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Fifty years ago, they were screwed-up kids sent to the Florida School for Boys to be straightened out. But now they are screwed-up men, scarred by the whippings they endured. Read the story and see a video and portrait gallery.
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Former Countryside star Matt Geiger owns the biggest house in Pinellas County, built for his 7-foot-1 frame and plenty of friends - and animals.
By DAVE SCHEIBER
Published February 27, 2005
[Times photo: James Borchuck]
Matt Geiger, who played nine seasons in the NBA, enjoys his $13.5-million, 40-acre estate which matches his outsized personality and frame.
[Times photo: James Borchuck]
Geiger's 26,000-square foot house has 40 TVs, three giant aquatic tanks and much more.
[Times photo: James Borchuck]
Geiger owns 11 Watusi cattle as part of his menagerie, along with 12 buffalo, two donkeys and a miniature horse.
[Times photo: Dave Scheiber]
Geiger's 330,000-gallon pool is built like an island.
EAST LAKE - Behind a towering wrought iron entrance that bears the massive pewter initials of MG, the good life unfolds in size XXXXL.
You weave past the personal putting green, the man-made lake stocked with 2,500 big mouth bass for guests to catch (and throw back) and the lush front lawn on the 40-acre spread that could wear out a small army of landscapers.
Then you roll up the winding drive to a sprawling, modern mansion that might have made J.R. Ewing want to remodel his digs on Southfork Ranch.
This ain't Dallas. But it's still the Big D, as in Big Daddy Ranch, where the large are livin' large.
The place is named for the bison that jumped its fence in 2002, eluding capture for days as it roamed free in nearby Booker Creek Preserve. But the real big daddy on the premises - the one who had to pay the fine for his buffalo's much-publicized fast break - is a 7-foot-1, 290-pound former Countryside High basketball star and ex-NBA center for the Miami Heat, Charlotte Hornets and Philadelphia 76ers.
In the pros, Matt Geiger was a journeyman.
Now, with an array of dazzling moves in a new pursuit, the hometown boy has a become a superstar.
At this moment, Geiger is talking real estate on the phone inside his plush office, sitting at a supersize desk that has been custom-built to reduce the squeeze on his knees.
In fact, everything is made on a spacious scale: the 8-foot doorways, the raised Geiger counters, the ceilings that vault high above his shaved head, the special 9-by-10-foot mega-mattress that keeps his feet from flopping over the end.
And, of course, there's the $13.5-million, 28,500-square-foot home itself - for the record, the largest residence in Pinellas County and the second-biggest in Tampa Bay behind the 30,000-plus Avila house built by former corporate raider Paul Bilzerian in Tampa. Then again, even the cribs featured on MTV would have a hard time touching this renowned party palace and ultimate bachelor pad.
How do you top the 40 TVs all hooked up by satellite, the 18 TV sets all wired together with Xbox so Geiger and his old high school pals can play each other simultaneously in Halo shootouts, the 330,000-gallon pool out back with a cooking area designed by Outback, the winding water slide down a faux tropical island mountain, and the 5,200-square-foot guest house overlooking it all?
Or how about the 9,000-square-foot downstairs entertainment floor? It features a restaurant-like bar the size of the one in which everybody knows your name on Cheers, an enclosed cigar bar, a poker room, a self-contained movie theater, a TV sports zone with cushy sofas facing a wall filled with big-screen TVs, a 3,000-gallon shark tank and a home gym slicker than some with a monthly fee.
Then there's his menagerie of animals grazing outside in a fenced pasture, including 12 buffalo, 11 Watusi cattle, two donkeys, a miniature horse and one cow. But Geiger also owns 60 adjoining acres that he's developing as the ultra-ritzy Bison Creek Estates, an enclave that will hold 14 multimillion-dollar homes. Geiger's company, MAG (the "A" is for Allen) Land Development, is building the infrastructure: the roads, bridges and walls.
It's no shock that John Travolta and the cast of The Punisher enjoyed hanging out at Geiger's while shooting segments of the 2004 action film. Nor is it a surprise that with 19 AC units, Geiger's monthly power bill is off the charts. "Let's just say it's never been less than $3,000," he said.
The man who designed and built the mind-boggling abode looks more like a huge kid than a real estate magnate, wearing his size 151/2 Nikes, baggy blue jeans, a white T-shirt spilling out beneath a rumpled dress shirt with the sleeves rolled up, and a ball cap turned backward.
While the goatee and raspy voice might give him an intimidating air, Geiger, 35, is known to friends more as a gentle giant. His eyes light up like a child's on Christmas when he talks about his many endeavors - such as the newly opened, basketball-themed Courtside Grille at Feather Sound.
In his nine-year pro career, Geiger never was a marquee name. He was a tenacious part-time player tough enough to go toe to toe with Shaquille O'Neal. He was also good enough to land a six-year, guaranteed $51-million contract with the 76ers in 1998.
But three years into the deal, bad knees, including a torn meniscus, forced Geiger to retire. He left with a career average of 9.2 points and 5.7 rebounds, and $24-million still coming his way from the Sixers.
It was a nice sum to jump-start a new career in the family land developing business.
"I always knew there would be a life beyond basketball," he said. "It was always in my head that real estate was going to be my true profession. I want to do well enough in the next 10 years to be able to retire twice."
* * *
The lunch-hour crowd is packing the Courtside Grille on a recent weekday.
Only the hostess recognizes the man who steps through and literally fills the front entrance. Though a LeRoy Neiman-esque portrait of Geiger hangs prominently inside, the diners are oblivious to the big man as he joins a table of clients.
"Our lunch crowd is more business people and they don't really know a lot about him, but at night when you have the people coming for a drink or to play pool or watch sports on TV, everybody loves Matt," said Courtside Grille principal owner Dave Heavenridge, who brought Geiger in as a partner, inspiring the basketball theme.
"He's not your typical sports guy you can't approach. I've never seen anybody come up to Matt that he's turned away - little kids, adults. I've hung out with him for four years, and he's just a very nice guy."
Geiger has spent plenty of time at Feather Sound lately. Across the parking lot, he and several partners will soon start building a pair of 70-unit high rise condos overlooking Tampa Bay, along with adjoining retail and office space.
But mostly, his visits bring him to the Grille, where he pops in for lunch a few times a week or perhaps for an impromptu party at night. He drives his Hummer or Cadillac Escalade truck in the day. "But at night, luckily I have a limo driver, cause people are like, "Let me buy you a drink, let me buy you a drink,' and I'd end up drinking too much to be able to drive home," he said.
There are downsides to the land biz, too. Geiger and his partners have recently been involved in a legal dispute with a company over development of another tract of land in the Carillon Town Center.
And there's his father, Richard Geiger, who has had a long, prosperous career as a developer but has faced recent controversy. Two projects have triggered lawsuits from homeowner associations that allege his work resulted in extensive and costly repairs. "My dad got a bad rap on that," Geiger said. "Those buildings weren't maintained properly so some of them started to fall apart. My dad's a great builder and a smart guy."
He's also a frequent patron of the Grille. The head of the Geiger clan pulls up outside in his jet-black Harley-Davidson truck. With a shaved head, goatee and 6-8 stature, he bears an uncanny resemblance to his son. He's proud that all of his boys have excelled in the business: oldest son John, who often works with Matt as a developer, and Matt's fraternal twin Mark, a title company executive.
"They're all doing great," their dad said.
He and his wife Kay moved the family to Clearwater from Massachusetts in 1981. Matt started at Countryside in 1983 and progressed from a skinny 6-7 center with potential to a dominating 7-1, 200-pounder by his senior year, leading the Cougars to the Class 4A Region IV championship with 15.3 points and 8.5 rebounds per game.
He enrolled at Auburn, transferred to Georgia Tech as a 245-pound junior and became the 42nd player chosen in the 1992 NBA draft, when Miami tapped him in the second round.
"I had to work for everything I had," he said. "I was the last pick in that draft to make an NBA team. And that was a heck of a draft, with Shaq, Alonzo Mourning and Christian Laettner. Ten guys taken in front of me didn't even make their teams that year."
Geiger scraped to make the final spot on the 12-man roster. He also shaved his head in '92 as a show of solidarity with Mark, who lost his hair undergoing chemotherapy to treat Hodgkin's disease. In 1995, the Heat dealt Matt to Charlotte, where he played three seasons.
As a Hornet, his best NBA showing came in 1997-98, when he averaged 14.2 points and 8.8 rebounds in a 40-game span. He caught the attention of the 76ers, who signed him to his landmark contract. He immediately put the money to good use, buying 100 wooded acres in East Lake. Then, with the help of his dad, brother John and uncle Fred Geiger, began work on his dream house.
Meanwhile, Geiger had his moments in Philly, ranking second in scoring with 13.5 points per game. In 1999, he logged his 4,000th career point and 2,500th rebound in a victory over Toronto.
"He was a 7-footer who was agile enough to go outside a little bit and wasn't just a stereotypical stiff," said Devil Rays 6-foot-9 pitcher Mark Hendrickson, who played against Geiger in the NBA. "That made him effective. Nine years in the league is nothing to sneeze at."
In the end, Geiger couldn't overcome a knee injury. He tore a muscle at the start of 76ers training camp his second year, then blew it out again early in his third and final season.
"I knew I was damaging my knee, because I was playing hurt and trying to cover up the pain," he said. "Oh, man, it was awful. I still went out and played, and the Philly fans were tough, with that mob mentality."
"I really loved Geiger, he was tough and really focused and a heck of a good guy," 76ers orthopedic surgeon Dr. Nicholas A. DiNubile said. "But the knees did him in."
So Geiger called it quits in 2001. "I saw the way Bill Walton limped into our locker room to do TV interviews, and I thought, "I love the game, but I want to be able to walk when I'm 50.' "
* * *
Geiger came home to Pinellas, and the party was just starting. Actually, it began before he retired.
During offseasons with Philadelphia, he was known for throwing his share of lively bashes even before moving into his East Lake estate. At his previous residence, he faced a lawsuit from Eagles Reserve Homeowners Association Inc. that stated, "Matthew Geiger has from time to time engaged in parties which include loud music, screaming, shouting and singing which disturbed the peaceful enjoyment of other lot owners ... "
The suit was dropped when Geiger agreed to keep the volume down, but the parties have continued since Geiger moved into his mansion. It's so isolated, however, that only Geiger's buffalo and Watusi are likely to be offended by the noise. "I have outdoor speakers the size of tables, and I can really crank them up," he said.
At least once a week, there might be 30 or so friends hanging out at night for fun and games at Geiger's, such as cards or pool basketball. But the real parties are the ones he throws for charities, such as the Angelus House, All Children's and the SPCA.
One of his biggies is his "Geigerween" party, with the place decked out like a gigantic haunted house. Then there was his "Freaky Tiki" party. "There were about 1,000 people here, and we laser-lighted the whole back yard," he said. "And I had girls dressed as mermaids in the pool, people doing Cirque de Soleil moves and dancing in cages. We donated all the proceeds to hurricane relief."
He also makes his place available for parties, so long as they benefit a charity. Former Buc quarterback Shaun King threw just such a blowout last year.
"I had four or five big parties the last two years, but I just wanna slow down a little now," he said. "So this year, I just want to have one big one."
Not that Geiger will enjoy himself any less, mind you. He has had more good times at his place than he can, well, talk about. "My mother might read this article," he said, laughing.
He's not looking to get married or lacking for female companionship. And there are always people in his house, so he doesn't get lonely. He has a housekeeper who has been with him for more than 12 years and helps cook and clean. He hired her daughter when he moved in here, and he now employs the granddaughter as his secretary, and has a close-knit staff of groundskeepers and maintenance workers.
Then there are the animals. Geiger said he gets a modest tax break for livestock on his property, but insists he would have the exotic collection of critters anyway. "I had them before I ever got a tax break," he said. "I have them 'cause I love animals."
Among his favorites are his pet iguanas, several of which reside in his master bathroom, a sight to behold with its tropical design: a bathtub built like an ancient Mayan relic, a jungle waterfall serving as one shower shrouded by palm trees, a wood-burning fireplace in the stone wall and an oversized walk-in shower, with one of the walls housing a 700-gallon aquarium filled with rare fish. (The other side of the tank looks out over his master bedroom.)
Geiger likes fish. Downstairs in his enormous living room, an 850-gallon fish tank is one of the centerpieces. But perhaps his tour de force - if not the stunning, open kitchen that stretches some 30-by-50 feet - is the elaborately designed, electric-train Christmas townscape smack in the middle of the kitchen. Geiger built it himself, from scratch, and is leaving it standing for now.
"I call it Geigerville," he said. "The guy who sold me the materials said to build it a little bit throughout the year. But I built it all in one weekend."
One more real estate project complete, countless more to go in the larger-than-life world of Matt Geiger.