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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.