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MARCH MADNESS / NCAA TOURNAMENT | DIANE PUCIN

A Friendship Bigger Than Basketball

Georgetown's Kevin Braswell and Maryland's Juan Dixon have helped each other through the worst of times.

March 21, 2001|DIANE PUCIN

It was the basketball that brought them together, that helped introduce two middle school kids who were trying to stay out of trouble and who couldn't always manage.

But the friendship that has developed, that has grown stronger even when each went to different high schools and different colleges, that friendship comes from deep inside, from the heart and not from the crossover dribble.

Kevin Braswell and Juan Dixon were sixth-graders in Baltimore when they first played basketball against each other.

It was a recreation league game. Braswell had already heard of Dixon.

"I heard Juan was a really good player and I should watch out for him," Braswell says.

"I heard about Kevin," Dixon says. "I heard that every girl in middle school was after him."

Dixon laughs.

"Kevin's going to kill me," he says. "Really, I heard about how good a player Kevin was. And after that first time we played, I talked him into coming over and playing for my team. He was the point guard, I was the shooting guard. Kevin had to give me the ball."

Braswell and Dixon are in Orange County this week, still friends and all grown up. Braswell is the junior point guard for Georgetown. Dixon is the junior shooting guard for Maryland.

Thursday night, Maryland will play Georgetown in the West Regional semifinals at the Pond. For the first time since middle school, Braswell and Dixon will play against each other.

For more than a decade, Braswell and Dixon have been best of friends. This friendship has a deep meaning. In the years since sixth grade, both have faced terrible difficulties and overcome tragedy.

Dixon arrives in the Sweet 16 as an incredible success story.

Before his senior year at Baltimore's Calvert Hall High, his mother, Juanita, and father, Phil, died of AIDS. Both were heroin addicts infected with the fatal virus by using dirty needles.

If his parents had a terrible weakness, they also were loving parents, Juan has said, who always did their best to care for his older brother Phil, his younger sister Nicole, his younger brother Jermaine and him. And after the parents' death, members of Juanita and Phil's families banded to take care of the children.

Juan's brother, Phil, became the first of his family to graduate from college and now he's a Baltimore city police officer. Juan is on course to graduate from Maryland with a degree in family studies.

On his chest Juan has a tattoo with his mother's likeness and name. On his left biceps, he has a tattoo with the names 'Nita and Phil.

"Juan loved his parents no matter what," Braswell says. "No matter what, Juan knew he was loved by his parents."

Juan would spend weekends at Kevin's house and hours on an outdoor basketball court with Braswell. "He'd clear his mind," Kevin says. "Sometimes we'd talk and sometimes we'd just play hoop. Whatever it was Juan needed to get away from it all."

Juan is reluctant to talk about the tragedy anymore. "The story has been told," Kevin Messenger, a school spokesman, says. "Juan always looks at the future now." Juan's brother, Phil, says that no matter what, there was love and family around. No matter what trouble his parents found, "They stressed to us about the power of education and about getting that college degree."

Braswell's high school life was not without trouble. He was arrested for drug possession during his senior season at Lake Clifton High and ended up spending a year at Maine Central Institute, a prep school.

Then it was Juan's turn to be the steadfast friend.

"We talked a lot and it's mostly private," Dixon says. "But I told Kevin to be strong and move on and he did. He got himself right."

Dixon's brother, Phil, says that from the start his brother and Braswell were able to help each other.

"They'd play basketball games together, video games together," Phil says. "But it was more than that. They've been tight through bad times. They've both had trouble but they'd keep pushing each other when it mattered to get out of trouble and stay in school and get that degree.

"I'm so proud of both of them, what they've accomplished because they're both top-notch guys."

All the nights when Juan would sleep at Kevin's house, all the time when Kevin would call from Maine and the prep school that was both his punishment and salvation, the two would talk about the future.

"We'd talk about playing ball on TV and about how we'd get our degrees," Braswell says. "We'd talk about how to stay strong and listen to the right people," Dixon says.

And they'd talk about playing in the NCAA tournament. They'd talk trash about who'd get to the Final Four. They'd talk about how they wanted to get Georgetown and Maryland to play each other. They never did talk, though, about playing against each other in the Sweet 16.

"Kind of hard to predict that," Dixon says.

"I'm not sure either of us dreamed this," Braswell says.

Though Dixon and Braswell talk by phone every night, and even though they are in hotels five miles apart in Orange County, even though both teams have been practicing since Sunday at UC Irvine, even though both teams went to Disneyland on Monday, there won't be a face-to-face meeting.

Not until Thursday. Not until the ball is tipped. Not until the game starts.

It is so corny to say there will be no losers Thursday night, that Braswell and Dixon are both winners, that whatever happens, both should celebrate the men they've become and the friendship that has helped them get to the Sweet 16, stars on the court and off.

But corny isn't bad when it's true.

*

Diane Pucin can be reached at her e-mail address: diane.pucin@latimes.com

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