Fire in the Belly
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.
"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.
"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.' "
In August, after the radiation treatments, there appeared to be just a few remaining cancerous cells, which they killed with more radiation. Since then the cancer has been in remission, although it took him almost three years to get back to his normal weight. He never got his footing in the NBA and bounced around in backup roles for Toronto, Dallas and Phoenix. With the Suns in 1999, he saw in teammate Jason Kidd the reality of his own struggling career.
"I just saw how effective he was at what he did, and I was like, God, I used to be like that, you know? Just thinking, like, it was effortless at what he was doing," says Respert. "It just seemed like those guys were so powerful. And here I was just struggling to be an average player. And I said, well, you know what, I'm not going to get any better sitting."
He left for Europe and posted solid numbers in leagues in Greece, Italy and later Poland, where he fulfilled one of his grandfather's final wishes, to see him get back to MSU form. His age and his creaky knees convinced him that it was time to finally hang it up. Last summer Rice hired him as director of basketball operations, and he hopes to get a feel for front-office work for another NBA run one day.
One month ago, he decided to go public with his cancer story.
"Maybe the question is 'Why now?' Well, it doesn't make a difference now. I'm not playing; I'm done. Nothing to gain at all. Nothing. It was just some closure, I guess," he says. "I had to tell people that this was what was going on and, you know what, maybe even on top of that, this is how I dealt with it and it's okay. Cancer is not as bad as you think if you're prepared mentally to just kind of endure."
Some players leave a legacy of winning, big plays or gaudy statistics. If Shawn Respert has a legacy, it speaks quietly of endurance.
"It's not a quick sprint to the end," he says. "It's a marathon."
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