Just looking at Sean Elliott's feathery jump shot, you wouldn't know that he hasn't played competitive basketball in nearly nine months. The ball spins gently off the fingertips, rotating softly through the air before landing in the basket, barely touching anything but the bottom of the net.
Just looking at Elliott's smooth face, you couldn't guess what the San Antonio Spurs forward has endured since helping his team win the NBA championship last season. The doeish eyes belie the determination that he has shown in the months after his kidney transplant.
Two days short of seven months after receiving his new kidney from his older brother, Noel, Elliott is expected to return to the court tonight when the Spurs play host to the Atlanta Hawks at the Alamodome. Elliott understands the significance of becoming the first professional athlete to renew his career after major transplant surgery.
"This is the hardest thing I've ever done," Elliott said Friday night, after going through his pre-game shooting routine before his team's overtime victory against the Washington Wizards at MCI Center. "The biggest part is the challenge. Cheryl Miller [an NBA analyst for Turner] asked me why I was doing this. I asked her, `What would your brother [Reggie] do?' I am doing it for the challenge and for the example I can set."
Some might expect Elliott to pick up where he left off. They retain the lasting image of his off-balance three-pointer that helped beat the Portland Trail Blazers in Game 2 of the Western Conference finals. If that was called "The Memorial Day Miracle," then what is this comeback from a major organ transplant?
"It's pretty remarkable that he was able to play at the level of the NBA with his condition because he was really pretty sick," said Dr. Lloyd Ratner, the director of kidney transplant surgery at Johns Hopkins. "The fact that he can recuperate enough to play at that level again is pretty amazing."
After announcing in July that he would need a transplant -- the result of a debilitating disease (focal segmental glomerulosclerosis) that prevents the kidneys from filtering waste from the blood -- Elliott received a new kidney on Aug. 16.
Ratner said that because Elliott received his kidney from a healthy donor, the odds increase to "better than 50-50 he will be able to keep that kidney for at least 15 years." But Ratner said that he often warns his own patients "to avoid any rough contact sports because you might run the risk of being injured by a good whack."
Gregg Popovich, San Antonio's coach and general manager, was among the skeptics. Now he is counted among those who marvel at what Elliott is about to do, something no professional athlete has ever accomplished. While he will treat Elliott as he would any player coming off the injured list after a prolonged stay, Popovich realizes this is different.
"What he's done has been pretty amazing," Popovich said. "He's an important part of our team. He's worked hard to get back to this point. He deserves the opportunity, so we're going to support him. If it helps us or hurts us, so be it."
Things always seemed to come easily for Elliott, even when they were not. And Elliott was always good at hiding his emotions, especially when it came to his condition.
It was the way he had played throughout his 10-year career, all but one of them spent with the Spurs. It was the way Elliott kept his condition a secret from all his teammates except for Steve Kerr, with whom he played in college at Arizona. Many of them knew that he was on medication but didn't know the extent of his disease, which he had for seven years.
Even last season, as the Spurs marched through the playoffs with Elliott as one of their heroes, few outside his family knew just how sick Elliott had become.
"It was a shock to everybody," said Spurs captain David Robinson. "No one knew things were so bad."
Now that he is returning, Elliott is often being asked the same question. It is something that family, friends, teammates and coaches have all wanted to know since he announced his intention to play again shortly after the operation.
Why would an athlete at the pinnacle of his career risk injury -- or worse? Convinced by his doctors that his health would not be in jeopardy, the two-time All-Star knows that all he is putting on the line is his reputation. Yet he is looking at a larger picture, one that extends past the lines of a basketball court.
"I am not trying to ride in on the white horse," Elliott said. "I just want to come in and contribute."
Elliott had hoped to be back in uniform by early December. But he quickly learned was unrealistic. Since the end of last season to when he began his basketball rehab, which didn't begin until December, he lost 20 pounds.
"I thought it would come a lot sooner," he said. "I started to realize I was too optimistic. Then I thought I'd be back by mid-January. When that didn't happen, I didn't know if it was going to happen at all."