Curiosity replaced fanfare long ago whenever Juan Dixon, Lonny Baxter or Byron Mouton walk into a Washington area gym, more than 13 years removed from their greatest athletic feat.
Why is Baxter sitting alone in the corner of the bleachers watching an AAU basketball game? Is that Mouton drawing up plays on the sideline for a bunch of middle schoolers? What’s Dixon doing working at a summer camp?
The trio of former Maryland men’s basketball stars, who led the Terrapins to a national championship in 2002, have all settled back in the local community after their professional playing careers ended, hopeful that passing lessons to a younger generation will be an outlet for their lingering passion for the game.
They are all aspiring coaches now, each at a different stage of “finding your niche,” as Dixon put it, looking to craft an identity separate from the on-court accomplishments. But even arriving at this point, toiling away on the periphery of the sport again, proved more complicated than any of them envisioned.
“A lot of guys, when they finish playing pro ball, they don’t know what to do with themselves. They get lost. And I think Juan was there at one point. . . . Lonny was in the same situation, too,” Mouton said earlier this month.
“Honestly, when I finished playing, I was lost myself and I didn’t know what I was going to do.”
Unlike Dixon and Baxter, Mouton never played in an NBA game. His professional career consisted of a few years overseas and several stints with minor league teams in the United States. A Rayne, La., native, he came back to Washington because his brother, Westlake boys’ basketball Coach Ed Mouton, and sister both live in the area.
At first, Mouton considered becoming a real estate agent. He almost began selling insurance. He even got into Web site design, only to quickly change course when he determined the complaints of clients were not worth the $700 he charged them.
“I don’t want no 9 to 5. I just know I can’t take it,” Mouton said. “Unless I’m dealing with people or with somebody in the community, I’d probably get fired.”
So in 2009, he started 6th Man Sports and became something of a nonprofit entrepreneur. Mouton’s organization currently sponsors boys’ and girls’ AAU basketball teams, holds camps in the summer and runs a youth basketball league during the winter. He also has a contract with Montgomery Sports Association to hold after-school youth sports programs throughout the school year.
It provides enough income to live comfortably, but Mouton fights an uphill battle on the summer basketball scene. Though his teams are outfitted in Under Armour uniforms and improving, he is not affiliated with a shoe apparel company and frequently watches his best players get recruited away by sponsored teams by the time they reach high school.
The setbacks often consume Mouton’s personal life. He admits keeping a girlfriend is difficult spending so much time around basketball courts.
“It’s a pride thing,” Mouton said. “When I first started, my team was bad and I want people to know I’m out here and I can compete with anybody.”
Former Maryland coach Gary Williams warned them all it could be like this, that the adoration from winning a national championship might not be enough.
“You have to get over all those things that you were as a player,” Williams said last week.
“Very few guys walk in and get a great job after they’re done playing. They’ve gravitated back towards basketball, but now they’re in a different stage of their lives. You want them to be successful. This is a special group for me.”
Dixon struggled to let go.
The 6-foot-3, 164-pound Baltimore native willed his way to a seven-year NBA career, overcoming the odds after his parents, both heroin addicts, died of AIDS-related illnesses in high school. Dixon stuck around the game by going overseas, until a knee injury ultimately doomed his basketball career in 2012. He left with regrets, wondering if his story could have had a happier ending.
“It was the hardest thing I’ve had to do in my life because basketball was all I knew,” Dixon said.
This is also why coaching at the college level always interested Dixon, and he immediately turned to the relationships and goodwill built while leading the Terrapins. He returned to Maryland to complete his college degree in family science in 2013 and the athletic department then hired him as a special assistant to men’s basketball Coach Mark Turgeon.
He is a constant presence at Maryland’s offseason high school team camp, holds his own youth basketball summer camps and helps coach his sons’ basketball teams.
Though Dixon dreams of running his own team one day, his current role is more mentor than coach. He’s unable to work with players during practice and sits behind the bench with the team’s graduate assistants during games. But much of the advice doled out comes from lessons learned at the end of his career, not the national championship everybody remembers.
“There was things I didn’t do along the way to make sure I still had an opportunity to play, like taking care of my body,” Dixon said. “That’s something I can do as a coach, as a mentor to these guys I’m working with at Maryland, to let them know how important it is to work on your body, make sure you’re eating well, work on your game. Those were some of the things I didn’t do at a high level and I paid for it by not going out the way I wanted to as a basketball player.”
Dixon eventually became one of the people prodding Baxter to return to school. The 6-8 Washington area native lasted four seasons in the NBA, played his final professional game in Russia in 2012 and “was at home, not doing nothing” in recent years, according to Mouton.
But walking out of Xfinity Center one day this spring between classes, Baxter ran into DC Thunder President Mike Brown, who broached the idea of Baxter working with the stable of post players in the Adidas-sponsored summer basketball organization.
“I didn’t really exactly want to be a coach, but I’d always been connected to basketball and I’d always been around it,” Baxter said. “I figured, why not?”
Baxter, who is in school full time, still has “20-some” credits remaining to earn a degree from Maryland in criminal justice, but doesn’t envision a career in law enforcement. He talks to Mouton and Dixon more than any of his former teammates, with a new goal to follow Dixon’s path and move into the college coaching ranks eventually.
Baxter volunteers with DC Thunder, though he doesn’t say much on the sideline yet. He’s still the shy big man Mouton and Dixon never expected to pursue coaching. Basketball at the grassroots level has changed, he said. The pace is faster, undersized players like him are scarce and “you’ve got to deal with a lot of egos.”
So earlier this month, Baxter sat alone in the bleachers of a dimly lit District Heights gym once his coaching duties for the day were complete, taking in another youth basketball game in silence. This is life now.
“Some of these kids, they’re so young,” Baxter said, “they don’t remember us.”