SAN ANTONIO – On May 31, 1999, Sean Elliott tight-roped the sideline and hit a game-winning 3-pointer with nine seconds left in regulation, lifting the San Antonio Spurs to an 86-85 victory over the Portland Trailblazers in Game 2 of the Western Conference Finals.
That shot would later be named the Memorial Day Miracle.
Elliott became an instant Spurs legend. The victory propelled the silver and black to a sweep of the Blazers and the first NBA Finals appearance in team history. There, the Spurs defeated the New York Knicks in five games and claimed their first NBA Championship.
But throughout the celebration of a remarkable playoff run, Elliott needed a miracle of his own just to stay on the court. He was diagnosed with focal glomerulosclerosis, a disease that prevents kidneys from properly filtering waste from blood. Elliott’s condition had grown to the point where it was affecting both of his kidneys. With a month left in the regular season, doctors told him that he would need a transplant. Elliott kept that knowledge a secret until July 22, 1999, when he announced to the media that doctors were actively looking for a donor.
Luckily, a match was found in his own family. On Aug 16, 1999, Elliott's brother, Noel Elliott, donated one of his kidneys as a life-saving gift. The operation was successful, and the next season, Sean returned to the court, becoming the first professional athlete to continue his playing career following a transplant.
Friday marks the 20th anniversary of Sean Elliott’s miracle transplant. To celebrate, on Thursday afternoon, Sean and Noel Elliott returned to the Methodist Specialty and Transplant Hospital in San Antonio, which is now recognized as the best living-donor kidney transplant program in the nation. There, the brothers were greeted by staff, physicians and patients, all wearing shirts bearing the phrase “Team Elliott.”
“I didn’t expect to see so many people, and I didn’t expect it to be such an emotional ceremony, but it was great,” Sean said. “It was a great day, and the best part of it was getting a chance to see my brother. I haven’t seen him in over a year. It’s been too long, and it was great to see him out there having a good time.”
“Twenty years ago, this guy got a kidney from me,” Noel said. “I don’t know how it all works. I just know that it does, and it’s fantastic.”
The Elliotts’ story has helped inspire many to undergo transplants with living donors, including lifelong Spurs fan Simon Torrez, who donated a kidney to his mother after Sean’s successful transplant.
“It’s just nice to know that people have followed the stories and that we have helped people,” said Sean. “It’s nice to know that a lot more good came of it.”
“I just had a gentleman come up to me as we were leaving the stage,” Noel said. “He got a transplant from his daughter. It just keeps going.”