Saturday, March 30, 2002

Resilience hallmark of Final Four

Tourney's tough guys have fought adversity

By Mike Lopresti
Gannett News Service

        ATLANTA — This is the Final Four of tough guys.

Maryland star Juan Dixon and coach Gary Williams.
(AP photo)
| ZOOM |
        Indiana's Tom Coverdale intends to play through an ankle injury, ignoring whatever pain. Just as Kansas' Kirk Hinrich did the second round.

        Oklahoma coach Kelvin Sampson talked Friday of a childhood of hard hours spent going along to his father's four jobs — every summer day given to selling insurance and encyclopedias and working the tobacco market.

        “I just remember how hot it was,” he said, “and how thick the dust was.”

        Then there is Maryland. Then there is Juan Dixon.

        On his left arm is a tattoo. “Nita and Phil.” The father and mother whose lives were devoured by drugs. They died from the AIDS that using dirty needles gave them — 16 months apart when Dixon was a high school student, seeking escape on the basketball court.

        Over his heart is the likeness of his mother. He brushes his hand across it before every free throw.

        And on his right bicep is the message of his life. “Only the strong survive.”

        What else to say, when being a teen-ager meant finding your parents' heroin needles and hustling them to the trash to get them out of sight?

        “I guess,” he said Friday, “I'm a good story.”

        Good? Good? He will graduate this summer, getting the degree he promised he would get, long before there was ever hint of a Final Four.

        Today, he will take the floor as the heart and soul of the Terrapins. An unyielding senior who has seen so much in 23 years.

        “I think that has a lot to do,” Jayhawks coach Roy Williams said, “with how difficult he is to handle on the court.”

        This is the place where college basketball's survivors come to play. And so it seems the perfect farewell for the Maryland leader — who wears No.3 because his older brother wore No.3, and it was his brother who helped raise him and save him.

        “A lot of people wrote me off,” Dixon said. “My parents dying made me stronger mentally. I think I do have an edge when I step on the court because you've always got to believe in yourself. I always believed, I never gave up.

        “I've come a long way since I first got here. Unfortunately, my parents weren't here to see me grow as a person.”

        But coach Gary Williams was.

        “He had an older brother and some other people that helped him. But it's still the individual who has to make the decisions,” Williams said. “That's part of why Juan is so good, because he's never satisfied. I think he set some goals that he keeps to himself.”

        It is, then, time for the resilient ones.

        Coverdale said if the decision is left to him, he will play no matter what the ankle feels like, because he has dreamed of this moment his whole life.

        “To keep him out,” said Indiana coach Mike Davis, “I think he has to be broken.”

        Oklahoma will come with the fire installed by Sampson, who knows a thing or two about hard knocks.

        “Our practices are probably one of the most brutal in America,” said forward Aaron McGhee. “There's no out of bounds. There's a big plastic bubble they put on the rim every day. There's no possible way the ball can go in. It's kind of like a war down there. There are bodies flying everywhere.”

        Kansas will bring its own grit, typified not only by Hinrich but the coach, who mentioned Friday how much he wants the championship.

        “As much,” Roy Williams said, “as I want to breathe.”

        And Maryland will be there with Dixon.

        “I have had a long journey,” he said, maybe the toughest guy in a Final Four loaded with them.


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