Original Old School: The Comeback Kid
Sean Elliot made history. Come read about it.
Sean Elliot means a lot of things to a lot of different people. To Alonzo Mourning, a man who suffered from a similar kidney ailment, Elliot served as an inspiration, providing hope of return where none existed before. To the Portland Trail Blazers, victims of his “Memorial Day Miracle,” Sean was a ball player, and a clutch one at that. To fans of the Spurs, Elliot was the starting small forward on a championship team. Now retired and working in the broadcast booth, Sean is the voice of the Spurs, and still stands as a testament to modern medicine and resiliency. He is still a miracle at work.—Tzvi Twersky
by Alan Paul
Sean Elliott will always be remembered as the first professional athlete to return to action following an organ transplant. On the one hand, that’s how it should be; few of us will ever comprehend the effort it took to return to the Spurs in 2000, less than a year after his older brother Noel donated a kidney that saved Elliott’s life. On the other hand, it overshadows the fact that, for more than a decade, Elliott was a very good NBA player. The starting small forward for the Spurs’ 1999 championship team, he averaged 14.2 ppg, 4.3 rpg and 2.6 apg in 12 seasons, 11 of them spent in San Antonio.
“Sean was a handful for anyone to guard,” recalls Kenny Smith. “A 6-8 guy who could put the ball on the floor, shoot, drive, pass. He could do it all.”
Elliott was the No. 3 pick in the ’89 Draft, after averaging 19.2 ppg, 6.1 rpg and 3.4 apg in four years at Arizona, leaving Tucson as the leading scorer in Pac-10 history. He was a two-time NBA All-Star and a cornerstone of the Spurs’ climb to greatness. The biggest shot of his career won Game 2 of the ’99 Western Conference Finals. With nine seconds left, he hit a three-pointer from the corner—with Rasheed Wallace lunging at him fully extended and his feet literally tip-toeing the sideline—to give the Spurs an 86-85 win over the Blazers and help propel the Spurs to their first NBA title.
Elliott was traded to the Pistons after his fourth season; then, in the midst of a down year with the Pistons, he was traded to the Rockets, only to fail his physical because of his kidney problems and eventually be sent back to Detroit. One of new GM Gregg Popovich’s first moves was to grab Elliott back in July ’94, and he has never left the team. He is now a radio announcer for the Spurs, who retired his number 32 last year.
SLAM: You were a rookie the same season as David Robinson. How quickly was DRob’s greatness apparent?
Sean Elliot: Immediately. His athletic ability and work ethic were off the charts. He was jumping over people in practice, and he was the fastest guy on the court. He was by far the quickest guy on the team from baseline to baseline, and that just doesn’t happen. A 7-1 guy outrunning guards wakes you up.
SLAM: Yet for years he was derided for being soft. Was there anything to that?
SE: Not even a little. That’s a reflection of Dave being a nice guy off the court and not being a chest thumper. What drives me crazy are guys who self-proclaim that they have heart or toughness; they’re usually the ones who are weak and soft. I think critics like to try and find a chink in the armor or find an explanation for why we weren’t winning championships. It’s just not easy to do. Michael didn’t win championships that early in his career. Magic is one of the only guys who led his team to one as a rookie.
SLAM: Tim Duncan won in his second season and put up great numbers right away. Was his greatness immediately apparent as well?
SE: Not like Dave. He played well the first half of the season, but he wasn’t overwhelming until the playoffs. Then we started to see that he could be not just very good, but great. You look now and he is clearly one of the greatest power forwards of all time. I think last year winning without Dave cemented his legacy.
SLAM: In ’93, your trade from Detroit to Houston was voided when you flunked the physical. Is that how you learned you had kidney disease?
SE: No. I knew way before that. Detroit knew I had a kidney condition before they got me, but they just wanted to get rid of Dennis Rodman. The Spurs didn’t know if I was going to be able to play more than another year or two, so this was a chance for them to get something in return. Midseason, we told Detroit I wanted to go somewhere out West, because things were not working out. The Pistons had told Houston I had something going on but when they tested me out, all the doctors had different opinions and everyone was in limbo. They sent me back to Detroit, which eventually sent me back to San Antonio.
SLAM: Then you had your two best seasons statistically, just when people thought you were done. Did your health improve?
SE: No. Before that year in Detroit, my numbers were steadily improving. I was on my way up and coming into my own and then I went to Detroit, where I never felt like myself. I didn’t feel that comfortable asserting myself because it was hallowed ground. Isiah and Joe and Bill Laimbeer were still there and trying to deal with a decline. Because of all that, I wasn’t the guy in the locker room I was in San Antonio and I think that translated into my play. Going through that really helped me grow as a player and a person, because I had to face a lot of adversity. Once I got back, I was able to flourish.
SLAM: You played for a lot of coaches in San Antonio, including some of the game’s biggest personalities. First was Larry Brown.
SE: He was tough for me. At first, playing for Larry was very, very difficult. In college, my light was so green it was ultraviolet. I could shoot the ball from anywhere at any time. Then I was afraid to take a 10-footer or the coach would yank me. About halfway through my rookie season, it came to a head and we had a little confrontation and worked things out. I really learned a lot from Larry and I may have been the one guy in the locker room who was upset when he left.
SLAM: Then Jerry Tarkanian came in as part of a disastrous experiment.
SE: I enjoyed Tark. I thought he was one of the best motivators, but it’s completely different coaching in the NBA and college, where you are the owner, GM, coach and daddy all in one. Tark was fired just 21 games into the season, but I think he would have done well given a real shot.
SLAM: And Tark was replaced by John Lucas, another huge personality.
SE: Luke was a master motivator. He would have guys ready to run through a brick wall. I had a conflict with him, as did one other player. We didn’t see eye to eye, but of all the NBA coaches I had, Luke used me the most at the point, which was very natural and I really enjoyed. I had more freedom and it was the first time I made the All-Star team.
SLAM: You guys seemed to be on the verge of greatness after winning 62 and 59 games in ’95 and ’96. And then David Robinson got hurt and you fell to 20-62. How dispiriting was that to go through?
SE: It was very difficult to handle. We thought there would be a natural progression and we would be in the Finals and win it. But you never know what is going to happen from one year to the next.
SLAM: Pop was the GM when he fired Bob Hill and took over after a 3-15 start. Was there any sense he would become a fixture?
SE: Not really, but I think he had a plan and knew what he wanted to do and he stuck with that. It took a while for Pop to adjust the roster to his liking. There were a few people he realized weren’t a good fit and he re-fit the team around Tim and David.
SLAM: You finally won the championship in ’99, going 15-2 in the playoffs. With Tim and David rolling together, did that team feel golden from the start?
SE: Absolutely. We had very little roster turnover, and were more together on the court than any NBA team I was ever on. Everyone had the same goal, which is so rare. There are so many problems on NBA teams, and the teams that stick together for a common goal instead of having guys pursuing their own agendas are rare and wonderful. All those insidious problems creep into your locker room and take over slowly, but we didn’t have any of that.
SLAM: For you, winning the title must have been especially sweet since it seemed your career was over when you had the transplant right after the season.
SE: It certainly was. I knew in the middle of March that I needed a transplant. The doctor asked if I wanted to stop playing, but I didn’t want to be a distraction. The way we were playing, I knew that we had a legitimate shot. If I thought I was going to be a liability to the team or risk injuring myself, I would have stopped.
SLAM: Did you always plan on returning?
SE: I didn’t know if I could come back, but I was determined to try. I asked my doctor and he said, “We’ll discuss it. It’s never been done before.” But in hindsight, my doctors must have been thinking I was out of my mind. I wasn’t ready to quit playing basketball then. I mean, I still wish I could play.
SLAM: Do you see anything that could prevent a Spurs/Pistons rematch in the Finals this year?
SE: Not really. They are two very good teams and they’ve got a chance to establish the type of rivalry the NBA hasn’t seen in a long time, along the lines of the old Celtics/Lakers.