Juan Dixon had seen enough. It was early November, four days before his undersized Coppin State University men’s basketball team was to begin its season with what was essentially a lambs-to-the-slaughter game at the University of Oregon. Five minutes before practice was supposed to end, Coppin’s first-year coach was so over his players’ whining and complaining that, with a curt shriek of his whistle followed by a few choice words, he kicked them off the court.
Like teenagers (which some of them are) being dismissed from the dinner table for bad behavior, they lowered their heads and quietly shuffled into the locker room. The scene was reminiscent of a tactic another local coach employed more than once, only back then, there was a lot more sweat on the court.
“Juan was a great practice player,” says former University of Maryland coach and prolific perspirer Gary Williams, whose bond with Dixon helped both reach legendary heights in college basketball. “Some guys try to take it easy in practice. Even if it was a two-on-two drill, if [we were] scrimmaging, you better not make calls that hurt his team, because he would get very upset. He knew only one way to play.”
Dixon’s goal is to infuse the grittiness and determination he used to propel himself from a challenging childhood in West Baltimore to the NCAA championship at Maryland into the young, raw Coppin program. It’s a risky marriage for both. Dixon has only one season of head coaching experience, a 3-25 campaign last year with the University of the District of Columbia’s women’s team. Coppin is coming off an 8-24 season and has a roster that includes just two seniors.
“Right now, I’ve got to be patient and know that things are going to get turned around because of the culture that we’re building,” Dixon says. “All I want from our guys is to give constant effort no matter what the scoreboard says.”
In an ironic twist, Dixon has become a father figure to 13 young men at the same time he’s relearning how to be a son. United with his biological father—whom he didn’t know existed—just 18 months ago, the 39-year-old Dixon is beginning the second act of his life at a time when many men his age are settling into the routine of theirs. Dealing with that avalanche of change won’t be easy, but nothing ever has been for Juan Dixon.
Basketball fans of a certain age have heard the story many times. During Maryland’s Final Four runs in 2001 and 2002, the media eagerly recounted how the Terrapins’ undersized star, Juan Dixon, grew up near Liberty Heights Avenue and Garrison Boulevard as the son of drug-addicted parents who passed away from AIDS when he was a teenager. As far as Dixon knew, it was true.
Phil and Juanita Dixon began dating at a young age, and their relationship was fraught with breakups and makeups. Both were heroin users, and during Juan and his two brothers’ formative years he relied on a network of aunts (including former Baltimore mayor Sheila Dixon), uncles, cousins, and friends for support while his parents battled—and ultimately succumbed to—their addictions.
“It was unfortunate circumstances,” Dixon says. “Parents not always being around because of their lifestyle. At times it was rough, but at the same time, I had a loving supportive family of extended relatives who really stepped up when it came to helping us develop as boys into men.”
Coaches played an outsized role in Dixon’s youth, particularly Mark Amatucci at Calvert Hall College High School. There Dixon forged the hard-nosed playing style that ultimately caught the attention of Maryland’s Williams, who fell in love with the wiry guard when he saw him dive for a ball with his team down by 20 points. “That’s when I made up my mind that we wanted him to play for Maryland,” Williams says. “The gym wasn’t air-conditioned, they probably weren’t going to win, and Juan still went after the ball. That convinced me that he was going to outwork some people.”
In College Park, Dixon’s production, if not his six-foot-three-inch stature, grew every year.
“There was never a doubt in his mind as to what he could accomplish,” says his ex-wife Robyn, whom he met in high school. “I always believed in him. But there would be times when I would be like, ‘Okay, do you know you’re 145 pounds?’” He was a beefy 164 when he led Maryland to its first and only men’s basketball national title in 2002. Months later, the Washington Wizards chose him in the first round of the NBA draft, and he had a solid, if not spectacular, career in the league and overseas. In 2010, it was announced that Dixon tested positive for the steroid nandrolone while playing for a Spanish team, and the International Basketball Federation suspended him for a year. He then signed with Banvit in Turkey, where he only played for one season before suffering a knee injury.
“I’ve been through the storm and I’m still trekking through the storm today,” Dixon told University of Maryland’s Capital News Service in 2012. “But I’m working hard every day.”
Dixon took that work ethic and turned his attention to coaching, serving as a special assistant on Mark Turgeon’s staff at Maryland before, according to the university, he and the school mutually parted ways after the 2016 season.
“I learned a lot from Coach Turgeon and his staff,” he says. “Recruiting, how to run a program. I appreciate everything he has done for me. But leaving Maryland was the best thing that ever happened to me.”
Make that the second best.
On September 1, 2016, two strangers walked into the Bass Pro Shops at Arundel Mills. The moment they laid eyes on one another, they knew it was true. The night before, Dixon had called Bruce Flanigan for the first time. Through a number of only-in-Baltimore coincidences, Dixon had heard that Flanigan believed he was Juan’s father.
“I said, ‘Juan, I don’t know where to begin,’” Flanigan recalls. “Then I told him the whole story.”
In the 1970s, Flanigan dated Dixon’s mother, Juanita, who became pregnant. The two broke up before she had the baby, which she told Flanigan wasn’t his. “I went on with my life,” says Flanigan, now 61. “I got married and raised my family. She went on and did what she had to do. Years went by. Then I started hearing about this guy at Maryland, Juan Dixon, and they kept talking about his mom, Juanita.”
When Flanigan first watched the young Terp play on television, he was struck by the physical resemblance. Although he immediately believed he was Dixon’s father, he held back, paralyzed by guilt at not being there for his son. Plus, he didn’t want the budding superstar to believe he was moving in to take advantage of his fame and impending fortune. But over the ensuing years, rumors began to circulate through the tight-knit West Baltimore community and eventually, the two got in touch.
When they met the day after the phone call, the connection was immediate. “His mannerisms, the way he spoke—I sounded like him,” Dixon says. “I could just tell by being around him, his energy, that he was my dad. It was like 38 years didn’t mean anything.”
They did a DNA test and, within two weeks, it confirmed what they already knew. “When we first connected visually, it was like we had been in each other’s lives from day one—from the time he was born,” Flanigan says. “We didn’t miss a beat. It was like gravity had pulled us together.”
Improbably, the men have forged a rich relationship that’s both father-son and best friend. They text or talk nearly every day, and Flanigan, who lives in Pennsylvania, drives down often to visit his newfound family. Dixon lives with Robyn and their sons Corey, 9, and Carter, 8, in Howard County. As is depicted on the reality show The Real Housewives of Potomac, on which Robyn costars and Juan has occasionally appeared, their relationship is, shall we say, complicated. Married for seven years, they divorced in 2012, but still live together with their kids.
“We truly are a family, no matter what our romantic status is,” Robyn says. “It’s great when you can have a relationship with someone and you want the best for them and you understand that supporting them and being there with them doesn’t just help him, it helps me, it helps my kids, because we’re family.”
Wearing black Nikes, gray sweatpants, and a black-and-yellow long-sleeve Coppin T-shirt, Dixon now actually is sweating as he lingers near the three-point line, taking part in a drill with his team. He’s still lean and fast, and sports the same goatee and short-cropped haircut he wore during his playing days.
Dixon has incredibly big shoes to fill. Ronald “Fang” Mitchell, who left in 2014 after coaching for nearly 30 years at Coppin, brought the team to four NCAA tournaments and won 10 conference titles.
But Coppin athletic director Derek Carter, who hired Dixon in April, says he was captivated by the former guard’s “passion and tenacity.” Being tenacious has always defined Dixon, and he wants it to epitomize his team as well. To him, it means playing suffocating defense and unleashing unwavering effort for all 40 minutes.
Before he prematurely ended that practice in November (“Tell Juan now he knows why I did it to his team,” Williams says), he was relentlessly energetic, clapping his hands emphatically when he felt his players’ focus was waning, pausing drills to point out both positive plays and mistakes, and urging his guys to communicate with and support one another.
“Coach is trying to change the culture,” says senior Tre’ Thomas. “He’s trying to teach us a different kind of basketball.”
On a plane that can’t be measured by wins and losses (Coppin, predictably, dropped its first eight games, all on the road against upper-tier competition), Dixon believes his message is getting through. He was even pleased with his team’s defensive effort in the 16-point loss to Oregon.
Dixon’s life has always centered around defying expectations, giving a team, a player, or a father a second chance.
“I was born and raised five minutes from Coppin, so for me to get this opportunity—we will take advantage of it,” he says. “To be able to drive down Gwynns Falls and pull up to work, it’s a dream come true.”