Posted Oct 19 2010 10:18AM
When a former NBA player is diagnosed with leukemia, is given a 25-percent chance of living, spends 109 days in a cancer center and 18 of those locked in a self-induced coma, what's going on inside of him? Besides the cable of tracheotomy tubes running down his throat?
"The first thing I did, after I lost faith for a bit and broke down and cried," said Dwayne Schintzius, "was think, what did I do in my life to deserve this? I just started thinking about all the bad stuff I did in my lifetime. Was I such a bad person?"
Well, he admits to being somewhat of a rascal in college. No different than plenty of 19-year-old males in that regard. Except Schintzius was 7-foot-2 and was a big deal at Florida, and stood out in so many ways, which only magnified his hijinks.
OK, so he took a tennis racket to a fellow student. The fans across the Southeast Conference had fun with that; someone threw a tennis ball on the court when Florida visited Florida State. He'd been used to the taunts by then. Even as a boy, taller than the others, he was pointed at, laughed at, called a dork. And so, sometimes, he lashed back. Like a lot of folks would.
"I was spoiled back then, arrogant," he said.
But that was decades ago. Didn't the statute of limitations on growing up expire already? Besides, were those college incidents so horrible that he had to watch his parents stand over his hospital bed on a daily basis, worried of losing their first son? Was he that bad of a person?
He did take issue with some of his basketball coaches, quitting the Florida team in midseason after a blowup with Don DeVoe. And there was one episode with Larry Brown. He coached Schintzius on the USA Basketball Under-19 team. While in Italy for the world tournament, two strong-willed people eventually clashed, and Brown asked Schintzius to meet him downstairs in the basement of the team hotel. He threatened to send Schintzius home. And then the coach removed his jacket and put up his dukes.
"Come on, you big sunovabitch," Brown said, while dancing around. "I've fought guys a lot bigger than you." Schintzius thought the coach was crazier than he was.
They got along fabulously the rest of the tournament.
In June of 1990, on the night of the NBA Draft, Schintzius sat in the waiting area and stewed while picks came and went without hearing his name called. He was rated among the top big men in the country and thought he'd go top 15. He wondered if NBA teams held the Florida incident against him. As the night progressed, Schintzius looked around a near-empty room and prepared to leave.
Phone rings. The Spurs. They're taking him with the 24th pick. The coach is Brown. He gets on the line. First thing he says?
"Hey Dwayne, aren't you glad you didn't knock me out in Italy?"
Recalling the story, Schintzius laughed, even now, and said: "I'd probably still be sitting in that room if I did."
So he had disagreements. Big deal. Was that such an egregious error that he had to undergo a bone-marrow transplant after the doctors broke the bad news to him last winter? Did he deserve this?
"He never made huge mistakes, the kind you see from some professional athletes," said Travis Schintzius, the bone-marrow donor and Dwayne's brother. "His came from being a young man in college. There was the perception of him, and then there was Dwayne. Totally different."
What else, he thought? What could he possibly have done to be forced to endure three rounds of chemotherapy? Because he was never a star during his time in the NBA? He was a big man with soft hands and a gentle shooting touch from 18 feet in. He almost made the 1988 Olympic team. As a rookie with the Spurs, he had the fortune of being coached by Brown and learning the center position from David Robinson. He started several games that year, when Robinson moved to power forward.
But he lasted only eight NBA seasons. He became nothing more than a backup center who averaged in single digits in scoring and rebounding and bounced around on six teams: Spurs, Kings, Nets, Clippers, Pacers and Celtics.
There was an excuse. His back gave out 62 games into his rookie season. Herniated disk. He eventually had seven surgeries in those eight years. He couldn't move up and down a court easily.
So he had a journeyman career. Was that so wrong? Was that cause to undergo multiple blood transfusions? Is that the reason his family, thinking he wasn't going to make it, prepared to pay their last respects?
The answer became obvious to Schintzius then. He wasn't a "bad person." He didn't bring this upon himself. There's nothing he did in his 42 years that could remotely lead to what he was going through. If anything, friends and family are quick to tell you about the Dwayne who calls everyone "bro" and looks for humor in everything.
"I don't know why the negativity entered my thoughts while I laid there, on my side, with 15 to 20 IV bags and plasma being pumped into me," he said. "I actually was pretty positive throughout the whole deal. But when you're in that moment and you're at your worst, you just try to understand why it happened. I thought I deserved it. Then I figured maybe it was just destined to happen to me.
"And then I got angry and said I'm not going out like this. I'm going to beat this."
When he emerged from his coma, he'd lost 50 pounds. His hair -- once famously worn long in the back and coiffed on the top, his trademark "lobster" cut -- was gone. As were his fingernails, some of his skin and lots of his strength.
He watched basketball on TV. The NBA Finals, Celtics and Lakers. That got him through the long hospital stay, the chemo, everything. Basketball. And then he was released, first to a halfway house for two months, then home.
"I'm just glad I'm alive," he said. "I'm ready to start living. I survived a drastic and traumatic change in my life. Every day is a struggle. I'm not going to lie. But I get up, strap my shoes on and get out there and face it."
He does public relations in Tampa for Crawford Ker, a former Cowboys lineman who owns sports bars in Florida. What he really wants to do is fish. And watch the sunset. Simple stuff.
He hopes cancer won't pay him another visit. But if it does, and he's lying in a hospital, he won't think about who he was anymore. Just who he is.
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