Don Markus of the Baltimore Sun originally told the improbable story of Dixon forging a relationship with his biological father, retired Baltimore County correctional officer Bruce Flanigan, last November. It will be told again on Tuesday’s episode of HBO’s “Real Sports with Bryant Gumbel” at 10 p.m.
“I thought it was an astonishing story,” “Real Sports” correspondent David Scott said last week of his reaction when producer Jake Rosenwasser pitched the idea. “On the one hand, you almost can’t believe it. On the other hand, it’s a story about family secrets, and many, if not most of us, have them. They’re not all made for TV like Juan Dixon’s is, but I think that makes it relatable and gives it some universality, if you will.”
Dixon’s mother, Juanita, and the man he always assumed was his father, Phil, both died of AIDS when he was a teenager. Dixon, who was raised by grandparents, aunts and his older brother and role model, Phil, earned a scholarship to Maryland after starring at Calvert Hall. Throughout his career in College Park, Dixon’s story of triumph amid tragedy was repeated often, including during the Terrapins’ run to the NCAA championship.
Flanigan, who dated Juanita briefly in high school, had long suspected that Dixon was his son. A former Baltimore high school basketball star himself, his suspicions were all but confirmed when he watched Dixon become a standout at Maryland. Every time Flanigan talked to Juanita about being introduced to Juan before her death, however, she shot him down, and as Dixon’s career took off after college, he didn’t want to interfere. Last summer, Dixon learned through the grapevine that Flanigan might be his biological father and reached out.
“I don’t think my answers were good enough,” Flanigan told Scott of his first phone conversation with Dixon.
A paternity test confirmed that Dixon is Flanigan’s son and the two men have spent the past few months trying to make up for lost time. Several members of the extended family that helped raise Dixon, including Phil, who cut off communication with his brother, have yet to come to terms with Flanigan becoming a part of Dixon’s life and don’t view their reunion as a feel-good story.
“We tried to talk to as many as them as we could, and nobody wanted to go on camera, but from what we’ve been told, it’s certainly the case that emotions are still very raw, and one of the lessons is that family secrets divide families and the longer they’re held in a way, the more dangerous they become in that regard,” said Scott, who spent time with Flanigan and Dixon. “This one is still quite fresh. … You can just feel it’s a big, loving family that lived through enough to crush anyone, frankly. You’re rooting for them. It’s a bittersweet ending, it’s not a Disney ending, but you do end up rooting for some rapprochement in the near-term future that will allow everyone to embrace this version of the modern family.”