Fire in the Belly

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

"If he'd have said, 'You know what? Run through that brick wall and that'll make you a better player,' I didn't question it. I just did it," says Respert. Entering the NBA, his biggest anxiety was about being a "freshman" again. But it was labor woes that started him off on the wrong foot, as the lockout that year killed summer-league play and put rookies a half-season behind the usual learning curve.

Before the Bucks' season started, head coach Mike Dunleavy further cooled off expectations for the rookie. He told the Associated Press, "I don't think there's a savior tag put on Shawn Respert," adding that he saw him as "a guy who can come off the bench…make plays toward the end of the game." (Dunleavy did not respond to interview requests made through his current team, the L.A. Clippers, for this story.) The coach used Respert sparingly early on, and his once-deadly jump shot turned harmless. He took an icy 32 percent shooting average and 3.2 points per game into the All-Star break.

As one Milwaukee columnist noted: "His situation has become a chicken/egg question. He needs more minutes to get his shot back. He needs better shooting to get more minutes. Which comes first? At this rate, neither." By showing little interest in the patient development some teams afford their rookies, Dunleavy may have been trying to salvage his job. Following a 25-57 season, their second worst in franchise history, the Bucks canned him.

"I understand the professional side of sports, it is a business," says Respert. "His job was to win. And his job was not about giving somebody a favor. Hey, he had to win ball games, and unfortunately my game wasn't around early enough for him to say, 'You know what? Let's take a chance.' "

Most nights he sat on the bench, but Respert says he stayed upbeat when he would see his grandfather chitchatting with superstars like Jordan and Barkley before the games.

"All the bickering and all the question marks about me and Dunleavy and what was going on through my rookie year -- I didn't even pay attention to that. Because as long as I saw that picture across there -- with Granddad being all right, enjoying it -- that was something I could swallow," he says.

In March 1996, Respert's stomach began hurting. He thought it might be a muscle strain at first, but the skin was sore to the touch. After a few weeks, the painful area began balling up in a knot, and trainer Mark Pfeil suggested they get an outside opinion. Respert couldn't believe the results.

"I'm 23. Four-and-half million dollars. C'mon, I was like, I just had that swagger about me, like, nahhh, it can't happen to me. And nobody in my family had been sick. My mom, my dad, no one had cancer," he says. "Then I got the second opinion, and that's kind of what made this sink in, like, okay, like two guys can't be wrong." For three months, he underwent radiation therapy and dropped from 205 pounds to 175.

"I literally couldn't eat," says Respert. "Anything I put in my stomach, if I put it in there too fast, it was already shedding the lining on the inside of my stomach. So it would irritate the inside…and I'd throw everything up." Strangely enough, with the season already a stinker, Respert started getting more and more garbage time and posted some of his best career numbers. He dropped in 15 against the Knicks and followed it up with 19 in New Jersey. He says he set his mind on not letting cancer stop him from playing pro basketball. And he asked Pfeil, the trainer, not to tell anyone.

"I wasn't going to give an excuse or make an excuse for me in the way I was performing, and the way I was playing and the point where I should've been in my career," he says. He adds a second factor. "If I say something, well, now all of a sudden these GMs that are just about doing business -- 'cause most of them that's what they were about, they're not running a day care, they're trying to make money. So I'm not a good investment."

Pfeil, a trainer with the Bucks for ten years, says that Respert's tenacity was unbelievable. "To me, that mental toughness -- you don't find that in a lot of people," he says. "I think you could compare somebody like him to Lance Armstrong."

In an era when pro athletes sometimes phone it in at the slightest injury, Respert's dogged determination not to make "excuses" makes him either an enigma or a guy with rock-solid integrity. He even hid the illness from his closest family members.

"I wasn't going to let my 60-year-old grandmother worry at that age about her 23-year-old grandson," he says. "I figured I'd be okay or at least fake it enough to be okay." His mother discovered his medication a few months into his treatments, and then he opened up about it.

"He didn't want the other family members to know," says Diane. "He kept saying, 'Just leave it with us, I'll tell them in time.' "

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