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Sunday April 15, 2012 In the end, Dwayne Schintzius found perspective and peace

Updated: 5:07pm, April 16

Dwayne and I TAMPA, Fla. -- He was the biggest basketball player in University of Florida history. One of the most controversial, too.

Dwayne Schintzius died Sunday.  

The 7-foot-2, 260-pound behemoth who helped lead the University of Florida’s first ventures into the NCAA Tournament more than two decades ago, passed away after a lengthy battle with leukemia.

Schintzius, 43, was surrounded by his parents, Ken and Linda, and his brother Travis, also a former UF basketball player, when he died at 2:45 p.m. at the Moffitt Cancer Center on the campus of the University of South Florida. It was at Moffitt that the former Gators star underwent a bone-marrow transplant in 2009 after first being diagnosed with Chronic Myelomonocytic Leukemia.

Though declared cancer-free following the first transplant, the symptoms returned earlier this year. A second bone-marrow transplant produced complications that eventually led to respiratory failure.

“He’s at peace now,’’ Travis Schintzius told The Tampa Tribune. “He’s not suffering any more. Now he’s probably cracking jokes and making people laugh in heaven.’’

DwayneThe only player in Southeastern Conference history to total at least 1,500 points, 800 rebounds, 250 assists and 200 blocks, Schintzius finished his UF career with 1,624 points, currently seventh on the school’s all-time scoring list.

That number, of course, could have been significantly higher were it not for the tumultuous final 1989-90 season when Coach Norm Sloan and his staff -- including assistant Monte Towe, who recruited Schintzius, a McDonald’s All-American out of Brandon High -- was fired amid an ugly NCAA investigation and was replaced by interim coach Don DeVoe.

DeVoe inherited the bulk of a team that won the school’s first SEC basketball title the year before, but his rigid structure clashed mightily with the returning players, none more so than Schintzius. The All-SEC center quit the team in midseason.

“No one can argue that Coach Sloan and Coach Towe were easy to play for, and to them you had to accept the coach as the absolute authority and their word as final,” Schintzius said in a memorable statement released through the school. “But that does not mean I must sail under the authority of Captain Ahab. If you can play for Coach Sloan, you can play for almost anyone ... almost anyone.”

That was Schintzius. For 3 1/2 seasons (1987-90), he did it his way -- under that crazy haircut known as “The Lobster” (photo left) -- and with no apologies on his way to being a first-round draft pick of the San Antonio Spurs and playing for six teams in nine years in the NBA, mostly as a seldom-used reserve and fighting injuries along the way, including a severe back ailment.

In a moment famously chronicled by Sports Illustrated, a UF student once approached Schintzius on campus and asked him how the weather was up there?

Schintzius spit on him.

“It’s raining.”

That’s the Schintzius many remembered, but it wasn’t the person who matured over the years.

“I look back on my life, and I didn’t like myself ... I like myself now,” Schintzius told me in 2007 when I interviewed for a story (that's me posting him up in the above photo) in The Orlando Sentinel marking the 20-year anniversary of UF’s first NCAA Tournament berth. “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. If I had to do it all over again, I’d do some things differently. But that’s not how life works.”

In time, Schintzius mended his fences with the Gators. In 2011, he was invited back to take a bow -- after beating cancer the first time -- before a packed O’Connell Center during a Florida-Georgia game.

“No matter what happened, I’ve always been proud to be a Gator,” Schintzius said at the time. Dwayne shooting

Schnitzius, who averaged 2.7 points and 2.5 rebounds in his nine NBA seasons, spent his post-basketball career working on a variety of ventures, including stints as an actor. He also worked himself into great shape and recently published a fitness book.

When I interviewed him five years ago, we met at a barbecue restaurant in Brandon. To prove his fitness and agility, Schintzius climbed out of the booth, asked a waitress to back away, then proceeded to kick his foot above his head and tap it on the 9-foot ceiling.

An elderly man walking into the restaurant was stunned. No, he did not ask about the weather, but he did hit Schintzius with a question that would have set the big guy off in his college days.

“How tall are you, son?”

Schintzius extended his hand.

“Two-point-two meters, sir,” he said. “I’m Dwayne. It’s very nice to meet you.”

RIP, No. 33.

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