Elliott Shows ‘Em How He Operates
Midway through the third quarter, the crowd sliding from the edge of its seats, the star teetering on the edge of his nerves, Sean Elliott did the only appropriate thing.
He performed another transplant.
A basketball, taken from his right hand, fitted into a metal rim.
A soaring slam dunk that rattled not only 26,708 screeching Alamodome fans, but medical and sports history.
Elliott became the first professional athlete to play after an organ transplant Tuesday, scoring his first and only points on that dunk, inspiring the San Antonio Spurs to a 94-79 victory over the Atlanta Hawks less than seven months after receiving a new kidney.
But this wasn’t about a kidney.
This was about a heart, which carried Elliott through 12 bruising minutes most basketball people never thought possible.
He bounced off hard floorboards, ran through thick forwards, dented all common sense.
“I was just shocked. . . . I couldn’t even think about it . . . it was a miracle,” Hawk center Dikembe Mutombo said. “I ask myself, ‘Why is he coming to the basket so hard?’ Then the next time he comes even harder, and I get out of the way.”
This was also about eyes, those of Sean and older brother and donor Noel. Their gaze met during the national anthem with a look that nearly swallowed them both in tears.
“It was breathtaking,” said Noel, sitting in the courtside seats Sean had jokingly promised in exchange for the kidney. “It was overwhelming.”
This, too, was about hands, which his mother Odie laid on Sean before the game, reminding him that this comeback ended where it began.
“This,” she said, “is a night for family.”
Finally, this was about what is probably best described as a soul.
Or whatever it is that kept Elliott chugging through open skepticism by his coach, lonely hours running stairs, and a December bout with pneumonia that left him too weak to even walk to the bathroom.
“I hope this gives people encouragement, I hope it helps them not to be afraid,” Elliott said with a tired smile. “That dunk was probably more memorable than the Memorial Day Miracle.”
He was referring to one of the last times anyone had seen him play before Tuesday, his three-point shot in the final seconds that beat the Portland Trail Blazers in Game 2 of the Western Conference finals last spring.
The Spurs used that dramatic win to launch them to an NBA championship while Elliott quietly was sinking under the weight of degenerative kidney disease.
He kept his problem quiet until after the playoffs, then underwent transplant surgery Aug. 16.
At the time, the Spurs assumed his career was over.
All except Elliott, who looked dumb when he began his comeback, and dumber as he kept trying.
“When we first started running wind sprints in November, he looked terrible,” teammate Steve Kerr recalled. “But he kept showing up. Every day he showed up. He kept tugging on Pop’s [Coach Greg Popovich] sleeve until he finally gave him a chance.”
On Tuesday, after purposely skipping what could have been his first game in New York, Elliott gave his hometown fans a chance.
A chance to cheer like their team won another championship. A chance to clutch their armrests in amazement.
A chance to joyfully chant “We Want Sean” in the final minute of the game, as if their resting star was a beloved bench-warmer.
Not to mention, it was a chance for Popovich to take it all back, all those times he said it would take more than a doctor’s orders or a veteran’s pleas to return Elliott to the floor.
Take it back he did, putting Elliott in the starting lineup at the last minute in deference to last season.
“It was a surreal experience,” Popovich said. “It was just magic.”
It began 15 minutes before the game when Elliott walked to the court to a standing ovation.
Noel Elliott, that is.
He was followed by Sean, and the ovation grew louder, and more insistent, and repeated itself every time Sean touched the ball or appeared on the video scoreboard.
The game began, and Sean took a pass, dribbled toward the baseline, and promptly slipped and fell hard.
The guy whose kidney he was carrying fell with him.
“I was like, ‘Ohhhh,’ ” Noel said. “It was really strange. I couldn’t even talk.”
But Sean stood up smiling, and that was that. Doctors who claimed the body’s natural muscle and bone mechanisms would protect the kidney were one for one.
Sean bounced around for the rest of his five-minute first half, picking up a rebound and an assist.
Then, with 7:04 remaining in the third quarter, frustrated by an earlier missed layup, he dribbled around Roshown McLeod and flew.
Sitting underneath the basket just steps away, Noel flew with him, leaping to his feet with the dunk and cheering.
“To break the ice like that, I couldn’t believe it,” Noel said. “Amazing.”
Sean, as usual, agreed.
“You dream about something like that,” he said. “But it’s not realistic.”
It is now. Lots of things are realistic now.
A basketball player’s message to transplant patients everywhere was clear.
The body part may belong to somebody else, but the courage is still yours.
Like Sean Elliott’s sneakers, hope was everywhere.
“Watching him, we were all like, ‘Damn,’ ” teammate Malik Rose said. “That’s all we could think. ‘Damn!’ ”
Walking off the floor to the locker room amid camera lights and blaring music and one final standing ovation Tuesday night, Sean stopped to enclose Noel in a long, sweaty embrace.
The brothers said nothing. The brothers said everything.
Bill Plaschke can be reached at his e-mail address: email@example.com.
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