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Saturday March 1, 2014 Dwayne Schnitzius remembered

Updated: 3:08pm, March 1

 

Dwayne and I

GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- The big story Saturday will be No. 1 Florida (26-2, 15-0) playing LSU (17-10, 8-7) with a chance to extend its school record to 21 straight victories and maintain its quest for an undefeated Southeastern Conference season.

But it's also an opportunity to remember another big story.

And a very big guy.

At halftime of the UF-LSU game, the 1988-89 Gators basketball team will be honored in recognition of the 25-year anniversary of the school's first Southeastern Conference championship. I wrote about that team and that magical season here, but I figured this was a a good opportunity to roll out a story I wrote in 2007 about the famous and equally infamous Dwayne Schintzius.

The 7-foot-2, 265-pound UF center, Schintzius was a lightning rod in the SEC along the lines of say, Ole Miss guard Marshall Henderson these days. He was a villified target everywhere he went. Much of it of his own doing, by the way.

But he also was one of the greatest players in Gators history -- and the only player in SEC history to score 1,500 points, grab 800 rebounds, dish 250 assists and block 200 blocks. 

Think about those numbers. 

Seven years ago, as Billy Donovan and that incomparable bunch led by Joakim Noah was about to embark on defense of its NCAA title, I was working in Tampa as abn NFL writer for The Orlando Sentinel and managed to track down Schintzius (not an easy task, by the way, and certainly worth the photo opp above) to commemorate the 20-year anniversary of UF's first NCAA Tournament game. Schintzius was a freshman and huge part -- literally -- of that team and thus began his high-profile and engimatic existence as Florida basketball worked its way, first to relevance, then to prominence.

Schintzius died at the age 42 following complications from a rare form of leukemia. His parents, Ken and Linda, will represent him today.

In his memory, here's the story I wrote of a man who grew to find both perspective and peace in his life after a very successful, very controversial time as a Gator.

 

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GLORY DAYS
20 years ago today, Dwayne Schintzius and the Gators found themselves in the Big Dance.

March 13, 2007

By Chris Harry
Orlando Sentinel Staff Writer

BRANDON, Fla. -- As he ducked through the doorway into the Sonny's Real Pit Barbecue on State Road 60, heads turned, eyes widened, lips whispered.
A smallish 70-ish man, wearing a John Deere hat, was waiting to be seated. Staring straight up, he couldn't help himself.

"My God! How tall are you?"

"Two-point-two meters, sir."

"What's that in English?"

Dwayne Schintzius removed his sunglasses, dropped a monstrous hand in the man's direction and answered the question as calmly as if he was ordering a side of slaw.

"Seven-foot-two, sir," he said. "You have a nice day."

Schintzius swears similar conversations take place 30, 50, sometimes 100 times a day. Between mouthfuls of all-you-can-eat brisket, four such exchanges (three customers, one waiter) occurred during a 50-minute lunch last week.

"I love it," he said.

There was a time when Schintzius viewed his height as a curse more than a blessing. Like the days when strangers would approach the biggest man on Florida's campus and ask, "How's the weather up there?"

The stock reply came after the loogie.

"It's raining."

Even giants need time to grow up.

"I look back on my life, and I didn't like myself," Schintzius, now 38, said with a smile. "I like myself now."

If only such admiration had been there in the 1980s. Without it, Schintzius never got to fully enjoy -- or lament -- his time as the lightning rod of Florida basketball. Exactly 20 years ago today -- March 13, 1987 -- the sixth-seeded Gators defeated North Carolina State 82-70 in Syracuse, N.Y., in Florida's first-ever NCAA Tournament game. The win was followed by an 85-66 rout of third-seeded Purdue that moved the Gators into the Sweet 16 and gave UF fans the first taste of a tradition it's grown to expect.

March Madness.

Schintzius, a gawky freshman from Brandon High, wasn't just in the middle of it all; he was the impetus of it all.

"We had some good players, and we'd been to three straight NITs," recalled then-UF assistant Monte Towe, now an assistant at North Carolina State. "But we didn't make the NCAAs until Dwayne got there. He was the missing piece."

Schintzius arrived in Gainesville in the fall of 1986. He stood 7 feet 1 and weighed a shade over 200 pounds, yet was a graceful athlete -- a former baseball pitcher and Punt, Pass and Kick champion who had outgrown every sport but one.

In addition to his size and wing span, Schintzius could run the floor, and had soft hands, a deft shooting touch and terrific basketball instincts. And he could pass.

From either the high or low post, Schintzius carved up defenses with pinpoint dishes to perimeter scorers Vernon Maxwell, Andrew Moten and Pat Lawrence. The 1986-87 team went 21-9 in the regular season, finished second in the Southeastern Conference at 12-6 and received an at-large NCAA bid.

"That was a fun team to watch," UF Athletic Director Jeremy Foley said.

It became a nightmare team to watch over, though.

An NCAA investigation into violations by then-coach Norm Sloan and his staff and DEA investigations of Maxwell and some teammates scandalized the on-the-rise program and made Florida basketball a national embarrassment -- even as the Gators captured the school's first SEC title two years later in 1989.

"More than anyone else," Towe said at the Atlantic Coast Conference Tournament in Tampa last week, "I think Dwayne was affected most by what happened to us."

On his way to becoming the only player in SEC history to amass 1,500 points, 800 rebounds, 250 assists and 200 blocks, Schintzius' fame on the court was overshadowed by his infamy off it. Police run-ins, frat-party melees and the most controversial haircut (the "Lobster") in college sports turned Schintzius into a sideshow.

"I made a lot of mistakes back then, but I was a kid. And those mistakes got blown out of proportion because of who I was," said Schintzius, the No. 6 scorer in UF history with 1,624 points in 110 games (all starts). "If I had to do it all over again, I'd do some things differently. But that's not how life works."

Schintzius said his greatest regret was the decision to quit the team and renounce his scholarship 11 games into his senior season in 1989-90, after the preseason firing of Sloan and hiring of disciplinarian Don DeVoe. He and Schintzius clashed instantly, and Schintzius eventually announced his exit from the program via a release stating his refusal "to sail under the authority of Captain Ahab."

The decision left UF without its All-America center, left Schintzius' younger brother, Travis, to be the brunt of DeVoe's frustration and sank the reigning SEC champions to a 7-21 mark and last-place league finish.

Schintzius shrugged when asked to reflect on the Herman Melville reference.

"I'd never even read Moby Dick. Some lawyer who wanted to be my agent gave me a few drinks and told me to say it," Schintzius said. "I should have toughened it out and stayed my senior year, at least for my brother's sake, but I was too selfish.

"Without me there, DeVoe took everything out on him."

Had Schintzius left school after his junior season, NBA scouts had him pegged as a top-10 draft choice. Instead, his senior-year baggage brought a tumble to No. 24, where San Antonio -- already armed with center David Robinson -- selected him. One year and one painful back injury into his pro career, Schintzius was traded to Sacramento, starting a nine-year NBA odyssey of little achievement.

"I don't know where to put him as far as his potential or where he should have gotten, but he still did a lot for Florida and lot for himself," Towe said. "Maybe he was never as good as everybody wanted him to be, but Dwayne was a special player."

Fit and trim at around 275 pounds, thanks to his newfound affinity for kick-boxing and martial arts, he still looks like he could play. But seven surgeries keep him off the court.

Thanks to the NBA, though, Schintzius has enough money to dabble in various business opportunities, among them a partnership in a vitamin company and some acting opportunities, mostly in commercials.

What would he tell a young athlete?

"Get an education, figure out how to manage your own money . . . oh, yeah, and get your wife to sign a prenuptial agreement," said Schintzius, who is twice divorced and has no children. "Above all, learn from your mistakes.

"I still make them -- who doesn't? -- but I learn from them."

As he left the restaurant, gawkers dropped their jaws when Schintzius, to prove a point about his flexibility, touched his foot to the 9-foot ceiling. He did it with ease.

"Thanks," he said to the cashier. "Have a good one, ma'am."

At 2.2 meters, the weather is more pleasant up there now

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