Prompted by the death of NBA player Dwayne Schintzius, Liam Day looks back on his own life and wonders if could ever have been as bold as the man in the mullet.
Dwayne Schintzius died last week. That may not mean much to you, but to an avid college basketball fan some 20-25 years ago it would. Dwayne Schintzius was a 7’2″ center for the University of Florida Gators, known as much for his hair cut – a full-on mullet – as for his basketball ability. Drafted by the San Antonio Spurs with the 24th pick of the 1990 NBA draft, he spent 9 years bouncing around the league, forging a mediocre career for 6 different teams, including the Boston Celtics, one of whose disgruntled fans compiled a two-minute video of the lowlights of Schintzius’ tenure with the Celts—turnovers, air balls, generally awkward moments on the court that earned him one of basketball’s most common descriptive appellations, stiff. If you had Googled Dwayne Schintzius before he died, this video would have been among the first items you pulled up.
But I do not come to bury Dwayne Schintzius; I come to praise him, for his haircut and NBA career overshadow the fact that, for the three years he played for the University of Florida, Dwayne Schintzius was a very good basketball player. He remains the only player in the history of the Southeast Conference who compiled more than 1,200 points, 800 rebounds, 250 blocks, and 250 assists. His journeyman NBA career was not simply the fulfillment of a destiny, but was, in fact, a disappointment. This very tall human being, with a solid set of skills and an ability to pass the basketball with a rarity for a man his size, should have been much better than he was, and I can’t help wonder whether this simple fact didn’t haunt Dwayne Schintzius the last 13 years of his life.
I never told anyone this.
My first year of high school I was a very good cross-country runner. Week after week I competed against other freshman on a trail approximately 1.8 miles long. My best time, if memory serves, was 9:00 flat, which I ran against our archival, BC High. The season concluded with the New England Catholic School Championships, at which, because it was run on our home course, it was assumed I would finish in the top 10, if not outright win, and, at the start gun, as expected, I sprinted to the lead.
The trail, which is no longer used because the City of Boston invested millions in restoring the municipal golf course over which it meandered, started from a dirt baseball diamond, cut across the flat part of a fairway on the back nine before climbing a steep hill to circle back behind the starting line, complete a loop on the other side of the course and then finish about two-thirds of the way up the fairway across which it cut at the start.
I was never a very strategic runner, a flaw that would limit my development as I got older and began competing against those who were better and faster. My plan every race was the same—I sprinted to the lead and then fought like hell to hold it. As a freshman, this usually worked, but, at the varsity level, I simply wasn’t good enough to pursue this strategy and my first inkling that this might be true came that afternoon in the New England Catholic School Championships.
Sprinting to the lead across the fairway took something out of me. The steep climb up the hill took something more. Though after a half-mile I was leading a pack of more than 200 runners, I knew I wasn’t going to be able to hold the lead for long. I faced a character-building choice. I could gut it out, run the best race possible and finish as high in the order as I could. Or I could do what I did—pretend to hit a hole, of which, in terms of believability, there were a fair number on the course, and fall to the ground. At least that way the failure wouldn’t be mine. At least not publicly.
I only stayed on the ground a matter of seconds, but it was enough that, by the time I was able to pull myself up and regain my stride, I had fallen well behind the lead pack, which was, in fact, the plan. I think I finished somewhere around 90th. I didn’t know it then, but I would never again be as competitive a runner as I had been before that fall. It wasn’t straight down hill from there. It was more like a mesa top, perfectly flat all around. I was as good a runner my senior year as I had been as a freshman.
Oh, I had my moments. During one practice my junior year in Boston’s Arnold Arboretum, where we ran intervals on a loop that was just about a mile long, I finished our third and last interval in the gloaming as an early autumn evening fell in 4:33. Much later in life, I would run the last 6 miles of the Belfast marathon in approximately 35 minutes. The rest of the time there was mostly failure, pain, and embarrassment.
Athletes refer to something they call The Zone. It is a quasi-mystical, pseudo-psychological state of mind in which, what one does, what one has practiced thousands of times—hitting a baseball, throwing a football, shooting a basketball, running a race—comes so easily, so unconsciously, that one loses the awareness of all external factors that are extraneous to the performance of that one act. The crowd becomes white noise, your opponents mere apparitions. I remember times during my basketball career when I was so locked in it didn’t matter whether a defender got a hand in my face. My balance was straight up and down, the release on my shot high, my follow-through perfect.
Conversely, there are times in every athlete’s career when he or she seems to be conscious, too conscious, of every motion. All powers of concentration are absorbed in the mere mechanics of the act. Nothing comes naturally or flows fluidly. The athlete knows what he or she is supposed to be doing, but the beat required to think about it leaves him or her a half-second behind on every play.
Those two brief shining moments during my less than mediocre running career—a late afternoon practice in high school and the last section of a marathon I ran some 11 years later—represent the only two times I remember hitting the zone as a runner. I don’t know how or why I hit the zone. I only remember that for those brief moments, which, together, amount to a mere 40 minutes of my life, my legs seemed to turn over by themselves and my breathing was so even I was hardly aware of it.
There are many things that separate the competitive athlete from the world-class one, not the least of which is luck. I spent a season playing professional basketball in Ireland. A number of the guys I played both with and against had played Division 1 college basketball home here in America. They were what I called everything-but players. They had all of the skills and talent they needed to make it to the next level, but one. They were great post players who were only 6’6″ tall, great shooters who were too slow to get their shots off against quicker players, quick players who could break defenders down off the dribble, but couldn’t shoot.
But what I truly believe separates the world-class athlete from the merely competitive isn’t luck or talent. It’s this: world class athletes know what it takes to enter the zone; they don’t blindly stumble into as I happened to on a couple of occasions. They know the physical and psychological steps they need to take to elevate their performance from one that is merely mechanical to one that is transcendent.
There are any number of professional athletes I’ve watched in the zone. Baseball pitchers like Orel Hershiser, Greg Maddux, and Pedro Martinez, the single most dominating pitcher I’ve seen in my lifetime. Tom Brady and Peyton Manning, who have both spent long stretches of their careers in the zone. Larry Bird and Michael Jordan. Tiger Woods and Roger Federer, both of whom spent so long in the zone it’s somewhat weird to watch them now they no longer inhabit it, one knocked out by age, the other by scandal.
I don’t know why Dwayne Schintzius failed to live up to the promise he displayed at the University of Florida. There were reports that he was a flake (reports the mullet would, perhaps, corroborate), reports that he didn’t play hard. Perhaps he wasn’t given opportunities in the NBA that would have helped him thrive, perhaps he played out of position or was asked to play differently than he played in college, perhaps, having lost his confidence, he was never able to get it back. Whatever the reason, the lowlight reel of Dwayne Schintzius playing for the Boston Celtics toward the end of his NBA career isn’t pretty. He is slow, his movement mechanical, his confidence shot.
Nevertheless, the video elicits from me not ridicule, as the editor of the 2:00 film intended, but sympathy. It’s easy to lampoon a professional athlete whom we might think sucks. He’s earning hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of dollars a year, a salary we subsidize by buying tickets and team swag and cable television packages, all to play a game, a game many of us played as a child in our backyards and drive ways, a game we would give anything to be paid to play as adults. He doesn’t deserve our sympathy. He gets paid to put the ball in the basket and, if he can’t, fuck him.
But few of us understand what it means, what it feels like, to fail so publicly. Writers spend years producing drivel before they get published, at which point, they can either tuck all that drivel in the back of a drawer in the bottom of their desk in the second bedroom or, if they’re smart, burn it. Only the neighbors will ever hear the off-key, ear-splitting notes of the garage band before it signs with a record label. Failure is so woven into the fabric of scientists’ work that, when they achieve unexpectedly successful results with an experiment, they ask colleagues to test the results just to prove they’re replicable.
There is no anonymous apprenticeship in the NBA (or the NFL for that matter). Every game is on television. And, if you play for a school like the University of Florida, every game of your college career is also likely on television. Hell, ESPN airs high school basketball games. Every missed field goal, every missed free throw, every turnover, every time you get beat off the dribble on defense becomes a moment for dissection. There is no time, no room, for failure to blossom into success. Under this pressure, some players thrive. Others falter. There are many more players who fall into the latter category than into the former. Dwayne Schintzius happened to be one of those players.
I turn 40 next month. My wife fears I will suffer a mid-life crisis and I admit my thoughts about turning 40 are not happy ones. I thought I’d be further along professionally than I am. I thought I would have done more, accomplished more than I have. Where is the Pulitzer, the National Book Award? Hell, I won’t even be eligible any longer for those 40 novelists under 40 lists magazines like The New Yorker love to produce every 5 or 10 years.
It may sound self-centered of me, but what registered most forcibly when I read the news that Dwayne Schintzius died was the fact he was only four years older than me. It’s easy to forget sometimes how young are the athletes who compete on our televisions and grace the covers of sports magazines. I was barely out of puberty when I watched Schintzius lead the Florida Gators to the first of three consecutive NCAA tournament appearances. What didn’t occur to me until I read the notice of his death was that Schintzius wasn’t all that much further out of puberty. Of course, at 15 the difference between you and someone who is 19, especially someone who is 19 and 7’2″ tall, is the difference between me and my father now. I wouldn’t have believed we hailed from the same historical epoch, never mind the same generation.
I was lost for a good five years after college. There was a year doing public relations for a municipal agency, and three working at a boys and girls club before going overseas to play. It was only upon my return to the States that I began the teaching career that’s lead me to where I am. Much of the time, I was without a girlfriend because I was too immature for anyone with a life plan to date, which pretty much ruled out any young professional women. I drank too much, chewed tobacco, ran up credit card and phone debt it would take me years to pay off. In short, I was a boy, not a man. I survived as much by sheer luck as by anything else.
I look back and think that, if I was that big a mess at 24, making a mere $17,000 at the boys and girls club, what would I have been like had I been earning twenty or thirty times that? Would I have put in the practice, the mechanical repetition needed to commit my sport to automaticity, to muscle memory? Probably not. And if I wouldn’t, why should I blame Dwayne Schintzius that he didn’t? I don’t know if being a young man in his early twenties has ever been easy, but it certainly hasn’t been for anyone who’s come of age in the last two decades. I was fortunate that I spent the years foundering in the privacy of a shitty, $300 a month apartment. Dwayne Schintzius was forced to endure them on the end of 6 different NBA benches.
As I stare down the barrel of 40 years not always lived well, I can’t help regret the opportunities that, in retrospect, so clearly passed me by, though I was hardly conscious of them at the time. I also regret that the opportunities to compete, to set a challenge for myself and then meet it, become fewer and fewer as I get older and older. Perhaps competitiveness is a mark of immaturity, but the challenges of which I speak don’t need to be physical. They can be intellectual and professional as well, although the adrenaline one gets from meeting an intellectual challenge doesn’t quite rise to the same adrenaline levels one reaches when meeting a physical challenge. Moreover, as I rise through the professional ranks, my job seems to consist of little more than sending and receiving e-mails.
I’ve done many things as an adult. I’ve taught, I’ve written, I’ve acted, I’ve run political campaigns, raised money for and managed non-profit organizations. None has ever given me the satisfaction of shooting a basketball. Teaching came close. Writing’s satisfactions are delayed; the process of editing and submitting a work can drag on for weeks, if not months or years. Political campaigns are too hectic to be conscious of whether you are happy in the moment. Acting was fun, but I wasn’t versed enough in the craft to take any pleasure in doing it well. Whether I nailed or muffed a scene was all the same because I had no awareness of what it took to be successful.
There is a German word, funktionslust, which means the pleasure taken in what one does best. I suspect that, professionally speaking, the men and women who achieve funktionslust in their jobs are those who work with their hands. The rest of us just more or less like our jobs, which Studs Turkel so elegantly took to mean, in the introduction to his book, Working, “Something more than Orwellian acceptance, something less than Luddite sabotage.” Athletically speaking, funktionslust is merely the German word for The Zone.
At some point in our lives we all fail and are compelled, then, in failure’s wake, to live with it, either to grapple with and wring from it the self-knowledge that leads to future success, or bury it in the hope that with time, the pain and embarrassment will dissipate, perhaps even be forgotten. The memory of my failure at the New England Catholic School Championships my freshman year stayed with me a long time. In fact, as evidenced by this essay, it stays with me still, some 26 years later.
But failure is necessary. To be afraid to fail, to be afraid to embarrass oneself, is to be afraid to take risks. And one cannot grow if one doesn’t take risks. Dwayne Schintzius died at the all too young age of 43 and his death reminded me of the 15 year old boy who first saw him play as a rising star at the University of Florida. If I could, would I try to go back to fix the mistakes, so many mistakes, I made between then and now? Who can answer that question honestly because, absent a time machine, the answer we give is pure speculation and speculation is easy. There’s nothing at stake.
I am fairly certain I would go back and approach the girls I was too shy to approach in high school and I would like to think I would go back and attend all the classes I skipped and do all the homework I never turned in, but that is less certain. And I would like to think also that, if I went back to a late autumn day in 1986, I wouldn’t pretend to fall when I was leading the New England Catholic School Championships, that I would gut out the rest of that race and maybe, though I might not have held onto the lead, I would have finished something higher than 90th. But, who knows? Some athletes thrive under pressure, some falter.
I no longer run. Running’s been pushed aside by work and writing and the time I spend with the family and friends I love. Occasionally, I’ll sneak into the gym in the building where I work to shoot around, though I no longer even play basketball competitively. I just shoot by myself.
I enjoy shooting by myself. There is something soothing about it. The motion of it – the balance, the release, the follow-through – is something I’ve executed so many thousands of times in my life, I don’t need to think about it as I do it. I can let my mind go blank as, at the end of a long day, I flip the ball out, catch it, square up, shoot, chase down the rebound, flip the ball out again. Over and over. The goal: The Zone, funktionslust. To achieve it once is to want to achieve it again. But you never want to leave on a miss. And so the cycle begins: shoot until you achieve perfection, then until you lose it, and again until you regain it.
The cycle draws out—ten minutes, twenty, a half-hour. In letting it I am in a small way stealing back to that place where I was when I was 15. Stealing back to a time when time had no meaning, spread like blacktop to play on if you would for as long as you would, when the future lay like a pair of train tracks stretching to the horizon. Those tracks now stretch in opposite directions, back as well as forward, to life’s dawn as well as to its sunset. On those evenings I spend in a windowless gym, in the flickering light of badly wired bulbs hanging in metal shades, I know this all too intimately—it takes me longer to warm up than it used to and my legs start to go after so many shots and I have to work harder to get the ball to the rim. Reading of the death of a player I once admired, I was reminded of it yet again.
AP Stock Photo