Terrapins’ Juan, and Only
By Michael Wilbon,
ATLANTA — He might go down as the University of Maryland’s greatest player and its most beloved. Juan Dixon, a kid with so sad a beginning, gave Maryland basketball its dreamiest ending Monday night. Dixon was Maryland’s calm in those few desperate moments in the second half, its smartest and toughest and most purposeful player in the moments when grace under pressure is everything.
They can hang Dixon’s uniform No. 3 in the rafters of Cole Field House or Comcast Center or from any flagpole in College Park, and it would be quite appropriate. Lonny Baxter, Chris Wilcox, Byron Mouton, Steve Blake, Drew Nicholas, Tahj Holden and the others will all own a piece of the 2002 NCAA men’s basketball championship, the first in the University of Maryland’s history. But the title will be associated with two men above all the others: Gary Williams, the coach who saved his alma mater’s team, and Juan Dixon, the star, the kid who provided the resolve and the candlepower.
If a kid has ever had a more inspirational ride than Dixon has at Maryland, tell us now. It’s just not possible to script a sweeter story than this, Dixon negotiating these years without mother and father, succeeding a star like Steve Francis, carrying a program on his skinny little 165-pound body.
Maryland’s 64-52 victory over Indiana on Monday night was neither pretty nor easy, which was probably fitting for two fighters, Williamsand Dixon, for whom nothing has ever been easy. “I am so proud of everyone on this team,” Dixon said immediately afterward. “I can’t put into words how excited I am now. Coach Williams took a chance on me, and I thank him for that. This has been a great experience.”
The packaging might be different, but they’re made of pretty much the same stuff. All the Maryland players and coaches know it. “Garygrowing up didn’t have an easy childhood,” assistant coach Jimmy Patsos said in the afterglow of triumph. “I think he sees some of himself in Juan. I’m with [Williams] on Christmas Day, during the holidays, finding a McDonald’s because you can’t be with family. That’s when he’ll talk, when things will seep out. I think basketball is his release, and he knows it’s Juan’s way out, too. He’ll ask Juan,’You all right? You need anything?’ Then they go back in the gym and go at each other. If they played chess, they’d fight.”
Nicholas is a kid who sees things with great clarity for someone so young. “I think that’s about as close as a player and coach will get,” he said of Williams and Dixon. “It’s tough love sometimes, yes. They’re both very intense, sometimes like two bulls going at it.”
But when on the same side, they’re two bulls going after somebody else, in this case the Hoosiers. Because Williams took the time over a full season to develop role players, big and small, Maryland was vulnerable to almost nothing late this season. His work developed over months. Dixon’s contribution is easier to wrap in a nice pretty bow.
He hit 6 of 9 shots, including the only two three-pointers Maryland had all night. And the second of those was the one that put Maryland ahead for good, 45-44, with 9 minutes 40 seconds to play. The box score says he committed seven turnovers, and that may be official, but it also ain’t right. Anyway, he took five steals off the Hoosiers, grabbed five rebounds, which is one more than the Indiana center had.
He had said before the game he wasn’t going to concern himself with Indiana’s hounding guard, Dane Fife, whom Hoosiers teammates call “crazy” without hesitation. “I’m not worried at all, man,” Dixon had said. “I’m not talking trash, but that’s just the type of person I am. I have a lot of confidence in my ability. I had a chance to see [Fife] a couple of times, but if I play my game, play hard like I’ve been doing all season long, I think I’ll be fine.”
And so he was, and so Maryland is. Dixon was the best player in this year’s tournament, the best player in the Final Four by a country mile. Don’t get me wrong, plenty of people contributed. Mouton scored only four points, but made two huge hustle plays to save possessions for Maryland. Baxter didn’t have a great scoring night (15 points), but he battled inside against taller Hoosiers and grabbed 14 rebounds. Blake played the first half in a funk but snapped out of it in the second half and ran the team like we’ve become accustomed. And after allowing the Hoosiers to make 5 of 8 three-point shots the first half, the Terrapins extended their defense and forced Indiana to miss 10 of 15 three-pointers after intermission.
Clearly in a battle, though, Maryland went to the man who has delivered them so many times over four years, Dixon. His three-pointer to put the Terps ahead for good, then a fadeaway jumper that counted as much for the sigh of relief as it did for the two points. He is the best player on the best team in the country.
“I grew up a lot in college,” Dixon said. “I developed as a person, a basketball player. I feel like I’m dreaming right now because I’m part of a national championship team. I went out here and got better each year and led my team to a national championship. It’s a great feeling man. I’m speechless. I really don’t know what to say.”
It was nearly 1 a.m. when Dixon left the Georgia Dome wearing nylon netting around his neck. He was excited about winning a championship, excited about a triumphant career and excited about an exchange between him and his coach.
“He told me after the game he loved me,” Dixon said. “How about that?”