TAMPA - When former University of Florida men's basketball star and NBA first-round draft choice Dwayne Schintzius was battling leukemia two years ago, he became emotional as he explained a mid-life revelation.
"I never knew there were so many people who cared about me," he said.
He was a basketball giant (7-foot-2, 275 pounds) with a larger-than-life personality. He was enigmatic, stunningly athletic, often controversial and always outspoken. Yet, in the last few years of his life, he was never more human.
Schintzius, the former Brandon High School standout who endured months of complications after receiving a second bone-marrow transplant from his younger brother, Travis, in November, died Sunday from respiratory failure at the Moffitt Cancer Center, his family said. He was 43.
Twice divorced with no children, he was survived by his younger brother and his parents, Ken and Linda. The family said plans for a memorial service are pending.
"He was my big brother and I looked up to him and idolized him my whole life," Travis Schintzius said. "He's at peace now. He's not suffering any more. Now he's probably cracking jokes and making people laugh in heaven."
Schintzius was surrounded by family when he died at about 2:45 p.m. Sunday at Moffitt, where he was first admitted in 2009 after being diagnosed with chronic myelomonocytic leukemia, an uncommon blood cancer that affects only three in 100,000 individuals in the United States each year.
He was declared cancer-free after receiving an initial bone-marrow transplant from his younger brother in 2010 and appeared to be free of medical issues until recent complications, which required another transplant.
"I went through some rough times and because of my size, I was never somebody who could hide," Schintzius said during his illness. "But you know what? You've got to enjoy every day you're on this planet."
Schintzius, who led Florida to its first three NCAA tournament appearances, was the centerpiece of Gator basketball from 1986 to 1990. He remains the only SEC player with more than 1,000 points, 800 rebounds, 250 assists and 250 blocked shots. He is UF's fifth all-time leading scorer with 1,624 points.
But a stormy departure — he quit the team midway through his senior season in 1989-90 after clashing with interim head coach Don DeVoe — caused him to wonder how his legacy was perceived in Gainesville.
In 2011, he attended the Florida-Georgia basketball game, his first appearance at the O'Connell Center since his playing days. He was introduced and shown on the video board. As he waved to the crowd, he was greeted by a thunderous ovation.
"He is an important part of this program's history," Gators coach Billy Donovan said that night. "He needs to feel welcome here, regardless of what happened in the past."
Last summer, Schintzius received special recognition for courage when the Tampa Bay Sports Commission gathered leaders of the area's sports franchises for its "Sneaker Soiree" awards program.
"People are giving me an award, I guess, for fighting for my life," Schintzius said then. "I don't deserve the award. The people at Moffitt are the true heroes. They saved my life."
Schintzius' basketball career was nothing but lively.
Known for his "Lobster" mullet hairdo, which was featured prominently in a Sports Illustrated profile, Schintzius declined to trim his locks at DeVoe's request. He walked away from UF just 11 games into his senior season, saying he was tired of DeVoe's dictatorial manner.
Schintzius still became a first-round NBA pick, the 24th overall selection by the San Antonio Spurs in 1990. He also played for the Sacramento Kings, New Jersey Nets, Indiana Pacers, Los Angeles Clippers and Boston Celtics, averaging 2.7 points and 2.5 rebounds overall. But injuries haunted his nine-season NBA career.
Off the court, Schintzius played the role of a Russian basketball player in the movie "Eddie," a film that starred Whoopi Goldberg. Schintzius also played himself in an episode of the cable television series Arliss. He later worked in sports marketing while maintaining his free-spirited attitude. He recently published a fitness book.
"There probably aren't many people who had a life like my brother did," Travis Schintzius said. "He was an amazing guy with a huge heart. He knows how many people loved him. And especially the last few years, he loved a lot of people right back."
A public memorial service for Schintzius will be at 10 a.m. on Saturday, April 28, at Stowers Funeral Home, 401 W. Brandon Blvd., in Brandon.