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Former NBA, UF center Schintzius grateful to be alive

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Published:   |   Updated: March 21, 2013 at 08:10 AM

Through the worst of times, being diagnosed with leukemia 10 months ago, undergoing three rounds of heavy chemotherapy, watching his 7-foot-2, 275-pound body atrophy to the frailty of an infant, former NBA and University of Florida basketball player Dwayne Schintzius kept repeating the words to himself.

"I do not want to die. I am going to beat this."

In his mind, the notable moments of his athletic career, whether famous or infamous, are now irrelevant. Today, there is only one thing that really matters.

He is alive.

He is cancer-free.

"There was a time when I just fell on my bed and cried and said, 'Why me? What have I done to deserve leukemia?'" said Schintzius, 41, the former Brandon High School player. "But then it became, 'OK, time to stop feeling sorry for yourself. I've got work to do. I've got to beat this.'

"And that's what I emphasized to all the doctors. 'OK, what are you going to hit me with next? Let's go.' I wanted to give everything I had."

Schintzius, who has returned to his Bloomingdale home after a lengthy hospitalization, said he knows it was a shared battle.

He underwent a successful bone-marrow transplant on Jan. 12 when his younger brother, Travis, was found to be a perfect match.

The doctors and staff at the H. Lee Moffitt Cancer and Research Institute pushed him, along with his parents, Ken and Linda, who kept a constant vigil.

But it was also strength gained from words and messages of friends, former NBA players such as Rick Mahorn and Rik Smits, even perfect strangers.

"There were certainly times growing up when I acted like a pompous jerk and I did a lot of things wrong," Schintzius said. "There were times when I didn't like myself at all.

"But you know what? You've got to enjoy every day you're on this planet. I never knew there were so many people who cared about me. I'd tell anybody to tell people you love them and make up with the ones who you feel have done you wrong. Relationships keep you going. They kept me going. I never felt alone."

The past has passed?

Even Schintzius had to appreciate the irony when his hair fell out during treatments. After all, he was probably best known for his "Lobster" mullet hairdo. It was the featured angle when he was profiled in Sports Illustrated. In 1990, it was at the center of his contentious relationship with UF interim coach Don DeVoe, a disciplinarian who replaced the fired Norm Sloan. DeVoe wanted the hair trimmed (among other things).

Eleven games into his senior season, saying he was tired of DeVoe's dictatorial manner, Schintzius quit UF's team. Even though several months later he was the NBA draft's 24th overall selection, allowing him to shake hands with Commissioner David Stern on national television, he still regrets walking away from Gainesville.

He also wishes he could change a few off-court incidents, which included allegedly assaulting a student with a tennis racket. Sometimes, he frets that many people only remember his UF days in a negative light.

Schintzius is the only SEC player ever with more than 1,000 points, 800 rebounds, 250 assists and 250 blocked shots. Upon his arrival, the Gators earned the first three NCAA Tournament appearances in program history. He remains UF's fifth all-time leading scorer with 1,624 points.

He also helped UF to its first SEC regular-season championship in 1988-89. Memorable moment: UF was down by two points with two seconds remaining at Vanderbilt, the game apparently lost. Commodore fans, remembering Schintzius' tennis racket incident, began showering the court with tennis balls. A technical foul was assessed and Schintzius hit two free throws, sending the game to overtime, where the Gators prevailed. Eventually, Florida won the SEC title by one game - over Vanderbilt.

"I'm a really easy target because I've never been able to hide," said Schintzius, who has worked in sports marketing since playing the last game of his nine-season NBA career in 1999. "When I was younger, I used to bully people because I was taller than them. I also got picked on quite a bit.

"I am who I am. God put me here. I tried to play a sport and I tried to do best I could. I had a lot of injuries, but I don't want to make any excuses. I moved on from basketball and was living a great life."

Late last summer, though, Schintzius began feeling sick during a trip to the Keys. He thought it was the flu. But it wouldn't go away. He couldn't keep any food down. His weight began dropping. At the urging of his family, he saw a series of doctors and pretty soon a blood disorder was suspected.

Schintzius was at a hematologist when he sent a text message to his brother, Travis.

I have leukemia, brother.

It was believed to be CMML - Chronic Myelomonocytic Leukemia - an uncommon blood cancer that affects only three in 100,000 individuals in the United States each year. Schintzius had no family history of the disease.

"Everything just went blank when I read that text," said Travis Schintzius, 39, who also played at UF. "I was stunned, floored. Dwayne was in such great shape, working out all the time. I just thought, 'What are we going to do now?'

"I had never asked the Lord for too much, but I started asking then. I asked Him to save Dwayne. I didn't want to lose my brother."

Fighting back

Through the worst of times, Schintzius lost nearly 60 pounds, dropping to 218, less than his weight as a rail-thin high-school sophomore. Through the worst of times, the chemotherapy attacking the cancer cells caused his throat to swell and close, nearly creating suffocation. Doctors, working fast, suggested a medically induced coma so the throat could heal.

Schintzius was out for 18 days.

When he came back, he couldn't move, talk or eat. He had a breathing tube. He tried writing instructions, but was too weak for that. Then there was the constant threat of infections, further complicating matters.

"This was my big, bad brother, the guy I had looked up to my whole life, and he was totally helpless," Travis Schintzius said. "Seeing him like that was just a shock. We were all shaken up. But I kept thinking about what he told me after he was diagnosed.

"He said, 'Travis, I'm going to beat this.' He was right."

Schintzius said his primary physician at Moffitt, Ernesto Ayala, continues to be amazed by the rapid recovery. Schintzius credits his athletic background - "All those suicides I ran, and all those coaches who yelled at me, taught me how to push through pain" - and his physical fitness regimen since retiring from basketball.

The early NBA career took a toll on Schintzius' body. He blew a disk and had back surgery. He dislocated a shoulder and he had two knee operations. He broke his nose three times. He had six bone chips removed from his right ankle.

Still, before getting sick, Schintzius could put both palms on the floor while standing flat-footed and straight-legged. He could take one foot and kick the bottom of a basketball net while keeping the other foot flat on the ground. He ate right and worked out regularly.

He was even completing a fitness book: "Dwayne Schintzius' Guide To Free And Easy Exercises For People On The Go."

Schintzius isn't sure where his life is headed, but he's confident about his health, although he still hasn't regained all the feeling in his legs and feet. His weight is up to 240 pounds. Although there are still bad days, his body is getting stronger from trips to the gym. He knows there will be regular checkups for the next five years, routine for all bone-marrow transplant patients.

"Every day is still a challenge," said Robert Enmon, Schintzius' best friend since their days at Brandon High School, who named his son Robert Dwayne Enmon. "There were times when I honestly didn't think he would make it. I feared the worst. But what a fighter he has been. I admire him for that."

Schintzius is twice divorced with no children. He has been gawked at in all 50 states. He has seen a lot and done a lot, once even portraying a Russian basketball player while appearing in a movie with Whoopi Goldberg.

Life has been hard. Life has been good.

"One crazy journey, man," Schintzius said.

He laughs when realizing the path has led back home, where he's surrounded by family and friends, including some he never knew he had. You can laugh when you know there's a lot more living to do.

"I'm alive, bro," Schintzius said. "Nothing can beat that."


Reporter Joey Johnston can be reached at (813) 259-7353.

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