Buck Harvey: Lockout discipline: Elliott as the model

Sean Elliott felt physically fine about a dozen years ago. The NBA’s opening night was cancelled, just as it is tonight, but Elliott kept working to stay ready.

“I was anticipating some type of season,” he said Monday.

He got some type of season, all right. The lockout crunched 50 games into three months. Then, in March of that shortened 1999 season, Elliott’s kidneys began to fail.

He not only survived, he did so while playing all the way to the Finals. And that’s why he thinks a compacted season is not only tolerable for today’s players, it will also be telling of them.

“We will see who is serious about it,” Elliott said. “And who has been out there messing around.”

Elliott reports his health remains good. Monday was the birthday of his brother and organ donor, Noel. And asked if he told his kidney “happy birthday,” Sean laughed.

“Every year,” he said.

He’d been living with his old, weakened kidneys long before that championship season. Gregg Popovich was able to swap a mid-first-round draft pick in 1994 to get Elliott back, in part, because Elliott was viewed as damaged.

But the weakening of his kidneys had seemingly leveled off. By 1998, when another lockout began to cut into the season, Elliott didn’t see them as an issue. He was more concerned with a labor fight more divisive than this one.

“We weren’t talking then like they are now,” he said. “That’s why I’m more optimistic this time.”

Then, Elliott was coming off consecutive seasons of knee surgeries. So he stayed in the gym, determined to come back strong.

The kidneys? A preseason physical said Elliott’s renal functions were stable.

But sometime in March, with no explanation, his kidneys began to quickly deteriorate. Elliott told just a few people, among them Popovich and teammate Steve Kerr, and kept playing.

The schedule wasn’t easy for those not facing an organ transplant. Robert Horry, then a Laker, remembers being so exhausted after playing three games in three nights that he fell against his hotel room wall. That season, he said recently, “cut my career by a year.”

There were times, too, when Elliott wasn’t the same. There was a mental side to his fatigue; he was too aware something inside wasn’t right.

In recent years, he’s watched tape of that season, and some stretches were startling. He saw himself laying on screens, unable to get into position.

“I told Pop not long ago,” Elliott said, “‘Thank God you trusted me then.’ Because I wouldn’t have gone with that guy I was seeing.”

Still, Elliott held up. He defended Kobe Bryant in the second round, threw in the Memorial Day Miracle in the next, then chased Latrell Sprewell and Allan Houston in the Finals.

Did it feel like an ordeal at times?

“Oh, yeah,” he said.

As tired as he was in those months, he believes the body of a professional athlete “has an amazing ability to adapt.” He thinks the Spurs got into a rhythm then, just as they sometimes do in other seasons when they come to the rugged part of a schedule.

Furthermore, Elliott says the jammed schedule made him actually better in the postseason. “There aren’t any back-to-backs in the playoffs,” he said. “So you feel like you are exhaling.”

But that’s only for those who were breathing smoothly going into the season. Elliott says the longer this lockout goes, the more this will be about the discipline of the players.

He guesses this: Anywhere from 20 to 30 percent won’t be in shape and will struggle.

And what will their excuse be? That the post-lockout schedule was too demanding?

A dozen years ago, Elliott eliminated that as an excuse.


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