Scarred, But Not Scared Despite the concerns of the Spurs, kidney transplant survivor Sean Elliott is determined to return to the court this season

January 31, 2000

He didn't ask the coach or front office for permission, because he
knew that the answer would be no. He didn't tell his teammates,
because they would have tried to talk him out of it. On Jan. 11,
less than five months after undergoing a kidney transplant, San
Antonio Spurs forward Sean Elliott scuffed the bottom of his
sneakers, tucked in his practice jersey and sneaked onto the
Alamodome court to join the reigning NBA champions in one-on-one
drills. "One-on-ones are great for getting in shape," Elliott
said later. "You play defense, and then, a second later, you're
on offense. There's no downtime."

Spurs coach and general manager Gregg Popovich was occupied with
other players and had no idea that the 31-year-old Elliott had
slipped onto the floor for such a strenuous drill, in which
players pair off, driving hard to the hole and banging under the
boards. After 10 minutes assistant coach Hank Egan ordered
Elliott to the sidelines. "There was no way I'd authorize any
contact drills for him," says Popovich, who didn't learn of
Elliott's foray until he was told by a reporter a week later.
"If this was your son, would you let him?"

In the months following the Aug. 16 surgery, Popovich and the
Spurs had watched Elliott climb the Alamodome steps and collapse
in exhaustion upon reaching the top; they had passed him in the
weight room and heard him grunt as he worked to regain the 20
pounds that had melted from his 6'8" frame; and they had seen
him gulp down a small mound of pills each day so that his immune
system would not reject the kidney that his 33-year-old brother,
Noel, had donated when Sean's were failing as a result of focal
segmental glomerulosclerosis. They knew about the yoga classes
he hoped would keep him flexible, about the hundreds of wind
sprints. They admired Elliott's determination, yet they
wondered: Why, after 10 years in the league capped by a glorious
title run, was playing again so important to him?

"I told Sean [after the transplant] I never wanted to see him in
a uniform again, and to live happily ever after," says Spurs
point guard Avery Johnson.

They didn't understand that Elliott's new kidney was no more
vulnerable than his old ones, well-protected by his pelvis and
abdominal muscles from any blows he might receive in the normal
course of play. His legs were finally strong again--no more shakes
or buckling at the knees when he pushed too hard. His doctors
assured him that it was a lack of conditioning, and nothing more,
that kept him from rejoining the Spurs, who have not been the
same without his leadership, clutch baskets and tough perimeter
defense. Popovich signed Chucky Brown and has started three other
small forwards in Elliott's place, and at week's end San
Antonio's record of 26-15 was only sixth best in the Western
Conference. The Spurs need Elliott, and he's raring to go. Says
Dr. Francis Wright, who performed the transplant, "There is no
medical reason why Sean Elliott shouldn't play basketball."

But there have been no welcoming high fives offered, no hugs of
congratulations. Last Thursday, Wright cleared Elliott to
participate in full practices, but a day later Popovich vowed to
"drag this thing out as long as I can." He wants to meet with the
transplant surgeons, team doctors and Elliott's family before
allowing him on the court again--though Elliott sneaked briefly
into full-contact drills again last Friday. "I've put every
roadblock I can think of in front of him," Popovich says.
"Another championship is less important to me than his health for
the next 50 years on this planet. In a certain selfish sense, I
don't want the responsibility and the guilt of putting him back
out there."

Popovich's concern is not entirely unfounded. In late November,
Elliott was running the arena steps but had forgotten to heed
Wright's warnings to stay hydrated. One step from the top he
doubled over with piercing pains in his abdomen and began
vomiting repeatedly. "For a minute," Elliott says, "I thought I
was dying." The incident, kept quiet from the public, landed
Elliott in San Antonio's Methodist Specialty and Transplant
Hospital, where he was hooked up to an IV for half a day. In
mid-December he had trouble shaking the flu and returned to the
hospital for two more days.

Elliott has traveled with the team all season, following an
individual workout schedule on the road during the day and
serving as the team's television color commentator at night. He
is well-spoken on the air, and Johnson urged him to retire, to
start a new career as a broadcaster. "My thought about his
playing again was, What about all the stress?" Johnson says. "I
saw how it got to the rest of us during the Finals, and we were
healthy."

Everyone, that is, but Elliott. In Game 2 of the Western
Conference finals he had knocked down a last-gasp, tippy-toed
three-pointer over the outstretched arms of Portland Trail
Blazers forward Rasheed Wallace, sealing an 86-85 thriller that
helped catapult the Spurs to their first appearance in the
Finals. Throughout the postseason Elliott had played hard-nosed
defense. That flick of his right wrist stamped him as a clutch
performer, a nice departure from the usual references to him as a
soft spot-up shooter. Soft? On the day he knocked down that shot
from the right wing, the protein levels in his urine were
dangerously high, a signal that his kidneys weren't functioning
properly. His blood pressure was elevated as his kidney disease
took its toll, shrinking and scarring the organ.

Elliott chose to keep that information a secret from everyone but
San Antonio guard Steve Kerr, who had been his college teammate
at Arizona. The rest of the Spurs didn't learn of Elliott's
ailment until two days after they had won the championship. They
assumed he had played his final game. "But Sean wasn't listening
to that," Noel says. "When he was in high school he tore up his
knee, and the doctor told him, 'No more basketball.' Sean
rehabbed, got back out there, hurt his knee again. The doctor
told him, 'Forget about basketball.' Sean said, 'I can't.' So the
doctor said, 'Well, you better wear a knee brace.' Sean will do
whatever it takes."

Wright gently reminded Elliott after the transplant that it would
be three months before doctors could even tell whether his body
would reject the kidney. Elliott tried to take it slow. On Aug.
24, the morning he was discharged, he promised his doctors he'd
stay in bed. He returned to his home in San Antonio and climbed
under the covers. Before long, though, he was walking around. He
reached the stairs--and decided to test himself. In the process of
an amicable divorce from Akiko, his wife of six years, he was
alone; no one had to know. Carefully, he hopped up a step on one
foot, then down the step on the other, up and down, several
times. "It was probably the equivalent of walking a flight of
stairs," Elliott says, "but I was exhausted. I almost passed
out."

For days afterward Elliott would touch the seven-inch, diagonal
scar that runs from his groin to his right hip, thinking of Noel
and the gift his brother had given him. Elliott's throat would
tighten, and sometimes his eyes would moisten. Whenever that
happened, he called his brother in Tucson "just to hear his
voice," says Sean. "It's something when you stand back and
realize, My god, a part of him is inside me."

Elliott learned of his illness after the 1992-93 season when not
feeling well he went in for a checkup. The steroids doctors
prescribed at that point caused his face to become bloated. He
silently absorbed criticism that he was overweight and poorly
conditioned, even though neither was true. "What you come to
realize," says Elliott, "is that labels are hard to shake."

The kidney disease caused protein to spill into his urine, which
resulted in abnormal water retention and swelling in his legs.
"It was the worst when I was in Detroit [in 1993-94]," Elliott
recalls. "I'd get my ankles taped before the game, and afterward
my ankles were really skinny where the tape had been, but the
rest of my leg was fat and swollen from the water buildup. They
started calling me Peg Leg."

In February 1994, Detroit traded him to the Houston Rockets, but
Elliott failed the physical, and the deal was voided. The
Rockets' team doctors told reporters it was a matter of when, not
if, his kidneys would fail. This startling revelation barely
registered with the public, because night after night Elliott
tucked in his jersey and played. After he scored just 12.1
points a game in '93-94, the Pistons were eager to unload him.
Popovich, who had just been named G.M. of the Spurs, quickly
acquired Elliott (for the rights to rookie Bill Curley and a
second-round draft choice). "I wanted him," says Popovich,
"because I felt he had something to prove."

A former Spurs assistant who was a friend and confidant of
Elliott's when he was drafted by San Antonio in 1989, Popovich
was now his demanding boss, and the new dynamic damaged their
relationship. They clashed over Elliott's role, especially after
Popovich added coaching to his duties in December 1996. Elliott
was named in nearly every trade rumor involving the Spurs. His
value plummeted after he underwent two knee surgeries that
limited him to 39 games in '96-97 and 36 games in '97-98. One of
the orthopedic surgeons he consulted suggested he retire.

After a grueling summer of rehab, Elliott was enjoying one of his
finest stretches as a pro last season when, in March, he noticed
the water retention in his legs had subsided. Encouraged, he went
to his doctor expecting good news. Instead he was told his
kidneys were failing. A trip to the Finals would take the team
through June. Elliott was determined to finish the season, but by
May he was battling fatigue that was almost overwhelming. Most
nights he would play, shower, then go home and fall into bed. "It
was really noticeable in the Portland series," Popovich says. "He
was just dead when he came out of the game. Our staff was
thinking, Let's just get him through this."

The ending for the team, and its small forward, was storybook.
The Spurs dominated the New York Knicks in the Finals. Elliott
doused himself with champagne and held the championship trophy a
long time. Then he began to search for an organ donor.

The operation and initial recovery went off without a hitch, but
a few days before he was to be discharged, his bladder began
having spasms. The area where the new kidney connected to the
bladder had not healed properly, which meant another operation.
"That's when I finally broke down and acted like a little baby,"
Elliott says. "I kept thinking, How in hell am I going to come
back from this?" The second operation was a success, and he went
home just three days later.

As a new spokesperson for the National Kidney Foundation, Elliott
knows there are more than 300,000 patients on dialysis, including
thousands waiting for a transplant, hoping for a miracle. He can
also tell you the number of athletes from major pro sports who
have competed with a transplanted kidney: zero. "Sometimes I
wonder, What if Noel hadn't been a match?" Elliott says. "What
would I be doing? Probably going to dialysis three times a week."

Don't ask him to let go of his NBA career. Not yet. He's shooting
for a mid-February return to the lineup. He wants to grab
rebounds and take charges. He drinks extra water and still
swallows a bunch of pills, but he's been knocking down those
tippy-toed jumpers for weeks now, and he's aching to hoist one up
for real.

"You know what?" Sean Elliott says. "I haven't felt this good in
years."

COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY JOHN W. MCDONOUGH GETTING WELL SOON The surgery left its mark on Elliott, but less than five months later he's eager--and almost ready--to return. COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY JOHN W. MCDONOUGH TOUGH ENOUGH Elliott put the lie to his "soft" reputation by playing ruggedly last season while his kidneys were failing. COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY JOHN W. MCDONOUGH STAIRMASTER Running the Alamodome steps used to be perilous for Elliott, but now conditioning is just part of his long climb back.

"I've put every roadblock I can think of in front of Sean,"
Popovich says. "Another title is less important than his health
for the next 50 years."

In tough times Sean would call Noel "just to hear his voice," he
says. "It's something when you realize, My god, a part of him is
inside me."

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