On the Rebound

updated 03/27/2000 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 03/27/2000 AT 01:00 AM EST

After 10 seasons as a pro basketball player, with an NBA title and two All-Star appearances, Sean Elliott could easily have lost his passion for the game. But as the San Antonio Spurs forward anticipated his return to the lineup, he experienced all the excitement—and butterflies—that the rawest rookie might feel. "It's not every day," says Elliott, 32, "you do something that's never been done before."

When he stepped onto the court March 14 at the San Antonio Alamodome to an emotional standing ovation, Elliott was indeed breaking new ground, becoming the first major-league athlete to return to action after receiving a transplanted kidney. Scoring 2 points in 12 minutes of play—just under seven months after Elliott received the kidney from his brother Noel, 33—proved an inspiration for fans and teammates alike. "Every time I see his enthusiasm," says Spurs center David Robinson, "I realize how fortunate we are to do what we do."

In his career, Elliott had known little but good fortune until June 1993, when severe fatigue and a swollen face and arms led him to visit his doctor. "I just thought it was the stress of the season," says Elliott. When tests detected an unusually high protein level, he learned he was probably suffering a kidney ailment. "I was told I could live with it for the rest of my life," Elliott recalls, "and most likely I'd have a remission."

Despite occasional injuries, Elliott played the following season for the Detroit Pistons, then in 1994 returned to the Spurs, where he was a stalwart, averaging 18.1 points per game and gaining a reputation as one of the league's most explosive and graceful players. But by March 1999 he was feeling fatigued again. This time his kidney specialist John Rienieck detected such high levels of waste products in Elliott's urine that he advised him to consider a transplant before he ended up on dialysis. "I was a little shocked," Elliott says, "I thought this might end my career." Though he continued to play through the playoffs, "his energy level was lower every game," says Spurs coach Gregg Popovich. That didn't stop him from averaging 11.9 points in the postseason, helping the Spurs to the NBA championship.

Then, just days after the Spurs' victory parade, Elliott was diagnosed with focal glomerulosclerosis—a disorder causing chronic scarring of the kidney tissue—and was told it was time for a transplant. "I couldn't believe it was happening," he says. Family members submitted to tests, and within days a donor emerged—Noel, a Tucson stock clerk. "Noel had a grade-A kidney: young, healthy, good size, good blood vessels," says the transplant surgeon, Dr. Francis Wright.

He also had a good attitude. Sean had been close to Noel, just 15 months his senior, since their boyhood in Tucson as the children of Odiemae Elliott, now 62, a retired nurse, and her husband, Robert, 59, a medical technician. (Divorced in 1978, they also have a son, Robert, 37.) "They're so much alike it's scary," says Odiemae of Sean and Noel. Despite anxiety about the procedure, Noel never hesitated. "His need," he says of his brother, "was greater than my fears."

On Aug. 16, the brothers arrived at San Antonio's Methodist Specialty and Transplant Hospital. "I just held his hand," says Sean. "We didn't say anything. He understood how I felt about what he was doing." In a four-hour procedure, doctors removed one of Noel's kidneys, and then, in a three-hour operation, placed it in Sean's pelvic area. Noel recovered quickly and Elliott was back on his feet within a week, determined to return to the court. He was lifting weights by September and in October started running the Alamodome's stairs. "From one week to the next," says Elliott, "I was getting better, better, better."

His coach was more eager to see Elliott healthy than playing. "I don't want this miracle to become a tragedy because we want him there to win a few more games," says Popovich. But Dr. Wright encouraged his patient's efforts, which he says pose minimal risks. (Still, doctors will closely monitor his blood chemistry.) Elliott—separated from his wife, Akiko, 29, mother of his daughter Jordyn, 22 months—saw his return as a worthy goal. "It's a great challenge for me," he says, "and I can touch a lot of people in a positive way." He still hasn't found a way to thank his brother. "I just told him," says Noel, "to come and see me when we're both old men, and we can chat about the good old days."

Thomas Fields-Meyer
Michelle McCalope in San Antonio

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