Fire in the Belly

Rice's new basketball director reveals the secret of his fall from NBA stardom

Much like the flawless jump shot that made him famous, Shawn Respert's life -- or at least his basketball career -- had a definitive arc that you could trace. On June 28, 1995, it reached its highest point.

On that date, the Portland Trail Blazers selected the 23-year-old shooting guard from Michigan State as the eighth pick overall in the NBA draft. He joined a rookie class that included future stars such as Jerry Stackhouse, Rasheed Wallace and Kevin Garnett. Following a draft-day trade, he signed a three-year, $4.25 million contract with the Milwaukee Bucks, who mortgaged the 11th pick and their 1996 first-round rights to get him.

In the midst of the hype and celebration, the picture that Shawn Respert carries in his mind is more intimate. He remembers waiting backstage in the green room at the site of the draft festivities in Toronto's SkyDome. He remembers his mom and dad, grandparents, siblings and girlfriend gathered around the table. And like many young athletes from working-class families closing in on the glitz of professional sports life, he remembers feeling like they'd all made it.

Respert hopes the Rice job will lead to NBA 
front-office work.
Daniel Kramer
Respert hopes the Rice job will lead to NBA front-office work.

"It was like, 'God, this is really happening,' " says his mother, Diane Respert. "I think I cried through the whole thing. Being there with all those great players and the NBA and the commissioner and it was just fantastic…Later on, we learned that it was truly a business."

When Shawn Respert graduated ten years ago, he left as Michigan State's all-time leading scorer, with 2,531 career points. He also holds the Spartans' record for three-point field goals, with 331. Last fall, when a news service polled 40 Division I college coaches on the best outside shooter ever, Respert's name surfaced twice -- tied for third with Larry Bird.

That's why for years Shawn Respert's failed NBA career remained a mystery to fans and even those in his extended family. Sports history can be cruel and capricious like that -- it's why "lottery" is an apt title for the NBA draft. (Just ask the guy who picked Sam Bowie over Michael Jordan in 1984.) Yet Respert carried with him a secret that could have unlocked some of the mystery of his failure.

Midway through his rookie season, Shawn Respert was diagnosed with stomach cancer. That fact is perhaps less surprising than what he did about it: He kept it to himself, got his radiation treatments in the morning and tried to play professional basketball at night.

On a drizzly, chilly winter morning, Shawn Respert sits on the wooden bleacher seats in an empty Autry Court at Rice University. Lean and fit, he tops out at just a few inches over six feet and seems less gangly than some basketball players. He has a young face, a soft, smooth way of speaking and smiles often. The son of a police officer and a nurse, Respert, now 33, grew up in Detroit.

"When Shawn came along, that was one of the first things he got, was a basketball. He learned to dribble and do it real quietly," says Diane. "And he was always kind of quiet -- just reaching for things and accomplishing things, he does it quietly. He's always been that kind of person."

Diane's parents spent a good amount of time raising Shawn, and he says that he took from them -- his grandfather in particular -- a philosophy of optimism. In his senior year of high school he tore a ligament in his knee, which limited his ability to be an especially physical player.

"My approach was, if I was going to be recognized, I needed to be good at something," says Respert. "I needed to be actually one of the best at something." He chose shooting as the object of his perfection.

In college, he developed a nightly routine. After practice, he'd go back to his dorm room, eat dinner, study some and then find the janitor to let him back into the gym, where two spotlights would shine on one basket for hours of jump shots.

"It just kind of gave this aura, like 'This is center stage,' " he says. "I had this crazy imagination -- I could be a little bit nuts -- but I would imagine myself out there on the floor and I would imagine what it was like with all these people and I had to make the basket to win the game."

Jud Heathcote, head coach at Michigan State for 19 years, brings up a favorite anecdote of several high school coaches visiting the Spartans' practice one day and watching Respert drain 33 of 36 shots from the outside -- 29 of them in a row.

"He was one of the few kids that I coached that had the green light. He could shoot from any place, anytime…We didn't have anyone else that got to do that," says Heathcote. "I think he felt very confident every time he took a shot that it was going in."

As a senior, Respert averaged nearly 26 points per game and was named Big Ten player of the year. He saw reflections of his own grandfather in Heathcote, who retired the following year.

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