When people discuss gutsy NBA playoff performances, they bring up Willis Reed’s game seven in the 1970 finals against the Los Angeles Lakers. Despite a severely torn muscle in his thigh which made his appearance doubtful, he limped onto the court to start the game and inspired the Knicks to their first championship.
Michael Jordan’s “flu game” is also remembered. In game five of the 1997 Finals, Jordan supposedly played through flu like symptoms to score 38 points bringing the series back to Chicago where the Bulls wrapped it up in six.
And who can forget the performance of Isaiah Thomas scoring 33 points for the Celtics in the first game of the 2017 playoffs only one day after his sister was tragically killed in a car accident.
One story though is not talked about as often, and was not even known until the playoffs had already ended.
Sean Elliott was the third pick of the San Antonio Spurs in the 1989 draft, the same year David Robinson joined the team after completing his naval service. At the University of Arizona, he broke Lou Alcindor’s (Kareem Abdul-Jabbar) Pac-10 scoring record, was a two-time All-American, won the John R. Wooden Award, was AP Player of the Year and was a two time Pac-12 Player of the Year (in 1988–1989).
However, by the 1992-1993 season, Elliott started noticing changes in his body. A urine test revealed something was off with his kidneys, a condition for which he would be prescribed a high dosage of prednisone.
In 1993, Elliott joined Robinson on the Western Conference all-star team. Then, looking for more offensive rebounding the Spurs traded Elliott to the Detroit Pistons for Dennis Rodman before the 1993-94 season.
Elliott struggled in Detroit. They attempted to trade him midseason to the Houston Rockets for Robert Horry. The deal fell through when Elliott failed the physical. After the season, the Pistons traded him back to San Antonio for Bill Curley, a player with relatively insignificant value.
In 1996, Elliott had his best year and once again joined Robinson as an all-star. Then injuries to both players during the 1996-97 season landed the Spurs with the number one pick in the 1997 draft, Tim Duncan. New coach, Gregg Popovich took over and within two years the Spurs found themselves in the 1999 NBA finals and a chance to win their first NBA championship.
It was in March of that season when Elliott learned that the prednisone which he had been playing on for six years, did not stop his kidneys from slowly deteriorating. His creatinine (waste produced from the muscles) had skyrocketed and he needed an immediate kidney transplant. The disease, focal glomerulosclerosis, prevents the kidneys from properly filtering waste from the blood. Putting the team before himself, Elliott did not let his teammates know about his condition.
Later he was quoted as saying “We were in the midst of a great run, we were playing really well, and I didn’t want to cause distractions and have the team look at me differently”.
After cruising past the Timberwolves and Lakers in the first two rounds of the playoffs, the Spurs had the opportunity to go up 2-0 against the Portland Trailblazers on Memorial Day. Having trailed by 18 points in the third quarter, they slowly fought back to close the gap. Still, things did not look good after Damon Stoudamire hit a pair of free throws to put the Blazers up by two with 12 seconds left on the clock.
What transpired next will forever be known as the “Memorial Day Miracle”.
Mario Elie’s inbound pass barely made it to Elliott deep in the corner past the outstretched arm of Stacey Augmon. Elliott somehow regained his balance without allowing his momentum to carry him out of bounds. He then gathered himself to calmly take one dribble, turn, and fire a three over a much taller, and quickly converging Rasheed Wallace, to send his team to Portland with a two-game lead.
After sweeping the Trailblazers, the Spurs went on to defeat the Knicks in the finals, giving them the first of their five NBA championships.
Elliott finally made his condition known to his team. On August 16th, just two months after winning the title, Elliott underwent transplant surgery and received a healthy kidney donated by his older brother, Noel.
Seven months later, Elliott became the first professional athlete to resume active play after major transplant surgery when he played against the Atlanta Hawks on March 14, 2000.
Elliott became a national spokesperson for the National Kidney Foundation after retiring. He also counseled Miami center Alonzo Mourning who was diagnosed with focal glomerulosclerosis and survived a transplant in 2003.
A rare kidney disorder and a transplant on the horizon did not deter Sean Elliott from hitting the biggest shot in San Antonio Spurs history. The “Memorial Day Miracle” refers to that shot. The bigger miracle though, unknown to fans and teammates at the time, was that Sean Elliott was playing in that game to begin with.