After the 1992-1993 season, Elliott started noticing his body changing. A urine test revealed something was off with his kidneys, and a biopsy confirmed Elliott had “minimal change disease” – aptly named because it means your kidneys are changing incrementally. His doctors put him on a high dosage of prednisone; for six years, Elliott played with kidney disease, not realizing it was progressively worsening.
Finally in March of 1999, doctors discovered his creatinine (waste produced from the muscles) had skyrocketed. It meant Elliott needed a transplant. Immediately. “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,” said Elliott about why he kept this news from his teammates until after the season was over. They were on a winning streak, and about to beat the New York Knicks and win the NBA Championship.
Elliott received an assist from his older brother; in August 1999, Elliott received a kidney transplant.
What differentiates athletes
Being in top physical shape did have its advantages. It meant Elliott’s body was quicker to rebound post-surgery. Even the doctors were surprised he was back on his feet so fast. Elliott explains, “For me it was about regaining my conditioning. Trying to get my strength back, trying to get my wind back, trying to get some of my muscle back, trying to put on a little bit more weight.”
Most people don’t realize kidneys are not transplanted in the place of the old ones; they sit in the lower half of the abdomen, making the recipient extra vulnerable to kicks in the stomach, or getting kneed by a fellow player, as it were.
Professional athletes are a breed all on their own. They are trained and conditioned to do whatever it takes, no matter the cost or circumstances. “Can’t” is not in their vocabulary. Elliott was certainly no exception.
“I’ve always been the rebellious type. My doctors didn’t want me to do anything. But as soon as I could, I was walking up stairs, I was doing miniature squats to get my leg strength back. I was going to do whatever I could to get back [onto the court]. I was a little stubborn, that’s for sure,” he says, laughing.
The comeback kid
Before Elliott could practice and play with the team again, he had to pass the conditioning test. Running 10 times the length of the court (94 feet or 28.7 meters), one minute rest. Repeat. Five times. He tried – and failed – a few times before successfully passing the test. Seven months after his operation, Elliott rejoined the Spurs in the second half of the 1999-2000 season.
During the 2000-2001 season, he tore his right rotator cuff and was out for two months recovering. He couldn’t take anti-inflammatory meds like ibuprofen because they are harmful to kidney function. His only solace was found in a 55-degree ice bath, every night after games and practices.
Without the meds, the aches and pains associated with a professional sports career, started to take their toll. At the end of the 2000-2001 season, Elliott replaced his team jersey for a suit and microphone to became one of the Spurs’ announcers.
A role model off the court
His experience made him more relatable to fans. For 18 years now, people wait for Elliott before and after games, all around the country, to share stories about kidney disease. But what always surprises him is when they don’t know what course of treatment they’re doctor is prescribing or what medications they’re taking.
One of Elliott’s secrets to a quick recovery was to be knowledgeable about the disease and the medications his doctors were prescribing. “I got my hands on all the literature I could, and I asked my doctors lots of questions about what I was taking, what it was doing and how it would affect me,” Elliott says.