News & Politics

Making It

Juan Dixon's Got a $3-Million Contract With the Wizards, a Big New Home, a Beautiful Girlfriend, and a Bright Future. Is There Room for His Past in His Shiny New Life?

JUAN DIXON ALWAYS HAD A PLAN. He'd shoot baskets from morning to midnight at the public courts in Baltimore's Garden Village neighborhood, where boys grow up dreaming of becoming athletes or rappers. Opponents made fun of his skinny frame. Even friends didn't think he had what

it takes to make it to the big time.

He became obsessed with escaping his past, proving himself. Work harder, he'd tell himself, harder than anyone else.

The plan worked. Last year, he led the University of Maryland to the NCAA championship, then was drafted by the Washington Wizards, the 17th pick overall. From the draft room in New York, he yelled into a cell phone to his older brother, Phil: "We did it."

That Juan has found peace is obvious as he washes dishes in the kitchen of the six-bedroom brick home he bought for $725,000 in Silver Spring. It's September, and he's killing time with Phil and Robyn Bragg, his girlfriend of almost seven years, before the Wizards' preseason training opens. Finishing the last dish, Juan walks into the living room and lies down on a black comforter spread out on the floor of the large room–empty but for a 65-inch flat-screen television set. The movie All About the Benjamins is on. There are two other pieces of furniture–a metal folding chair with an NCAA CHAMPIONS sticker on the back and a computer chair.

The ceiling stretches about 20 feet above. Large windows surround a fireplace, with views of a golf course outside. The wood floors in the foyer have been pulled up, and the first few tiles for a new marble floor have been put down. Two recent purchases, a Lexus SC 430 convertible and a Cadillac Escalade, are parked outside.

An hour's drive north on I-95, off the Moravia Road exit, live Juan's maternal grandparents, Roberta and Warnick Graves. "Miss Berta" and "Daddy" raised Juan from the time he was a toddler. Their rowhouse has one small window near the front door. The brick is chipping in spots. A plastic chair sits in the front yard.

Life hasn't changed much for Miss Berta, Daddy, or Juan's other relatives. Miss Berta cooks and does laundry for her grown children and grandchildren, several of whom live with her. Janice Dixon, Juan's aunt, helps out Nicole, Juan's sister, who at 21 is caring for her two-year-old and working as an administrative assistant with the city's public-works department. Juan's brother Phil, 29, is a Baltimore police officer.

Juan's Wizards contract is no secret, but relatives were surprised when he bought the large house and cars. They haven't asked him for money, but he always said that when he made it big, he would provide for the family and buy his grandparents a new home. Last month, Nicole couldn't scrape together enough cash to fix her car's brakes.

"I want to help," he says, rolling over onto his stomach and propping his chin up with his fists. The face of his watch is encased in a circle of diamonds. "But first I'm trying to create a life for myself. If I allowed myself to feel indebted to everyone who helped me, I'd be broke."

Relatives say Juan's tired of talking to the media about his past–how his parents stole and lied to feed their heroin addiction, how they virtually abandoned him and his siblings, how they died when he was a teenager. Those days are over.

"I didn't begin life until after the draft," he says.

Phillip Dixon, Juan's father, grew up in the middle-class Baltimore neighborhood of Liberty Heights in a large Victorian home. His two sisters and brother did well in school and stayed out of trouble. But in high school Phillip grew tired of being the good kid. He got in with the wrong crowd and stole–taking Christmas presents from his mother–to buy drugs.

He met Juanita Graves, Juan's mother, when he was 18. "Nita" was 17. She grew up in a poor section of west Baltimore. She was an affectionate girl who got good grades and put people at ease. Her parents kept a neat house. Miss Berta always cooked a hot dinner (her grandkids still gather on weekends for fried chicken, chitlins, and potato salad), while Daddy worked long hours as a dump-truck driver.

At Northwestern High School, Nita became good friends with Phillip's sister Sheila, who set the two up on a date. Nita was loud and loved to joke around. Phillip was more reserved. She was tall and long-limbed, her face framed by soft curls. He was lean and handsome and loved to wear nice clothes. They were married in 1972 by a justice of the peace. He was 19; she was 17.

"Next thing we knew," says Janice Dixon, Phillip's sister, "she was pregnant with Phil."

Family members say Nita loved Phillip so much that she abandoned her good-girl ways and started doing drugs. By the time Juan was born four years later, both were addicts.

"They were social users," says Mark Smith, who was married to Sheila Dixon at the time. "They were not the street variety."

But their lives spun out of control. They were in and out of jail. Phillip was arrested for a scam he ran with an airport worker: He sold tickets for face value, his buddy booked a lower fare, and they pocketed the difference. Nita did petty theft, stealing wallets and writing bad checks.

The two spoke in code in front of the children, switching letters around as in pig Latin. But Phil caught on. "It was some bad stuff, gangsta stuff," he says. "I don't even want to speculate what else they did."

The family spent one Christmas together in 1984, when Juan was six. They had an apartment–it was one of a few times theydidn't live with Miss Berta and Daddy–and a Christmas tree with tinsel. Nita made cookies. Juan and Phil got bikes and an Atari video-game set. They stayed up playing Spider-Man all night.

"That's the happiest I can remember us being," says Phil.

Juan's contract with the Wizards will pay him $3.2 million over three years. Taxes will eat up nearly half that, and another chunk will go to his agent. Still, for a kid straight out of college who grew up wearing hand-me-downs, the paychecks are big. In the budget prepared by his agent–and reviewed by Janice Dixon, his aunt–Juan's clothing allowance is $1,500 a month.

Juan's first instinct was to buy all the things he always wanted but could never have–the cars, the house, the 65-inch television. He didn't like the house's brass and gold-plated hardware, so he's replacing all of it–96 door hinges, 36 knobs, a couple of chandeliers, a few faucets, and a gold inlay over the living room's fireplace–with stainless and chrome silver.

"I try to give him a reality check every so often," says Robyn, who's living with Juan. "I mean how many people our age are choosing what kind of marble tile to put down?"

Juan has been preparing for a high-profile life since high school. He used to spend hours perfecting his signature for autographs. Robyn tutored him in grammar and pronunciation. Big brother Phil counseled him on his outfits and haircuts.

Since he was drafted last summer, Juan has been thrust into the glittering life of the NBA. Former basketball great Dr. J whispered into his ear at a crowded party. He made small talk with tennis stars Serena and Venus Williams.

A lot of old acquaintances–some he hardly knows–have come around. People can mistake an NBA player for a human ATM. At rookie camp, league officials warned players to keep their spending in check–not to feel as if they owe anyone. They warned of groupies who would want to sleep with them.

"That stuff is OC," Juan says, popping gummy bears into his mouth–"out of control. But I don't worry. I used to worry about everything, especially when my parents died, but then I realized it was a waste of time."

Nita and Phillip separated soon after that wonderful Christmas in the apartment. Nita moved back into her mother's house with Juan and Phil. Juan's father was incarcerated soon after.

During summers, Phil and Juan watched soap operas while their mother hid in the bathroom shooting up. Later, they'd find heroin needles hidden behind tiles in the basement.

"I didn't bust in because I was afraid of what I might see," says Phil. They feared she'd suffer an overdose.

When Nita emerged from the bathroom, she was loving and motherly. She'd iron clothes, fix a snack. Sometimes she'd be playful and tickle them. Then she'd slip into a "nod," her head flopped back on the couch. Sometimes Juan would curl up next to her and fall asleep.

If she didn't get her fix, Nita scolded the children. At times she'd disappear for weeks, then return as if nothing had happened, giving her boys a kiss and sometimes a present.

Nita tried to get her life together once, when Juan was in high school. She stayed clean for about six months. She nearly got a post-office job, but her criminal record surfaced. Then she miscarried twins and had a falling out with her best friend.

"It was too many bad things happening all at once," says Phil. "It was a hard time for her."

Upstairs, Juan's girlfriend points out the dark-wood sleigh bed just delivered for one of the spare rooms.

"We wanted his family to come here and feel like they were in a fantasy house," Robyn says. Juan's family lovingly nicknamed her "Barbie" because of her light hair and tall, lean physique. Last year, she danced in a video by rapperP. Diddy.

Robyn and Juan met seven years ago. He was a junior at Calvert Hall High School; she was a senior at McDonough High. During basketball games between the rival schools, Robyn caught Juan looking at her in the stands. "It got to the point where he just kept staring at me and not saying anything," she says. "I waited for him outside the locker room one day. He turned around and said, 'Hey, don't I know you?' It was so cheesy."

Robyn majored in business at Maryland while Juan earned his degree in family studies. She tutored him and helped him write papers. When at 1 in the morning he got the urge to practice shooting, he woke her to go to Cole Field House and rebound for him.

Robyn stays with Juan despite protests from her parents, who want them to marry before living together. Juan put her in charge of decorating.

"It's his house, but he talks about it like it's 'our house,' " she says. "We think we'll only stay here for five years or so. Then he wants to find his dream house."

Juan and Phil lived with their moth-er in Berta and Daddy's townhouse in a six-by-eight-foot room with bunk beds and a cot. Juan slept on the top bunk, and they took turns making room for their younger brother, Jermaine Cooper-Dixon. Nita and their little sister, Nicole, shared the cot.

Miss Berta and Daddy gave them home-cooked meals, clothes, and stability. The Dixon family also rallied around the boys. Aunt Sheila, who is president of Baltimore's city council, sent them door to door with campaign fliers. Mark Smith, her husband at the time, took them sledding and to the movies. Aunt Janice paid for braces and summer vacations in Ocean City. "There was always someone there for us," says Phil.

The boys celebrated nearly every Christmas at Aunt Janice's house, the Dixons' Victorian in Liberty Heights. Afterward they left their gifts behind; if they brought CDs or video games back to Miss Berta's, their mother might sell them for drugs.

Janice remembers that the boys' parents sometimes called on Christmas morning from prison. "I love you, too, Mommy," Juan would say.

"If they felt upset, they never said anything," says Janice. "They were used to it. They accepted everything their parents did."

ROBYN AND PHIL JOIN JUAN IN THE LIVing room to watch All About the Benjamins. Juan's seen the movie five times since he bought it a few days ago. When a scene cracks him up, he plays it several times.

Juan loves to laugh. "When I first heard him laugh," says Robyn, "I just wanted to keep on making him laugh."

The first few nights after he moved into the house, Juan and three friends stayed up all night playing video games, then crashed on the living-room floor.

"No one realizes what a big kid Juan is," says Robyn. "He loves to play practical jokes. And his mood changes with theseasons."

Recently, Juan considered asking Robyn to marry him but changed his mind. "I'm not in a hurry to grow up," he says. "I want to have fun, run around the house naked if I want to."

He waits a beat.

"I'm joking," he says with a big smile.

IN THEIR TEENAGE YEARS, JUAN AND PHIL stayed close to their extended family. They didn't say 'I love you'–that was too sappy–so Phil came up with the term "one." Today, when they hang up after talking with Uncle Mark or each other, Juan and Phil always say, "One."

The boys were inseparable. They fought–particularly when Juan would wear Phil's Nike sweatsuit–but they clung to each other. Phil tried to make his brother's days feel normal. He took him everywhere and let him run with his friends. He'd tuck in Juan's Little League uniform before he went up to bat. When their mother disappeared, Phil acted as though nothing was wrong.

Some mornings, when their mother was going through withdrawal, Phil and Juan woke up to her moans and shrieks. Shecouldn't get out of bed. At times like this, Phil grabbed his basketball and led Juan to the court around the corner.

"Phil was the best thing that ever happened to Juan. He became his protector," says Mark Smith. "Phil realized early on he'd be taking care of his brother. They were determined to be different from their parents."

Phil assumed the role of disciplinarian. Once when Juan ignored his orders to stop teasing a cousin, Phil chased him through the house before Juan locked himself in the bathroom.

Phil pushed his brother to work hard in school. They argued once when Phil criticized Juan's term paper. "You need to get better if you ever want to go to a Division I college," Phil scolded.

On the court, Phil challenged him. "After a game, Phil would say to Juan, 'That guy shoots better than you,' " says Michael King, a friend of both brothers. "Then Juan would be out practicing his shooting like crazy for the next few days. Next game, Juan would be the best shooter."

Late at night, in Berta's basement, the two whispered in the dark about becoming basketball stars. "When I make it to the NBA," Phil would say, "you won't have to worry about anything."

MANY OF THE KIDS WHO JOINED them on the court were also being raised by grandparents. One had alcoholic parents and sometimes stayed at Miss Berta's. Another friend's brother was shot. Some had siblings or cousins who were drug addicts.

"We all had our problems," says Orlando "Bino" Ranson, a good childhood friend. "You'd see Juan carrying football equipment and Phil holding a basketball. People didn't really know details about their 'other' life."

The brothers tried to stay out of trouble, especially Juan. He'd avoid rough neighborhoods, and he seemed to sense when things were getting out of hand.

"I could always feel it happening. I'd see some guy running his mouth off," says Juan, "and I'd want to leave."

The best players went to the "dome," a public basketball court frequented by local high-school coaches. But it was in a rough neighborhood, and Juan stayed away.

"People would tell him, 'You're scared to play there,' " says King. "That bothered him. But it was a place where anything could happen."

Nearly all the kids who played with Juan went on to college basketball. King played at George Washington University. One buddy, Kevin Braswell, played at Georgetown, and another, Corsley Edwards, was drafted last year by the Sacramento Kings.

Phil got financial aid at Shenandoah University, a Division III school in Winchester, Virginia, and became an All-American.

When Bino played at Southern New Hampshire University, he asked his coach to send Juan a recruitment letter. "We [Phil and I] wanted him to know what it was like to get that," says Bino, who's now a teacher at a Baltimore high school. "It gave him something to work for."

JUAN TAKES THE PODIUM IN A SUIT THAT hangs off his skinny frame. Diamond studs twinkle in his ears.

It's mid-September, and Calvert Hall High School, Juan's alma mater, is retiring his jersey. He had worried over his speech and practiced the night before. But now, his voice shakes. He talks about how he believed in himself and worked hard.

The high-schoolers are captivated. Two TV news cameras roll.

"It was my first formal speech," Juan says. "I'm learning. It was different talking to young men for inspiration. I'm used to talking to the media."

Recently, Juan drove childhood friend Michael King, who still has NBA hopes, by his new house. They parked the car outside and talked.

"I didn't bring you here to brag and be showy," Juan told him. "I brought you here because I want you to stay hungry, like we were as kids. I want you to know what you could have if you worked for it."

Juan's face looks pained when he's asked if he feels guilty about his success, about the childhood friends who worked as hard but didn't make it as far. He thinks of Phil.

"I would've loved to be the younger brother of an NBA player," says Juan, "and I would've liked more of my friends to make it. But it didn't work out that way."

JUAN WAS 16 WHEN HE AND PHIL FOUND the crumpled paper on their mother's dresser in the basement room of Miss Berta's house. They spread it out, read it together, and learned their mother was HIV-positive. Phil sat on the bed, and Juan followed. Both began to cry. They hugged each other and cried some more.

That night, they nuzzled up to their mother. "Mama, are you sick for real?" Phil asked. She nodded.

"Then we left it alone and went out and played basketball," says Phil.

Her body went quickly. Her teeth chipped, then fell out. Juan would take her hand and shiver at how skinny and frail it was. It felt like he could break it in two if he set it down too hard.

"We were nervous and scared to be around her," says Phil. "We wouldn't really come into the house until it was after dark and time to go to sleep."

Within a year, she was dead. The family couldn't afford a gravestone. More than ever, Phil knew he'd have to care for his younger brother.

Phil says: "I told him our motto was going to be 'Life goes on. Mom wouldn't want us to stop living because she's not here. She wouldn't want you to stop playing ball. She wouldn't want you to stop going to school.' That was our strength."

The next year they found out their father, Phillip, was HIV-positive. Phil seemed to deal with the news; he talked about it and asked questions. Juan was quiet. He escaped to the courts, joining summer leagues. He decided he needed a better academic record to get into a Division I college and transferred from a rough public school in the city to Calvert Hall, a mostly white private school in the Baltimore suburbs. Aunt Janice, Phillip's sister, paid the tuition bill.

Phillip took a break from heroin, got a job, and tried to build a relationship with his sons. He and Juan drove down to Shenandoah University to watch Phil's basketball games.

But as the disease ravaged Phillip's body, he returned to heroin. He died in 1995, when Juan was 17. A couple of months later, Phillip's mother, Juan's grandmother, passed away. The hard shell Juan had built up around him began to crack.

"Why does everyone have to die?" he asked his Aunt Janice on the way to his grandmother's funeral. "Why does everyone we love die?"

JANICE DIXON SITS IN THE LIVING ROOM OF the Victorian in Liberty Heights. Nicole, Juan's sister, lives with her. She's carrying her two-year-old on her hip. The baby's father lives nearby, but Janice won't let him come visit because he doesn't have a job. Nicole dreams about attending college and becoming a nurse.

Juan stopped by the previous week to watch HBO's The Wire with Janice, and she got him to sign autographs for her coworkers at Verizon, where she's a network operations specialist. As he sat with Janice, Juan didn't mention that he was days away from closing on the Silver Spring house. Janice found out when she looked over his monthly budget.

"He didn't say anything to us about his house," she says. "That's Juan. One day he's a little boy, the next day he's a man."

Relatives like Uncle Mark, who took Juan to a quarry to teach him to swim, feel a distance growing.

"He used to always ask me my opinion, say, on a car he wanted to buy," says Smith. "I'd go check it out and approve of it. This time he just went out and bought a car, all on his own. I thought, 'Oh, no. He's going to pay top dollar.' "

Juan hates confrontation, Janice says. When he has a problem with his agent, he asks her to work it out. "You're paying him," she tells him. "You need to ask certain questions."

Janice paid private-school tuition for Phil, Juan, and Nicole. But when the family considered sending Jermaine, the youngest sibling, to private school this year, she says she told them, "Let your brother pay for it." But no one will ask Juan for the money.

Janice says: "I think he's overwhelmed with his new responsibilities. I think it would be worse if everyone was asking him for things so, really, I'm glad no one is."

Sheila Dixon says it's hard for Juan to say no. When she asked to borrow his Lexus while he was out of town, he agreed. But when she phoned before his trip to get the keys, he didn't return her calls.

"If you have to deal with him on an issue," says Sheila, "he'll tune you out."

She's curious to see if Juan does anything for the family this holiday season.

"For years, we made their Christmas," she says, then rolls her eyes. "It will be interesting to see if Juan makes our Christmas this year."

AFTER THEIR MOTHER DIED, JUAN AND Phil spoke as though she were a saint. Juan got tattoos on his arms of his mother and father–pictures of each, with dates of their births and deaths. A year later, Phil did the same.

"They relied on the good days to define their relationship with their parents," says Mark Smith.

The deaths changed them, Mark says. It made them tougher and closer to the family and each other. They talked about providing for the family and one another. When Phil graduated from Shenandoah, he dreamed of trying out for the NBA. He could have gone overseas to play. But at 22, he didn't feel he could ask his relatives to bankroll him.

"When you don't have parents, how do you say, 'Will you take care of a grown man so he can go try and be a basketball star?' " says Phil. "My family couldn't afford that."

At the time, Juan was a rising star at Calvert Hall. He was an All-Met guard two years in a row and averaged 23 points a game. In 1997, he led the school to the Catholic League championship game.

Maryland coach Gary Williams came to Miss Berta's rowhouse to recruit Juan. Phil, Janice Dixon, and Mark Smith asked about graduation rates, living expenses, basketball, and academic support for athletes. Juan sat at the end of the couch, holding a basketball in his hands, listening.

"He barely spoke," remembers Williams.

Coaches from Providence College, Xavier of Ohio, and George Washington also visited, but Juan wanted to go to Maryland. He was giddy with excitement. Though local newspapers criticized Williams's decision to take such a slight player–Juan is six-foot-three and 165 pounds–Juan and Phil say they never doubted he would do well.

Both took close family friend Barry Truxton's advice to heart: "You can build up as much muscle as you want, but you can't create what comes from the heart."

At Maryland, Juan became the university's all-time leading scorer. He led the Terrapins to the NCAA championship with a 64-52 win over Indiana University. Afterward, Juan cut down the net and draped it around his neck. When the television cameras turned off, he found his brother. They hugged, tears streaming down their cheeks.

"This is for you," Juan told Phil. "It's all for you."

AHEAVY BASS BEAT POUNDS OUT OF the surround-sound speakers in Juan's empty living room. In a couple of days, Juan will leave for NBA training in North Carolina.

A Nelly video is playing on MTV. "He looks chill, don't he, Phil?" says Juan. "That Mercedes is tight as hell."

Phil wears jeans, a T-shirt, and white socks and handles his Coke delicately–like he's afraid it might spill. The doorbell rings. They give each other a quick look, and Juan stands up. He knows who it is–neighbors have been showing up unannounced since he moved in. He opens the door to three girls, each with a ponytail and braces.

"May we have your autograph?" they ask. Juan smiles, showing his dimples. He signs a couple magazines and a T-shirt and thanks them for coming by.

On Mother's Day, Juan and his relatives pooled enough money to put a headstone on their mother's grave. Juan stood at the gravesite during the remembrance ceremony but got choked up and walked over to his SUV. "Can we have your autograph?" said a man who spotted him. Juan wiped his eyes and signed.

Things like that are going to happen, Juan says, shrugging and looking at Phil. "As long as I have this guy next to me, I'll be fine."

Phil was in a barbershop a few months back and overheard someone criticizing Juan's play. "What would make you say that?" he yelled.

Everyone tells Phil, "Your brother is going to take care of you." But Phil doesn't want that. He makes a good salary–enough to buy a house in northeast Baltimore and a Ford F-150. He wants to get married and have a family.

"I might not have the biggest house," he says, "but it's pretty, and I have all of the things in it I want. I'm doing well for myself."

Phil drops work every chance he gets to be with Juan. Relatives say they've never seen Phil jealous of Juan. He sees Juan's accomplishments as his own.

"Hey, Phil, if I could be anyone for a day, who would it be?" Juan asks. "I thought Martin Luther King."

"Nah," Phil says, "definitely P. Diddy."

"Oh, yeah, Puffy," Juan says, his eyes taking on a why-didn't-I-think-of-that look.

JUAN DREAMS OF BEING A FATHER. HE SAYS he wants to have two boys and one girl.

"That's why I need to make money," he says, curling up with Robyn on the living-room floor. If endorsement checks start rolling in, he adds, he'll have the extra money to buy his grandparents a new house. And he'll be able to help out his cousins, his siblings, and his aunts–anyone who loved him and helped him along the way.

He says that now he wants to prepare for his future, for building his own family.

"I didn't have a two-parent household," he says. "I want to have that for my kids. I want to spoil my kids, send them through to college, send them to law school or medical school if they want to go. I want my kids to have what I didn't have as a teenager. Right?"

Robyn nods.

"This is what I see," he says. "I see myself rolling on my back and holding my little boy up over my head like this." He reaches his arms up, cradling an invisible child above his face.

"Then I see me setting him down real softly, like this," he says. He places the imaginary child down next to him, then rolls over onto his stomach. "And then I roll over, and they start crawling all over me again, and I'm laughing."