Consider the Lobster: Dwayne Schintzius and Me

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Dwayne Schintzius played for six NBA teams in eight NBA seasons, without ever playing more than 43 games in a season for any of them. He was, with the statistically insignificant exception of his first season with the New Jersey Nets, never really all that good. He was, always, very tall and strong. He was, and this is likely the only thing you remember about him, if you remember anything about him at all, a very tall, strong dude who appeared to be wearing what was either a jumbo, Dep Ultra Hold-ed coonskin cap or the single most resplendent bad white-dude haircut in NBA history. Schintzius named it himself, when he first started rocking the If-Billy-Ray-Cyrus-Was-A-Female-Middle-School-Teacher look back at the University of Florida. He called it "The Lobster."

Which, maybe, is a good place to pause for a minute, and remember a time when NBA players named their (fucking) hairdos. That time, of course, was not when Dwayne Schintzius was in the NBA, which was the height of the brand-managed Jordan Era; the uniform shorts might as well have been pleated khakis for all the creativity then on display, and trust that Luc Longley was not going on record calling his haircut "The Auburn Wallaby" or something. To call Schintzius a throwback to the looser and goofier '70s NBA is probably not quite right, though, at least if "throwback" is defined as in some way recalling the loopily stylish, tragic-soulful, whacked-on-weird-Nixon-Administration-era-narcotics NBA that were the rule back then. Schintzius was a meatish, plodding player in the pivot, and his brilliant college stats—over his last season and a half at Florida, he averaged 18.3 points, 9.6 rebounds and 2.1 blocks per game; he still holds a number of career records in the SEC—are a reminder of just how far being the tallest dude on the floor goes in college basketball.

The "and a half" above owes to the fact that Schintzius left Florida early in his senior season, after leading the Gators to their first three NCAA Tournament bids (which seems wrong, but is right) over his first three years in Gainesville. The interim coach at Florida, at the time, was Don DeVoe. He and Schintzius didn't like each other. This is not a new thing, of course. But because it was the 1990's, Schintzius broke up with DeVoe through a hilariously righteous—and so poignantly and recognizably college senior-ish—fax. Because Schintzius was Schintzius, the page-long fax read in part: "No one can argue that Coach Sloan and (departed assistant coach Monte) Towe were easy to play for, and to them, you had to accept the coach as the absolute authority and their word as final. But that does not mean you must sail under the authority of Captain Ahab."

One of the things that DeVoe asked of Schintzius was that he lose the mullet. The first GM Schintzius had in the NBA, Bob Bass of the Spurs, made the same request. As our own Eric F. wrote at Ball Don't Lie earlier this week, Schintzius was rankled by that, too. Because he was in the NBA—the 24th overall pick in an era when such picks were routinely cut loose after one meh season, as Schintzius was by San Antonio—Schintzius didn't get to send Bass a fax. Instead he sent him an envelope with his follicular lobster tail in it.

It is not now and has not ever been illegal for one man to send another man an envelope with a bunch of fonky Floridian hair-locks in it, although it could very easily and convincingly be argued that it should be. But, again, the question of which contemporary NBA player might conceivably violate that non-law is one without an easy answer. Whether this means that there are simply fewer righteously Floridian be-mulleted jerkwads in the NBA now than in years past, or whether it means that today's Floridian (it's a state of mind) jerkwads lack both the heart and the will either to grow or trim so magnificently misbegotten a haircut is, again, subject to debate. You'd have to know Dwayne Schintzius to really know the answer. And as Schintzius died earlier this week after a three-year struggle with leukemia, it's impossible to ask the man himself.

When I had the opportunity to talk to Schintzius myself, 20 years ago, I certainly wouldn't have thought to ask him about any of that. I was 14. I wanted to ask him, if not in so many words, about being big. This was a topic on which he was very qualified to speak, but also among the many topics on which I was not qualified to ask questions at that age. I had, and I can only imagine how funny this must have been in retrospect, pitched the story to the sports editor at my high school's newspaper: I'd go to a Nets preseason practice at Princeton's Jadwin Gym and ask the players to whom I looked up in every literal and metaphorical way some questions about... I don't remember, exactly. Advice for The Youth. Suggestions for Young Basketball Aspirants. Whether I could have an autograph. I am still a little weird around professional basketball players. At 14, I was a little weird around everybody. Little, and weird, and a little weird.

To the Nets' credit, they were very kind to me; I was also the only journalist (what?) there, so I had something like the undivided attention of the 23- and 24-year-olds I sidled up to, asking that they share their tips on becoming successful adults. Jayson Williams, who was funny and kind and whose advice on achieving productive adulthood it did not then seem insane to ask, recommended drinking milk and having fun. Chris Dudley offered such kind and clearly elocuted pap that I remain amazed, even all these years later, that he is not in the House of Representatives. Schintzius, proud lobster once again in place, was shooting layups by himself at the far end of the gym while the others sat—Williams sprawled expansively, physically and otherwise; the squandered star quality there is not the greatest waste of his sad life, not by a long shot, but it is a waste—and it was a strange walk across the court to this solitary, be-mulleted giant.

Some context on who Schintzius was at that point: a guy who had barely played for two teams, backing up first David Robinson and then (um) Duane Causwell, someone who had a reputation that I was probably faintly aware of even then as a goofball. He would go on to play only five games for the Nets that year, before being thrust into an unexpected and inexplicably central role—well, not inexplicable: Sam Bowie and Dudley both got hurt—for the Nets in one of their inevitably doomed playoff series against the Cavaliers. In his five games with the Nets, and especially in the career-best 21 minutes per game Schintzius played in the playoffs, he played the best basketball of his career. Which is relative, of course: he wasn't a great NBA player, even at his apex. But he did score 10 points and grab six rebounds in a home playoff win that forced an inevitable Game Five in Cleveland, and I remember the hopeful ovation he got at the beginning of the game and the grateful one that he and everyone else on the floor got at the end. I was a part of it. I screamed until I hurt. I screamed for the things that 14-year-olds scream for, but I used the Nets as an excuse to raise my voice to a level commensurate with my need. I needed, and they gave.

In that fury of projection, in that win against the Cavaliers—one of the greatest in the team's history, one of the few moments in his career in which Derrick Coleman demonstrably and inarguably gave a shit—I saw something admirable in Dwayne Schintzius. I saw an overmatched player, as everyone else did; Brad Daugherty scored 29 points in the game and made 12 of his 18 shots. But I also saw someone working so hard to overcome that, to redeem himself despite his manifest limitations and the perception of himself that he conspired to create and the expectations of a team and a state (here you are deep in my adolescent fan-transferrence, so hold onto something) that rebuked its status as insignificant, as a joke or something too sad even to be a joke, and demanded—and would fight—to be seen as something else of its own making. Dwayne Schintzius was a part of that, and that struggle was his, and it all felt very much like mine.

But on the day I approached him in Princeton, he wasn't that, yet. He was the new backup to the old backup, and it was by no means clear that he'd even make the team. It seemed somewhat silly, even then, to ask this particular 24-year-old's advice on whatever it was I thought I was asking advice about, but he was a basketball player, and so he had to know something. And I don't actually remember what he told me, actually. I remember that he was kind, and patient, and that he kept shooting while we talked. I remember him being so close to the basket that he seemed to be simply handing the ball to the backboard. He converted one rote goal after another, over and over, while he—almost certainly with an amusement that, like so much else, I missed at the time—told me what he thought I wanted to hear about life, and about growing up.

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