Ken Rodriguez is a San Antonio native who covered his first Spurs game in 1981 for The Daily Texan, the University of Texas student newspaper. He spent 26 years in the newspaper business -- 21 of them covering sports -- before joining the marketing department at Our Lady of the Lake University in 2009. His Spurs.com column will appear every Wednesday. >> En Espanol | Read more Ken Rodriguez Articles
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The famous basketball-playing brother remembers anxiety. The anonymous stock clerk brother remembers awe.
In the thunderous, energy-charged Alamodome, Spurs fans were on their feet, chanting, cheering, screaming the name of an Elliott who'd barely made his high school basketball team. That Elliott looked up into a sea of faces and saw a sign, "We love you, Noel!" Then he saw another and another and the sight and the sound overwhelmed him.
"Wow," Noel thought as the Dome seemed to detonate around him. "This is crazy. Everybody would donate a kidney to their brother, wouldn't they?"
Well, no, not everybody. According to one estimate, 35 percent of potential donors don't donate because family members refuse to give consent. Recovery is painful. There's a risk of complications. Not everyone wants to surrender a major body part.
Then there was Noel, the older brother who was working as a stock clerk and gave a kidney after his honeymoon TO A SIBLING SUFFERING FROM A DISEASE THAT REQUIRED A TRANSPLANT. His gift lifted a franchise, moved a city, and on March 14, 2000, it brought 26,708 strong to their feet.
On the floor, Spurs All-Star forward Sean Elliott blocked out the crowd but struggled to contain nerves. "Just don't embarrass yourself," he kept telling himself.
Sean didn't. He drove by Roshown McLeod of the Atlanta Hawks, went to the rim, raised one hand and dunked. The Alamodome exploded. The first pro athlete in history to come back after a kidney transplant had delivered a moment, and Atlanta's Dikembe Mutombo couldn't help but smile. "I was really touched," Mutombo told reporters after the game.
The comeback inspired more than emotion. It inspired change. A year later, the Department of Health and Human Services reported organ donations from the living had jumped 16 percent, the largest increase on record. For the first time, living donors outnumbered cadaver donors.
The transplant exceeded the Elliott's expectations. It raised awareness to unprecedented levels, saved lives and turned Noel into a hero. The National Kidney Foundation named him donor of the year.
Five years later in 2005...
Sean is thriving as a broadcaster in San Antonio. He golfs. Hangs with Spurs players and coaches. Signs autographs for adoring fans. Life is good.
Noel is struggling with a new home inspection business in Tucson, Ariz. Paperwork isn't getting filed. Payments aren't being received. He can't afford to pay for help. Life is tough.
He is desperate but not desperate enough to turn to Sean, who had always let him know: If you need money, just ask.
Instead, Noel asks a favor of God. It's not about money. It's about life: "Would you show me my purpose on earth?"
He flashes back to his youth, to dreams he dreamed in the bedroom he shared with Sean. In one, he rescues Sean from a classmate wielding a big stick. In another, he pulls Sean, desperate and stranded on an inner tube, to safety from a large pool. In every dream, from grade school through high school, Noel helped Sean in an emergency.
Then the dreams stopped and Noel forgot about them until years later -- when he lifted his voice to heaven.
Sean is leaning against a tunnel wall in the AT&T Center, looking regal in a long blue suit and matching tie before Game 6 of the Spurs' first round series with the Mavs. Sean says he played golf earlier in the day. He worked out. He couldn't be healthier.
"Sometimes I tell my brother the kidney he gave me works too well," Sean says. "If I drink too much water at night, it keeps me up."
That wasn't the case 11 years ago. After the operation in 1999, Noel recalls, Sean walked gingerly into his hospital room, holding a bright yellow bag of urine, and in a hoarse voice announced, "I brought us margaritas."
"I erupted in laughter," Noel says, "and it was very painful to laugh."
The brothers were close then. They are closer now. "Noel is the poster child for donors," Sean brags. "He had three kids after the operation."
Life is good for Noel Elliott. His wife has become his partner in their successful home inspection business. The kids are growing so fast uncle Sean says the oldest -- 9-year-old Lucas -- looks like a future power forward. Noel's lone kidney is functioning well, and his favorite team is chasing a championship.
Noel never did stop loving the Spurs. After handing over a kidney, after helping Sean make history, the brother in the shadows kept on cheering.