By Joe Lemire
March 21, 2009

GREENSBORO, N.C. -- The messages arrive daily, via e-mail, Facebook and MySpace. They're sent from across the country, hundreds in all, from children, teenagers and even college coaches. They all arrive in Dexter Pittman's inbox, and they all ask, How did you lose so much weight?

Three years ago the 6-foot-10 Pittman -- now a junior center at Texas -- had ballooned to nearly 390 pounds during his senior year at Rosenberg (Texas) High. The son of former 7-foot Oklahoma State basketball player Johnny Pittman, Dexter had shown enough raw ability that he had received scholarship offers from major programs, but he was nowhere near being in sufficient shape to play any level of college hoops.

Yet on Thursday after a long road of extraordinary self-discipline and sacrifice, Pittman, having slimmed to a comparatively svelte 298 pounds, scored 17 points and added 11 rebounds in 30 minutes to help the Longhorns, a seventh seed in the East region, to a 76-62 victory over Minnesota. He could pose particular matchup problems in the post for an undersized Duke team tonight.

Not only has Pittman established himself as a legitimate post presence for Texas, complementing perimeter marksman A.J. Abrams and wing player Damion James, but the young center is beginning to forge a new role: as a spokesperson against obesity.

"It's a gift to help other people out," says Pittman, who has stayed in touch with and guided many of the youngsters who contacted him. "I was always raised to give, not take."

The young man who never used to undress in front of teammates sometimes strolls confidently through the weight room shirtless. His teammates call him Sexy Dexy.

And this personal transformation all started with a joke.

While on a recruiting visit to Texas, Pittman met with Todd Wright, the Longhorns' strength and conditioning coach, who wanted to encourage with the idea that he could re-invent his body under a strict workout and dieting program. As an illustration, Wright showed Pittman a pair of pictures of college basketball players taken years apart.

Only the point was exaggerated: the "before" photo was of an overweight walk-on, and the "after" photo was of NBA-bound college star.

"He looks at me," recalls Wright, "and says, 'You can really do that?' I was like, 'Oh my God, I can't tell this kid that they're not the same.' When I saw his face and how excited he really was -- and I knew it was a real jerk move -- I said, 'Yes, we can do this.'"

After Pittman enrolled at Texas, Wright did eventually tell him the truth about the hoax, and the two have become not just a friendly coach-player pair but true friends.

Here's the best part: it worked. Pittman weighed 366 pounds and had 41.6 percent body fat when he arrived in Austin (he lost his first 20 pounds late in high school) and is now down to 298 pounds and 13.8 percent body fat, which has far exceeded expectations.

"If you look at his before and after pictures now, they might be better than the pictures I showed," Wright said. "I'm serious."

When Pittman did arrive on the Texas campus in June before his freshman year, Wright met with the incoming recruits -- a stellar class that included James and current NBA players Kevin Durant and D.J. Augustin -- and explained the team's workout program. After the meeting adjourned, Wright and Pittman went to a separate room to discuss his individual plan.

Pittman: "Coach, I'll do whatever we have to do." Wright: "That's nice. Words are good, but let's see how you feel when you're in here tomorrow at 5:15." Pittman: "In the morning?" Wright: "Yeah, in the morning." Pittman: "I'll be here."

And he was. Though Pittman was relegated only to the exercise bike for his four weeks in school and had his heart rate closely monitored throughout, he "never missed anything and never made an excuse for anything," says Wright. "He's had some hard days but found a way to get through them."

Pittman required such a volume of aerobic exercise to get down to what the team considered a reasonable playing weight that he'd do extra conditioning before practice, after practice, on off days and before games, even on the road. Pittman would sit, often in full uniform, on an exercise bike in the hallway outside the visitor's locker room and pedal away. The diet was strict and carefully managed, too. Gone were his beloved pizza, burgers and fries in favor of chicken, fruit and protein shakes. If the team stops at McDonald's, he'll either eat a salad or nothing at all.

As his waistline shrank, Pittman's confidence grew. He used to slouch and was quiet by nature. Now he stands up straight and is as extroverted as they come.

"His transformation as a person has been incredible to watch," says Wright. "He's gained an ability to believe in himself and finds, now that his story is out, that he has a responsibility to share it with people to say, 'If I can do it, you can do it.'"

It's translated on the court, too. The coaches knocked Pittman for not being mentally strong enough last year, but after attending the Pete Newell Big Man Camp last summer, he says he better understands the mentality he should have on the court. Assistant coach Russell Springmann also notes how eager Pittman is to improve his basketball knowledge and skills now that not so much of his time is consumed with just losing weight.

"I guess this is a little thing," says Springmann, "but to me it's big -- he consistently asks after a scout or film session, 'Hey Coach, What are doing on ball screens? How are we switching on the blocks?' I don't think there's been one scouting report he hasn't asked questions about. He does it genuinely. He wants to learn everything he can possibly learn to get better."

One player who has taken Pittman under his wing a little is Abrams, the senior guard and close friend who keeps Pittman honest about his diet. What's comical about the pairing is that Abrams, at 5-foot-11, 161 pounds, barely weighs more than half of his junior teammate. It's so disproportionate that head coach Rick Barnes notes that the inseparable pair is like "the flea and the elephant."

In the season's first 29 games, Pittman averaged only 14.5 minutes, but in the last five games he's averaged 27.6 minutes, and twice reached 30 minutes, something he takes great pride in.

"It's exciting to see that big 30 on the stat sheet after the game," he says.

While the increased minutes are certainly a product of his better stamina, it's also a result of his improved play. After a January game at Oklahoma in which Blake Griffin scored 20 points (on 8-of-13 shooting) and had 10 rebounds in a 78-63 Sooners win, Barnes was so upset that he essentially benched Pittman, playing him only one minute in the Longhorns' next game.

He's averaging 10.2 points and 5.4 rebounds per game, but like minutes played, those stats are ticking upwards, thanks to breakout performances such as his 19 points and 20 rebounds in 34 minutes against Kansas State in the Big 12 quarterfinals. Pittman may not log long minutes, but he's productive when he's out there, averaging 28.4 points per 40 minutes of play, by far the best rate on the team.

"He's really sacrificed a lot in the last three years of his life to get to this point," Wright says.

So in losing a quarter of himself, Pittman has gained so much more.

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