Commentary

Family, hoops guide Pitt's Dixon

Originally Published: March 4, 2010
By Dana O'Neil | ESPN.com

PITTSBURGH -- Phil and Juan Dixon grew up on the Baltimore basketball courts, honing their skills well enough to parlay them into collegiate success: Phil as a Division III All-American, and Juan as an ACC Player of the Year and national champion at the University of Maryland.

[+] EnlargeJermaine Dixon
Jeanine Leech/Icon SMIJermaine Dixon is the glue of this Pitt team, according to his coach Jamie Dixon.

Whenever they practiced, they dragged their younger brother, Jermaine, along with them.

By the time Jermaine was a preteen, Phil and Juan were convinced.

The basketball gods had skipped a generation.

"Oh my God, if you could have seen him," Juan said, shaking his head. "I'd look at Phil and say, 'We've got a lot of work to do."

How bad was Jermaine? Let's put it this way: When he was 12, he went to the Gary Williams basketball camp at Maryland and Juan, already a budding Terps star, threw him out.

Not for the day. For the rest of the camp.

"I had a bad game and he starts yelling at me and I started crying," Jermaine said. "He told me he didn't want to see me on the court and he sent me home."

All of which serves as explanation for the tears that spilled down Juan's cheeks and the lump that formed in his throat two weeks ago when he sat in the stands at a packed Petersen Events Center for Pitt's game against Villanova.

Juan, who had been playing overseas since Jermaine arrived at Pitt last season, had never watched his little brother play on his home court. When the moment finally came, the big brother was overwhelmed by what the little brother had accomplished.

"The adrenaline, the excitement, all of it just hit me," Juan said. "I sat there thinking, 'My little brother did it. He made it big. He's playing big-time basketball.'"

Jermaine is doing a lot more than playing. He is the foundation of the surprising Panthers. After Pitt lost its nucleus in Levance Fields, Sam Young and DeJuan Blair, most people wrote the team off, with Big East coaches picking the Panthers to finish ninth in the Big East. Instead, Pitt is ranked 18th, 22-7 overall and 11-5 in the Big East. If the Panthers win their last two games (home against Providence and Rutgers) they will sew up a double bye in next week's Big East Tournament.

I don't know where I'd be without Juan and Phil. I think I would have quit a long time ago.

-- Jermaine Dixon on his brothers

Jermaine is only fourth in scoring, but coach Jamie Dixon has said all season that this team belongs to Jermaine. He's the glue.

"He's very quiet, so he's not going to change anyone with his words," Jamie Dixon said. "His leadership is through his actions, and I think people appreciate that more. There's no complaining out of him."

Heaven knows if he wanted to, Jermaine could offer a litany of complaints. His father, Robert Cooper, was never in his life, and when Jermaine's brothers and aunt finally found him, Cooper denied his paternity, according to Jermaine. "He said I wasn't his son. It hurt, but you move on."

When Jermaine was only 7 years old, his mother, Juanita, died from AIDS-related complications.

His basketball career was a torturous uphill climb stymied early by insecurities and later by academics.

When he finally reached the hoops summit, his senior season at Pittsburgh, he broke his foot -- not once, but twice -- delaying his final year until early December.

"I personally don't ever make any excuses," Jermaine said. "That goes for me and my family."

Jermaine, in fact, will tell you he's blessed, a head-scratching opinion if you look only at the surface of his circumstances.

But dig beneath the surface and you find there is so much more than what Jermaine lost.

There is what he had: the love and support of an extended family that included his grandmother, Roberta Graves; his aunt, Sherrice Driver; his older sister, Nicole; a collection of cousins; and always, always his brothers.

Jermaine Dixon and Levance Fields
Courtesy of Pitt Sports Information With stars like Levance Fields already in place, Dixon was happy to blend in his junior season.

Technically, they are his half-brothers -- Phil and Juan have a different father than Jermaine -- but good luck selling that one.

"He's my full-blood brother; none of this half-brother nonsense," Juan said. "I don't care what he is technically. He's my brother."

The women were there to baby him and the brothers there to toughen him up. They were at once the older brothers who beat him up on the court and the surrogate fathers who made sure to steer him on the proper track.

They led by example. Phil, without benefit of parental guidance, chose to ignore the call of the streets, go to college and become a Baltimore police officer. Juan followed suit, went to Maryland and shone on the basketball court. Jermaine decided that would be his path as well.

But when showing wasn't enough, Phil and Juan went out and did for Jermaine. Jermaine admits to being a "horrible student" in his first two years of high school. When he realized his brother was on a slippery slope toward academic disaster, Juan -- then playing for the NBA's Washington Wizards -- yanked Jermaine out of Parkville High School, gave him a bedroom in the suburban Silver Springs, Md., home he shared with his wife, Robyn, and enrolled him at Blake High School.

When no Division I offers came after high school, Phil and Juan shipped Jermaine off to the no-man's land of Maine Central Institute for a prep year. "There's one movie theater, and it shows movies maybe three years old, and it snowed all the time," Jermaine said. "I had no choice but to study."

When Jermaine still failed to meet the SAT requirement for Division I at Maine Central Institute, Phil and Juan cajoled Kevin Norris, a longtime family friend and assistant coach at Tallahassee Community College, to take a leap on Jermaine.

Two years and one junior college All-American season later, Jermaine ended up at Pitt.

"I don't know where I'd be without Juan and Phil," Jermaine said. "I think I would have quit a long time ago."

Yet the older brothers' biggest assist wasn't on the basketball court.

After Robert Cooper denied his own son, Phil took the necessary steps to allow Jermaine Cooper to legally change his name to Jermaine Dixon.

[+] EnlargeJermaine Dixon
Duncan Williams/Icon SMIDixon has been Pitt's defensive standout.

The family that gave him roots as an infant and wings as a teenager offered their final gift to the adult: an identity.

"He's been a Dixon since day one, and we wanted to make it permanent," said Phil, who at 36 is 15 years older than Jermaine. "He's always been our brother, but now there's no difference between us."

At least not off the court.

On the court? That's another story.

All those basketball beatdowns changed the way Jermaine plays. His brothers both were fearless gunners, guys who never saw a shot they didn't like. Jermaine is more of a chameleon, a byproduct of adjusting to his brothers' offensive firepower and the demands of his own peripatetic career.

He can score -- at Tallahassee he dropped 1,050 points in just two seasons -- but he's equally content to nuance his game to fit the needs of his team. In his first season at Pitt, with so many scoring options around him, Jermaine honed his defensive game well enough to be named the team's best defender.

This season he expected to go back to scoring, but as he and Gilbert Brown -- who was sidelined by academic troubles -- sat out the first semester, Ashton Gibbs emerged as the Panthers' go-to scorer.

So when Jermaine entered the lineup, he contentedly went back to his defensive role.

"When he came to us last year we were bringing back three not just dominant players, but dominant personalities," Jamie Dixon said. "It's almost unheard of for a juco to transfer to a team with so many guys coming back and fit right in. He's willing to do whatever this team needs."

Jermaine's brothers appreciate the effort, but admit that while sitting in the stands they often have to bite back their own shoot-first instincts.

They're learning, however, that their way is not necessarily the only way to success.

Sometimes even learning the hard way.

A few years ago when Juan was playing in Portland, he flew Jermaine to town for a visit. The brothers and two others played a little pickup, and when Juan went up for a shot, Jermaine blocked it.

Hard.

Juan called foul.

Jermaine disagreed.

When Juan went to the rim again, he threw his elbows out on his little brother.

"We got to pushing and fussing before it got broken up," Jermaine said. "I thought for sure he was going to send me home again. Thought he'd put me on the plane."

Instead, the two retreated to separate corners and later apologized.

A sure sign of respect from Juan.

And a sure sign that maybe -- just maybe -- the little brother might have the basketball gene, too.

Dana O'Neil covers college basketball for ESPN.com and can be reached at espnoneil@live.com.

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