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After First Win At Coppin State, Head Coach Juan Dixon Reflects On His Journey

January 19, 2018
About 14,500 people attended Juan Dixon's first win as a college basketball player. 

The Calvert Hall alum scored 14 points during a 113-46 blowout of Western Carolina for then-No. 6 Maryland at Cole Field House Nov. 14, 1998. If he never won another game, the moment would have been a fitting culmination to a life story worthy of a motion picture. 

Three-hundred-and-twenty-seven people attended Dixon's first win as a Division I college basketball head coach. 

The former Maryland star saw his Coppin State team snap a 17-game losing streak by holding off Florida A&M, 79-78, in double overtime at the Coppin State Physical Education Complex Jan. 8, 2018. If he never won another game, the moment would have equally been a fitting culmination to a second act worthy of a motion picture. 

In the bowels of the arena after the win, Dixon became emotional.

"I've been in this situation before as a player. And I remember my junior year at Maryland," Dixon began, but at this point he had to stop to compose himself. "We [were] on a five-game losing streak. Coach [Gary Williams] came in nice and loose our next practice, and I took a page out of his book."

Dixon, in his first season at Coppin, went on to speak about the tears he shared with his assistant coaches after recording just one win -- a narrow victory against a bad opponent. When I asked him why the moment meant so much to him, he opened up about the more recent chapters in his unbelievable life story. 

"I've worked so hard to figure out what my purpose is in my life," Dixon, 39, said. "I've had unbelievable family support, coaches that never gave up. And they saw something more in me than I ever saw in myself."

Before Dixon became a star at Maryland, he overcame a difficult childhood, in which his mother and who he thought was his father died of AIDS-related illnesses before Dixon was 17. He later discovered his biological father, Bruce Flanigan, and the two became close. 

The transition from professional athlete to college basketball coach was not easy for Dixon. Those of us who covered him would regularly find him to be distant if not purely abrasive. The former NCAA Tournament Most Outstanding Player -- when the Terps won the national championship -- admits that those years brought out his worst. 

"Life teaches you so many lessons," said Dixon, who played seven seasons in the NBA. "And my family has been so supportive. I've been through a lot. I've been at the top of the mountain, and I've hit rock bottom. I've treated people wrong, and I've learned that I need to treat people extremely well. 

"I know I had a moment in my life where I wasn't a great husband, I wasn't a great dad. I did things out of the norm."

His ex-wife -- and current partner -- Robyn Dixon paints a clearer picture of how things went after injuries forced him to retire from the NBA.

"There is kind of like -- with a lot of professional athletes -- there is like a period of denial or not really knowing what your purpose is when you take away the sport," Robyn Dixon said. "And so he went through a really rocky time those first three years after his career ended.

"And we went through a period where we lost all our money. We lost our cars; we lost our homes. And so it's like … starting over. And you can appreciate everything so much more."

Coaching was the vehicle for Dixon to turn his life around. 

"He had to hit his rock bottom," Robyn Dixon said, "to kind of be able to reflect and say, ‘It's time for me to grow up. It's time for me to change. It's time for me to really figure out what my purpose is' and to realize that playing sports was more of a vehicle to get him to his real career and to really understand that being a basketball player was not what defined him."

Nine credits short of getting his degree, Dixon re-enrolled at Maryland in January 2013. He took the lowest-rung coaching job available under head coach Mark Turgeon. He would go on to accept the head coaching job of the women's team at the University of the District of Columbia before coming to Coppin. 

"No NBA player aspires to be [a Division II women's coach]," Robyn Dixon said. "It's humbling. While they were blessings, it's still a humbling experience. So I think you just are able to appreciate life more."

After that first win coaching in his hometown, Dixon truly appreciated all of it -- his two sons putting their ears to the locker room door to try to hear their dad's postgame speech, his high school sweetheart who remained in his life despite his failings, a newly discovered biological father and a group of players reveling in their first taste of victory. 

As a Baltimore sports fan, I appreciated the opportunity to share in another incredible moment for our city's most compelling athlete … ever.

Photo Credit: Courtesy of Coppin State Athletic Department 

Issue 241: January / February 2018