SEAN ELLIOTT WAS the first athlete ever to grace the cover of the Tucson Weekly. It was something of a departure for the high-minded arts and politics journal. But even then, nearly 12 years ago, there was no mistaking the impact this precocious home-grown product was having on Tucson and the entire sports world.
He was a 19-year-old college junior at the time (which is something of an oddity in and of itself). Being a college town, Tucson had seen its share of star athletes in the past, but not like this. This was The One.
At the time the cover story ran, he was midway through the season Wildcat fans hold nearest and dearest to their hearts, even more so than the 1997 NCAA championship team or the surprising 1994 Final Four squad. Already he had accomplished so much, but it was clear to all that the best still lay ahead.
The funny thing is, if you asked him today, he'd probably still say the best lies ahead for him, and he'd mean it. This despite last week's stunning announcement that he needs a kidney transplant by the end of the year or will have to begin dialysis treatments to filter his blood. For the past several years, he's been dealing with a kidney disorder known as focal segmental glomerular sclerosis (FSGS), which slowly destroys the ability of the kidneys to do their jobs of filtering waste products out of the system.
It's been known for quite some time that he had this. It was expected that the disease would necessitate a transplant sometime in his 40s. Why it intensified, no one is really sure. All we do know is that while he was playing brilliant basketball in helping lead San Antonio to the NBA championship, he was dealing with a potential life-threatening situation. And doing so in secret.
Sean Elliott came late to basketball and suffered the double whammy of being a year younger than most of his classmates. He originally dreamed of being a baseball player, but fortunately he snapped out of it.
(One summer when I was working at a UA sports camp for local kids, we used to rotate kids around from one sport to another, giving them a chance to try them all. When 10-year-old Sean insisted that he just wanted to do baseball, I was the ever-understanding counselor. I asked him if he'd been repeatedly dropped on his head as an infant.)
He then moved on to soccer, of all things. But after blowing out his knee and growing almost uncontrollably, he moved on to basketball. His hoop career has been stellar, but there has always been a nagging bad-with-the-good quality to it.
Elliott led Cholla High into the state Final Four, breaking the state career scoring record along the way, but then saw his Chargers upset by Phoenix Alhambra on a last-second shot. After choosing to stay at home with the UA and its new coach, Lute Olson (the only other school to offer him a scholarship was Texas-El Paso), he quickly led the Cats to the NCAAs his first two years, but his teams suffered two lackluster, first-round defeats.
He joined a thrown-together collection of collegians (including future NBA teammate David Robinson) and shockingly won the 1986 World Championship, defeating several professional men's teams from Europe, Asia and South America. But along the way, he lost teammate Steve Kerr to a career-threatening knee injury.
(For those of you who drive VW buses with a "Kill Your Television" bumper sticker, Kerr made it back to basketball and is doing okay.)
Reaching the Final Four for the first time in school history his junior year, Arizona was the toast of the town and the favorite to win it all. Sean played brilliantly in a gut-wrenching loss to Oklahoma in the semi-finals. The next year, the Cats were again ranked No. 1. He single-handedly dragged them back from the brink against UNLV in the Sweet 16. The Cats had trailed the entire game, but Sean gave Arizona a two-point lead with just a few seconds left.
UNLV then hit an improbable three-pointer, ending Sean's college career. He would end up as the school's and the Pac-10's all-time leading scorer and College Basketball's Player of the Year.
In his 10th year in the NBA, he finally broke the curse, or so it seemed. He made a near-impossible three-pointer (dubbed "The Miracle of Memorial Day") while tiptoeing on the sideline to help oust Portland in the Western Conference Finals and then played solidly as the Spurs spanked New York in the Finals.
THE SUMMER basketball camp named for Sean Elliott is played in the high-school gymnasium named for Sean Elliott. Unlike a lot of big names who "run" camps, Sean actually makes an attempt to show up at his. This summer was going to be tough, what with the demands on his time.
Last Wednesday, for example, he was supposed to be in L.A. in the early morning to film a Nike commercial, then fly to San Antonio for a team function, then back to Tucson for the afternoon session of his camp. I had stopped by the day before to give him a tape of the KRQ radio morning show he and I had done 10 years ago. He looked tired, but otherwise fine.
When camp director Matt Minder made the announcement that Sean wasn't coming that Wednesday, the kids were disappointed, but understanding. One kid muttered, "Why Sean? Why doesn't stuff like this happen to Latrell Sprewell?"
The quick answer is that lizards don't have kidneys. But then we all know that bad things happen to really good people all the time, and you can go nuts trying to figure out why.
If, as many think, his career ended with the Miracle Shot and the NBA crown, that's not a bad way to go out. But Sean is having none of that. He's treating the possible transplant like it's a done deal and is vowing to play in the NBA again.
I wouldn't bet against him (unless, of course, we were playing chess). He's only 31, with a wife and daughter and another half-century or so to go. He's sharp and witty and would be a natural as an announcer.
But right now, he's got to get well. That's all that matters.