Elliott, Sean 1968–

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Sean Elliott 1968

Professional basketball player

At a Glance


Sean Elliott was born in Tucson, Arizona, on February 2, 1968 and grew up to be one of the most miraculous basketball players of his time. A prolific scorer in college, Elliott became a two-time National Basketball Association (NBA) All-Star. He was also a key member of the 1998-99 NBA champion San Antonio Spursa feat he contributed to while his kidneys were failing. Elliott played throughout the playoffs with a badly malfunctioning kidney due to the disease focal segmental glomerular sclerosis, but he kept most of his teammates in the dark regarding his condition. After the season, he was told that he would have to receive dialysis if he did not have a kidney transplant. On August 16, 1999, Elliott underwent kidney transplant surgery. His brother, Noel, gave one of his healthy kidneys to his younger brother. Most NBA observers believed that Elliotts basketball career was finished. However, on March 14, 2000, he played in an NBA game and remained in the Spurs lineup for the remainder of the season.

After graduating from Cholla High School in 1986, Elliott decided to attend the University of Arizona. He had a brilliant collegiate career, and surpassed Kareem Abdul-Jabbar as the Pac-10s all-time leading scorer.

Elliott was named the College Player of the Year during his senior season, and was a two-time All-American. The San Antonio Spurs selected him third overall in the 1989 draft, and Elliott joined another rookie named David Robinson to make the Spurs the hottest young team in the league. During the 1988-89 season, the Spurs finished with a lowly 21-61 record. However, with the addition of the two new players, the Spurs finished 56-26 during the 1989-90 season, won the Midwest Division title, and advanced to the Western Conference Semifinals. Elliott finished his rookie season averaging ten points per game, and was named to the Second-Team All-Rookie squad. In his second season with the Spurs, he improved his scoring average to 15.9 points per game and was the only San Antonio player to appear in all 82 games that season. During his third season in the NBA, Elliott again played in all 82 games and compiled a franchise-record 3,120 minutes for the season. He increased his scoring average to 16.3 points per game, and scored in double figures in 71 of his 82 games. For the 1992-93 season, Elliott continued to improve despite missing 12 games of the season with a bad back. In 1993, he appeared in his first All-Star game as a member of the Western Conference squad. Elliott finished the year with a 17.2 point

At a Glance

Born on February 2, 1968. Education: University of Arizona, attended.

Career: Starred at Cholla High School in Tucson, AZ, 1982-86; attended the University of Arizona, 1986-89; third overall pick of the NBA draft by the San Antonio Spurs, 1989; traded to the Detroit Pistons, 1993; traded back to the Spurs, 1994; underwent kidney transplant after Spurs championship season, 1999; made NBA comeback, 2000.

Awards: First Team All-American, 1987-88, 1988-89; won the John Wooden Award as the college Player of the Year, 1988-89; named to the Second Team NBA All-Rookie Team, 1990; Western Conference All-Star, 1993, 1996.

Addresses: Office c/o The San Antonio Spurs, The Alamo dome, 100 Montana, San Antonio, TX, 78203-1031

scoring average, and a feeling that he had finally found success in the NBA.

After a season in which he was named an All-Star and had seen his scoring average rise for the third consecutive year, Elliott should have felt secure in his position on a team that was a perennial playoff contender. However, he was traded to the Detroit Pistons, a team which was undergoing a painful rebuilding process. The Spurs traded Elliott for Dennis Rodman, hoping that Rodmans rebounding skills would help David Robinson to score more points. During a routine medical checkup, Elliott learned of his potentially serious kidney problem. Doctors prescribed steroids to treat his condition, which caused his face and body to bloat. Because of his malfunctioning kidneys, Elliott was retaining water, which caused further swelling. He told Jackie MacMullan of Sports Illustrated about some of the physical challenges of that season: Id 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. The Detroit fans and media criticized Elliott for being fat and out of shape, although this was not the case. The Pistons and their newest player both realized that the trade was a bad fit. On February 4, 1994, the Pistons tried to trade Elliott to the Houston Rockets for Robert Horry. However, the trade was rescinded because Elliott failed his physical. The Houston Rockets medical personnel discovered his kidney ailment, and the trade was voided. Elliott was forced to finish out the season in Detroit, where his scoring average dipped to 12.1 points per game.

Because of his potentially serious medical condition, Elliott seemed destined to remain in a Detroit Pistons uniform. General managers throughout the NBA knew of his medical problems and were unwilling to take a chance on him. However, before the start of the 1994-95 season, the Spurs traded a first and second round draft pick to Detroit and reacquired Elliott. With Robinson, Rodman, and Elliott in their lineup, the Spurs became a force to be reckoned with. Elliott enjoyed a tremendous season, averaging 18.1 points per game. The Spurs finished with the best regular season record in the NBA at 62-20, but lost in the conference finals to the Houston Rockets. The following season, Elliott reclaimed his position as one of the best small forwards in the game. He was named to the All-Star team and averaged a career-high 20 points per game.

After seven years in the NBA, Elliott was finally bitten by the injury bug. He played the first half of the 1996-97 season with tendinitis in his right leg before undergoing surgery. In the 39 games that he did appear in, Elliott averaged 14.9 points and 4.9 rebounds and scored in double figures in 33 of those games. After losing half of 1996-97 season to injury, he was again sidelined for the second half of the 1997-98 campaign and appeared in only 36 games. For the first time in his professional career, Elliott averaged less than ten points per game.

Prior to the start of the 1998-99 season, NBA owners decided to lockout their players. Once this labor dispute was resolved Elliott and the San Antonio Spurs, which now included Robinson and Rookie of the Year Tim Duncan, looked like the team to beat. Elliott started all 50 games of the season, averaged 11.2 points per game, and was an instrumental part of San Antonios championship run. However, he faced a much more serious opponentkidney failure. During March of the 1998-99 season, Elliott was told to prepare himself for a kidney transplant. He continued to play, and kept his condition a secret. Elliott told NBA.com about his decision to keep his kidney problems to himself: I had a responsibility to those guys on the team, to the people who come to watch the games and to the coaching staff not to bring my problems to the court. If I was able to go out there and play and do my job, then thats what I had to do. I didnt want anybody treating me any differently. Elliott contributed to the team throughout the playoffs as the Spurs defeated the New York Knicks in five games to win the NBA championship. Almost immediately after the season, Elliott announced that he would need a kidney transplant. On August 16, 1999, Elliott underwent surgery and received a new kidney.

Shortly after the surgery, Elliott began to seriously think about returning to the NBA. He stayed with the Spurs during the 1999-2000 season, and worked as a television commentator. Teammates and coaches discouraged Elliotts comeback attempt. Despite being hospitalized with the flu in December of 1999, he continued to gain strength and doctors assured Spurs officials that there was no medical reason why he could not return to the court. By the middle of the 1999-2000 season, Elliott returned to the Spurs as an active player. He became the first professional athlete to return to his sport after receiving a kidney transplant. Gregg Pop-ovich of the Spurs told Mike Wise of The New York Times why he thought that Elliott had endured so much to come back: These challenges are something hes accepted. Because of who he is, hes decided he wants to overcome them. Frankly, I dont think hes concerned with whether he plays 10 minutes a game or 30 minutes a game. He wants to be able to say, I came back, I beat it and I contributed to my team.

On March 14, 2000, seven months after receiving a new kidney, Elliott returned to the Spurs lineup. The highlight of Elliotts return came in the third quarter in a game against the Atlanta Hawks when he drove around Hawks forward Roshown McLeod, and dunked the ball with authority. Hawks center Dikembe Mu-tumbo commented on the play to the Associated Press: I was surprised the way he [Elliott] dunked the ball. He has a lot of courage. I was really touched. The whole thing is amazing that someone can recover that fast to come back and do something they loveplay basketball. Elliott appeared in 18 more games, averaged over 20 minutes of playing time, and scored six points per game.


Sports Illustrated, January 31, 2000.

The New York Times, March 12, 2000.


Additional material for this essay was obtained at http://www.nba.com/Spurs/elliott_miracle.html; http://www.nba.com/playerfile/bio/sean_elliott.html; and http://www.nba.com/games9900/20000314/atlsas/recap.html

Michael J. Watkins

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Elliott, Sean 1968–

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