A life­line to the game

Ex-Terps Juan Dixon, Lonny Bax­ter and By­ron Mou­ton are now coach­ing in the area.

The Washington Post Sunday - - SPORTS - BY MARK GIAN­NOTTO mark.gian­notto@wash­post.com

Cu­rios­ity re­placed fanfare long ago when­ever Juan Dixon, Lonny Bax­ter or By­ron Mou­ton walk into a Washington-area gym, more than 13 years re­moved from their great­est ath­letic feat.

Why is Bax­ter sit­ting alone in the cor­ner of the bleach­ers watch­ing an AAU bas­ket­ball game? Is that Mou­ton draw­ing up plays on the side­line for a bunch of mid­dle school­ers? What’s Dixon do­ing work­ing at a sum­mer camp?

The three for­mer Mary­land men’s bas­ket­ball stars, who led the Ter­rap­ins to a na­tional cham­pi­onship in 2002, have all set­tled back in the lo­cal com­mu­nity af­ter their pro­fes­sional play­ing ca­reers ended, hope­ful that pass­ing lessons to a younger gen­er­a­tion will be an out­let for their lin­ger­ing pas­sion for the game.

They are all as­pir­ing coaches now, each at a dif­fer­ent stage of “find­ing your niche,” as Dixon put it, look­ing to craft an iden­tity sep­a­rate from the on-court ac­com­plish­ments. But even ar­riv­ing at this point, toil­ing away on the pe­riph­ery of the sport again, proved more com­pli­cated than any of them en­vi­sioned.

“A lot of guys, when they fin­ish play­ing pro ball, they don’t know what to do with them­selves. They get lost. And I think Juan was there at one point. . . . Lonny was in the same sit­u­a­tion, too,” Mou­ton said ear­lier this month.

“Hon­estly, when I fin­ished play­ing, I was lost my­self, and I didn’t know what I was go­ing to do.”

An up­hill bat­tle

Un­like Dixon and Bax­ter, Mou­ton never played in anN BA game. His pro­fes­sional ca­reer con­sisted of a few years over­seas and sev­eral stints with mi­nor league teams in the United States. A Rayne, La., na­tive, he came back to Washington be­cause his brother, West­lake boys’ bas­ket­ball Coach Ed Mou­ton, and sis­ter both live in the area.

At first, Mou­ton con­sid­ered be­com­ing a real es­tate agent. He al­most be­gan selling in­sur­ance. He even got into Web site de­sign, only to quickly change course when he de­ter­mined the com­plaints of clients were not worth the $700 he charged them.

“I don’t want no 9 to 5. I just know I can’t take it,” Mou­ton said. “Un­less I’m deal­ing with peo­ple or with some­body in the com­mu­nity, I’d prob­a­bly get fired.”

So in 2009, he started 6th Man Sports and be­came some­thing of a non­profit en­tre­pre­neur. Mou­ton’s or­ga­ni­za­tion spon­sors boys’ and girls’ AAU bas­ket­ball teams, holds camps in the sum­mer and runs a youth bas­ket­ball league dur­ing the win­ter. He also has a con­tract with Mont­gomery Sports As­so­ci­a­tion to hold af­ter­school youth sports pro­grams through­out the school year.

It pro­vides enough in­come to live com­fort­ably, but Mou­ton fights an up­hill bat­tle on the sum­mer bas­ket­ball scene. Though his teams are out­fit­ted in Un­der Ar­mour uni­forms and im­prov­ing skills-wise, he is not af­fil­i­ated with a shoe ap­parel com­pany and fre­quently watches his best play­ers get re­cruited away by spon­sored teams by the time they reach high school.

The set­backs of­ten con­sume Mou­ton’s per­sonal life. He ad­mits keep­ing a girl­friend is dif­fi­cult spend­ing so much time around bas­ket­ball courts.

“It’s a pride thing,” Mou­ton said. “When I first started, my team was bad, and I want peo­ple to know I’m out here and I can com­pete with any­body.”

More men­tor than coach

For­mer Mary­land coach Gary Wil­liams warned them all it could be like this, that the ado­ra­tion from win­ning a na­tional cham­pi­onship might not be enough.

“You have to get over all those things that you were as a player,” Wil­liams said last week.

“Very few guys walk in and get a great job af­ter they’re done play­ing. They’ve grav­i­tated back to­wards bas­ket­ball, but now they’re in a dif­fer­ent stage of their lives. You want them to be suc­cess­ful. This is a spe­cial group for me.” Dixon strug­gled to let go. The 6-foot-3, 164-pound Bal­ti­more na­tive willed his way to a seven-year NBA ca­reer, over­com­ing the odds af­ter his par­ents, both heroin ad­dicts, died of AIDS-re­lated ill­nesses in high school. Dixon stuck around the game by go­ing over­seas un­til a knee in­jury ul­ti­mately doomed his bas­ket­ball ca­reer in 2012. He left with re­grets, won­der­ing whether his story could have had a hap­pier end­ing.

“It was the hard­est thing I’ve had to do in my life be­cause bas­ket­ball was all I knew,” Dixon said.

This is also why coach­ing at the col­lege level al­ways in­ter­ested Dixon, and he im­me­di­ately turned to the re­la­tion­ships and good­will built while lead­ing the Ter­rap­ins. He re­turned to Mary­land to com­plete his col­lege de­gree in fam­ily science in 2013, and the ath­letic depart­ment then hired him as a spe­cial as­sis­tant to men’s bas­ket­ball Coach Mark Tur­geon.

He is a con­stant pres­ence at Mary­land’s off­sea­son high school team camp, holds his own youth bas­ket­ball sum­mer camps and helps coach his sons’ bas­ket­ball teams.

Though Dixon dreams of run­ning his own team one day, his cur­rent role is more men­tor than coach. He’s un­able to work with play­ers dur­ing prac­tice and sits be­hind the bench with the team’s grad­u­ate as­sis­tants dur­ing games. But much of the ad­vice doled out comes from lessons learned at the end of his ca­reer, not the na­tional cham­pi­onship ev­ery­body re­mem­bers.

“There was things I didn’t do along the way to make sure I still had an op­por­tu­nity to play, like tak­ing care of my body,” Dixon said. “That’s some­thing I can do as a coach, as a men­tor to these guys I’m work­ing with at Mary­land, to let them know how im­por­tant it is to work on your body, make sure you’re eat­ing well, work on your game. Those were some of the things I didn’t do at a high level, and I paid for it by not go­ing out the way I wanted to as a bas­ket­ball player.”

A chang­ing game

Dixon even­tu­ally be­came one of the peo­ple prod­ding Bax­ter to re­turn to school. The 6-8 Washington-area na­tive lasted four sea­sons in the NBA, played his fi­nal pro­fes­sional game in Rus­sia in 2012 and “was at home, not do­ing noth­ing” in re­cent years, ac­cord­ing to Mou­ton.

But walk­ing out of Xfinity Cen­ter one day this spring be­tween classes, Bax­ter ran into DC Thun­der Pres­i­dent Mike Brown, who broached the idea of Bax­ter work­ing with the sta­ble of post play­ers in the Adi­das-spon­sored sum­mer bas­ket­ball or­ga­ni­za­tion.

“I didn’t re­ally ex­actly want to be a coach, but I’d al­ways been con­nected to bas­ket­ball and I’d al­ways been around it,” Bax­ter said. “I fig­ured, why not?”

Bax­ter, who is in school full time, still has “20-some” cred­its re­main­ing to earn a de­gree from Mary­land in crim­i­nal jus­tice but doesn’t en­vi­sion a ca­reer in law en­force­ment. He talks to Mou­ton and Dixon more than any of his for­mer team­mates, with a new goal to fol­low Dixon’s path and move into the col­lege coach­ing ranks even­tu­ally.

Bax­ter vol­un­teers with DC Thun­der, though he doesn’t say much on the side­line yet. He’s still the shy big man Mou­ton and Dixon never ex­pected to pur­sue coach­ing. Bas­ket­ball at the grass­roots level has changed, he said. The pace is faster, un­der­sized play­ers like him are scarce and “you’ve got to deal with a lot of egos.”

So ear­lier this month, Bax­ter sat alone in the bleach­ers of a dimly lit Dis­trict Heights gym once his coach­ing du­ties for the day were com­plete, tak­ing in another youth bas­ket­ball game in si­lence. This is life now.

“Some of these kids, they’re so young,” Bax­ter said, “they don’t re­mem­ber us.”

JOHN MCDON­NELL/THE WASHINGTON POST

By­ronMou­ton works at a camp for area youth. “Hon­estly, when I fin­ished play­ing, I was lost­my­self, and I didn’t know what I was go­ing to do,” Mou­ton said. His brother and sis­ter live in the D.C. area.

JOHN MCDON­NELL/THE WASHINGTON POST

Lonny Bax­ter, mid­dle; Juan Dixon, back right; andMou­ton, right, were part of what Gary Wil­liams called “a spe­cial group.”

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