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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 glomerulo-sclerosis. 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 die 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.