08/25/1997 at 01:00 AM EDT
EIGHT MONTHS AGO, BUDDY HAD the world at his paws. After years of working the NBA half-time entertainment circuit, the occasional dog food commercial and appearances on Late Night with David Letterman, the golden retriever—whose schtick is shooting hoops with his snout—had finally slam-dunked a six-figure deal to star in Disney's Air Bud as a canine that leads a kids' basketball team to victory. "I have seen everything on the court, including a bull, a monkey and a snake," says former Harlem Globetrotter Mel Davis, a consultant on the film. "But I'd never seen that."
A few weeks after the movie wrapped, however, Buddy's days as top dog were in peril: Kevin DiCicco, 34, Buddy's owner and trainer, noticed that his pet was limping after a game of hockey at their San Diego home. After a series of tests, Buddy, 9, was diagnosed with synovial sarcoma—a cancer that attacks joints and connective tissue—and last February his rear right leg was amputated. "I think I was in a daze," says DiCicco. "This is one of the most aggressive types of cancer."
Though it seemed that the stray turned star might have had his day, Buddy is now completely recovered. What's more, he can still make like Michael Jordan (albeit through a lower, seven-foot hoop) and seems unfazed by Air Bud's so-so box office success ($11.4 million in two weeks). "If he could talk," says DiCicco, "Buddy would say, 'Don't worry, I'm fine.' "