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When Two Worlds Collide

Final: Lives of Maryland's Dixon and Indiana's Fife are vastly different, but the two share the same goal tonight: a national title.

April 01, 2002|STEVE HENSON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

ATLANTA — Dane Fife never watched his mother mainline heroin, never sat for hours with his brother in a sweltering car while their father scored dope.

Juan Dixon never cruised through a mall in a comfy Michigan suburb, never felt the special bond of playing high school basketball for his father.

They've spent their lives worlds apart. Tonight they will be inches away.

From a national championship.

From one another.

Fife is Indiana's defensive dragon slayer, a brash senior guard who in the last three NCAA tournament games doused the flame in Oklahoma's Hollis Price, Kent State's Trevor Huffman and Duke's Jason Williams.

Dixon is Maryland's fire-breather, an equally brash senior guard who scorched Kansas for 33 points in a semifinal and is averaging 27.4 in the tournament.

"I have the utmost and amazing respect for Juan Dixon," Fife said. "What he has gone through in his life is amazing. He is the catalyst for Maryland basketball."

Fife is attuned to the personal nature of the matchup, relishing the idea of curbing the production of the player who did not allow the drug use and eventual death of his parents to derail his dream.

Dixon prefers to think in terms of his own performance, viewing the challenge as Juan on Juan rather than one on one.

"I'm not worried at all, man, I'm just going to go out and play my game," Dixon said. "I had a chance to see him play a couple of times, but for the most part, if I play my game, play hard like I've been doing all season long, I think I'll be fine."

The best way for Fife to get Dixon's attention would be doing something dirty. Not dirty as in underhanded, dirty as in slovenly.

Dixon is a self-described neat freak, an obsession he admits is tied to his parents dying seven years ago from AIDS complications as a result of using dirty hypodermic needles.

He brings his own toilet paper into the locker room, re-showers 45 minutes before games, washes his hands after pregame warmups and puts lotion on his hands moments before tipoff.

"I have cleanliness rituals because I'm superstitious like a lot of basketball players," he said. "I got it from my parents."

Fife probably doesn't even clean the dirt from under his fingernails. He bit Iowa's Duez Henderson on the forearm during a nationally televised game two years ago and pulled Illinois' Robert Archibald to the floor by the ankle in February.

At age 12, he punched his older brother's friend--a 240-pound University of Michigan football player--in the groin for waking him up. Fife, the Big Ten Conference defensive player of the year and Indiana's last vestige of Bob Knight-inspired, square-jawed intensity, will do whatever it takes to win.

Even in practice.

"He does the same things [to his teammates]," Indiana guard Kyle Hornsby said. "He bumps you, he tries to get you mad. He doesn't back down."

He doesn't score much, either, which makes this matchup more interesting when Maryland has the ball. Fife is such a non-threat on offense that Dixon will be able to double-team Hoosier forward Jared Jeffries when necessary.

Fife averages only 8.5 points, although his three-point shooting has improved drastically. He has made 63 of 132 (47.7%) after hitting only 33 of 121 (27.3%) his first three seasons.

Dixon is one of the best shooters in the nation, averaging 20.5 points on a wide assortment of shots. He is also a 90% free-throw shooter.

On the surface it seems everything about these adversaries is polar opposite. But there are similarities.

Dixon learned his offense the same way Fife learned his defense--from a brother. Phil Dixon, now a Maryland police officer, was a Division III All-American at Shenandoah Valley College. He also helped raise Juan and their younger sister and brother.

Fife's brother Dugan played in a Final Four for Michigan. He toughened Dane with his fists, although now they are very close.

"He beat the ... out of me," said Fife, who became the state's Mr. Basketball as a high school junior and senior, playing for his father, Dan, the coach at Clarkston High.

So there was strife in Fife's life, just nothing near the level encountered by Dixon, who has his parents' names tattooed over his left biceps.

"They are here in spirit and are watching me," he said. "Hopefully they can get me through one more game.

"I'm not feeling any pressure at all. This is supposed to be fun."

Until the moment Fife sets eyes on him. Indiana players were jokingly wondering which actors would be cast in a re-make of "Hoosiers" involving this team.

"I'd like Rambo, you know, Sylvester Stallone," Fife said. "With the headband and camouflage. That's me."

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