and endeared themselves to the home folk while playing with the pros. For three years with Dixon and two years with Blake, NBA folks would come to Washington, listen to the ovation every time Dixon hit a free throw, and have no idea what to make of the racket, of all the love.
Outsiders didn't get it.
Everybody here got it.
And that's why, with 30 seconds to go in the first quarter last night, folks stood and applauded with the usual appreciation when Dixon entered the lineup for the Portland Trail Blazers. That's why the building had a little buzz when they played together in the fourth quarter of a tight game against the Wizards.
Every time they see Dixon and Blake play, it makes them feel good, reminds them of Maryland's first run to the Final Four in 2001 and of the fabulous run the next year, through all that basketball royalty (Kentucky, U-Conn., Kansas and Indiana) en route to the national championship. You didn't have to be a Maryland fan to enjoy those teams that were coached by Gary Williams, directed by Blake, and led with heart, soul and clutch jump shooting by Dixon. So no, they weren't booed last night. Very possibly, they won't ever be booed here.
In the last 30 or so years, probably two dozen college basketball players have made a lasting impression around here. And then there's a short list of all-timers. That list has to include -- and we'll go in order of height -- Ralph Sampson, David Robinson, Patrick Ewing, Tom McMillen, Alonzo Mourning, Len Elmore, Buck Williams, Len Bias, Reggie Williams, Albert King, Dixon, Allen Iverson. Okay, I probably should include Sleepy Floyd.
But if we further reduce the list to players who led their teams to national championships, it gets real small: Ewing and Dixon. John Thompson never had any interest in being the warm and fuzzy story, and the culture of the time didn't react with warmth and fuzziness toward Georgetown, either.
Ewing was respected whenever he came back to play here with the Knicks; the intensity and tenacity with which he played always inspired a loyal, even emotional following. But it would be entirely revisionist to suggest for one second that Ewing "endeared" himself to the general populace.
Dixon did. Guys who stand 6 feet 3 and weigh 165 pounds tend to receive that kind of adulation in a way 7-footers do not. Don't get me wrong, Dixon never had the overall impact on college basketball Ewing did, nor will Dixon be able to lift an NBA team and carry it for years and years the way Ewing did. But skill alone doesn't determine how people feel about players.
Often, the one who is less imposing captures the most hearts. And while the great majority of folks never got to know Ewing because Thompson was a private coach, Dixon was an open book. Early on we knew that his mother and father died of drug-related AIDS when he was a teenager. We knew he was raised thereafter with tough love by his older brother, Phil. We knew Juan grew up hard but never showed a single edge except on the basketball court. Toward the end of his Dixon's college career, as bitter a rivalry as Duke and Maryland had, it was mushy but so very real to hear Duke Coach Mike Krzyzewski say he so adored Dixon he wished he had coached him. It reminded me of the way Thompson seemed to feel about St. John's Chris Mullin back in the day, almost a bond developed through competition.
Walt Williams felt that way. The Wizard, Joe Smith, Keith Booth and Gary Williams delivered Maryland basketball from probation hell in the late 1980s. But Dixon was the face of those two Final Four teams. "Those teams," The Wizard said last night, "had Chris Wilcox, Lonny Baxter, Juan and Steve -- all pros -- so it was a really good team with a great coach. But Juan had overcome so many obstacles. I lost my pops at 20 years old and I cannot imagine not having my mom there, too. It takes a special kid to get through all that and rise up high enough to accomplish what he has. I felt so proud. I felt like it was my own kid. It was that gratifying."
It's less likely they'll have encores in the NBA. Dixon (10 points in 28 minutes last night) had some moments in a Wizards uniform, even in the playoffs last season. Blake (no points in five minutes) had fewer. Neither should start for a really good team. Either, coming off the bench, can be an asset for a really good team. But last night's return to Washington wasn't really about analyzing the basketball; it was a mini-celebration of what they did in Dixon's seven years here, in Blake's six years here. It was a nice trip down memory lane while everybody can remember and revel in every detail.
Dixon was having a bite at Houston's in Bethesda when the Trail Blazers agreed to sign him as a free agent. "I thought I'd be back," he said last night. "But I guess management and the coaches didn't agree on how they felt about me. But I'm happy to be in Portland now. It's a small city, real small and beautiful. One thing I learned in my three years here was that it's a business. No matter how much you love playing basketball, it's a business."
As we talked about the hard, unsentimental aspects of the game, a seventh-grader named Jill Warnock from Severn School was introduced to Dixon. She was so affected by watching Dixon at Maryland and by his story, she wrote a fictional book about Maryland's championship team. The title is "Zeroes to Heroes." Dixon, of course, was the star of Warnock's book. He signed it and gave her a hug. She sobbed.
So not all of it is cold, frosty business. "To affect a young girl's life that way -- wow," Dixon said. "I love the people here and I hope they love me."