It's spring, and Juan Dixon is zooming on the Jones Falls Expressway when he sees a billboard with his grinning face, right next to a message that reads: "Welcome Coach Juan Dixon/Coppin Takes Big Shots."
"You come around 83, that thing smacks you in the face, right?" he says with a smile, seated in a conference room overlooking his new home court on Coppin's campus. "I'm blessed, man. Things come full circle, you know?"
The billboard might as well say "welcome home."
Dixon, a West Baltimore native, was tapped this spring to lead Coppin State University's men's basketball program. And the realization isn't lost on him that his first Division I coaching job happens to be at a school two neighborhoods away from his childhood home at Garrison Boulevard and Liberty Heights Avenue.
"I actually played on campus here when it came to high school and AAU basketball games," he says.
Dixon has literally been around the world and back. The Calvert Hall standout achieved basketball fame during his storied tenure at the University of Maryland and played seven solid years in the NBA and another three in Greece, Spain, and Turkey before he returned home to coach.
Historically, Coppin State basketball is no slouch, either. Under former head coach Ron "Fang" Mitchell's guiding hand during the '90s, the program made waves by winning conference championships, securing March Madness berths, and occasionally surprising top-tier teams. Few will forget the school's staggering upset of the No. 2 seed South Carolina during the first round of the NCAA tournament in 1997.
That glory has faded, however. Coppin hasn't been back in nearly a decade, and has failed to log a winning record since the 2010-2011 season. The last three years under now-former head coach Michael Grant were abysmal, with the Eagles failing to break single digits in the wins column each season.
Seeking a fresh start this spring, the school's new athletic director, Derek Carter, shook things up and chose Dixon to fill the vacancy left when Grant was let go in March.
During the hiring process, they talked about the many years Dixon spent around top-tier coaches, and the "message he has to give on and off the court," says Carter, who has also served as athletic director at Montgomery College, Delaware State, and Bowie State universities. "There's an expectation of success."
Dixon's coaching philosophy for his team is practical and intuitive.
"Definitely some structure, but a lot of freedom to allow them to take advantage of their god-given abilities," Dixon says. "We're gonna have principles in place, but we're not gonna be the type of staff that call plays every time down the floor."
Dixon, 38, is part of an ever-growing fraternity of guards-turned-head coaches. He had always known he wanted to be a coach, he says. Two decades in the making, he traces his instruction back to local legends and blacktops.
Dixon says he picked up his toughness and defensive tenacity at Cecil-Kirk Rec Center, grasped "the fundamentals about the game" at Calvert Hall, and learned about attention to detail and teamwork at the University of Maryland. Mark Amatucci and Hall of Famer Gary Williams, his high school and college coaches, shepherded his development in those early years.
"My fifth year or fourth year in the NBA, I was talking to Bryan Colangelo"—now general manager of the Philadelphia 76ers—"like, 'I want to coach.' And he's like, 'Juan, you need to start taking notes and writing everything down, everything you learn.'"
After wrapping up his pro career overseas, he spent three years as a special assistant to current Terps head coach Mark Turgeon. He then helmed the University of the District of Columbia women's basketball team last season before arriving at Coppin this year.
The story of Dixon's upbringing is familiar to Baltimore hoops fans. His parents, Juanita and Phil Sr., were both heroin addicts and died of AIDS when he was only a 16-year-old sophomore at Calvert Hall. But he had other family there to support him. Grandparents, uncles, aunts—including former Mayor Sheila Dixon—siblings, cousins; they all played a part.
As a teenager, Juan's older brother, Phil Jr., now a sergeant in the city police department, subbed in as a father figure and someone to emulate on the court.
"I pretty much wanted to follow in my big brother's footsteps. He was someone who was familiar with where all the good runs were, where all the top players were playing," Dixon says.
He played everywhere as a result: Baltimore's famous Cloverdale Courts, Cecil Kirk, The Dome, Madison Square Rec, Dunbar, Lake Clifton. "You name it, I was there."
The gritty Baltimore hoops climate helped shape Dixon into the dogged, hard-nosed type of player Charm City is known for producing.
"You think about the history of Baltimore basketball, how many successful players have come out of our city. . . I think a lot of it's based on how tough we were," he said. "You know, I was slight in build but had a big heart. And I never back down from a challenge."
Carter, a D.C.-area native, affirms that notion somewhat begrudgingly.
"It's a lot of talent in D.C., and it's a lot of toughness in D.C.," he says, "but I believe that if you want to go on what the reputation is of Baltimore guys . . . you're gonna get a tough kid that is gonna play hard, is gonna play tough, is gonna be mentally tough. And you can win with that."
Two months in, Dixon is focusing much of his attention on recruiting new players. He's spent a fair share of his time so far talking to prospects, and he hopes to expand the team's reach in the DMV.
He's also had to bring in his own staff. One of his first moves, he says, was to snag assistant coach John Auslander, who worked with him as a graduate assistant under Turgeon at the University of Maryland.
After about half an hour spent talking in the conference room with the view, Dixon says he's due to meet with a recruit downstairs in the Physical Education Complex. Minutes later, he's in the auxiliary gym shaking hands with and introducing himself to the prospect and his father.
The coach and his recruit look on while Auslander runs shooting drills with rising senior guard Tre' Thomas. Dixon speaks in detail about his design—how his pick-and-roll schemes differ from those in other college offenses, the necessity of expanding shooters' ranges—as well as the bigger picture. Auslander touts their goal to prep guys for pro tryouts and camps. One of his missions, Dixon tells the recruit, is "to help you fulfill your dream."
He also has to transition last season's roster into a new regime, to "get our returning players caught up with what we're about, get them organized, let them know the importance of academics, too," Dixon says. "We've got some guys that was messing around. There's no more slacking moving forward."
He preaches the need for his players to become role models in the community. A key to the team's success, he notes, is also that they're comfortable being themselves.
"The brand of basketball, I know they're gonna enjoy and have fun with," he says, "but it's my job to also let their personalities shine through."
His outward toughness and practicality fold when, on his way down to the gym, he runs into a Coppin athletics staffer's 8-year-old son. He proceeds to try to recruit him for the Eagles football team. Eventually, the boy bashfully accepts his invite to watch the team train this summer.
Carter and Dixon discuss their goals in holistic terms: The coach sees establishing a culture of upstanding behavior, strong grades, and hard work as keys to winning; the athletic director views a strong hoops program as one of many testaments to the school's success.
"If our basketball program does well, our university does well," Carter says.
Dixon is aware of the hill he needs to climb. But he says he's not afraid.
"This being my first head job on the men's side at a D1 institution, there's definitely challenges ahead," he said. "But I'm extremely confident that we'll be able to turn our program around together. Derek has given me an unbelievable opportunity. It's an opportunity that I know that we will take advantage of, and help get Coppin back to a level where we deserve to be."