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Frontpiece for "Solitude" by Johann Georg Zimmerman (1840)
Frontpiece for “Solitude” by Johann Georg Zimmermann (1840)

Shawn Respert was a decorated college basketball star at Michigan State from 1990 to 1995. Upon concluding his college career, he was selected with the eighth overall pick in the star-studded 1995 NBA Draft by the Portland Trail Blazers, and he was immediately traded to the Milwaukee Bucks. By any objective measure, Mr. Respert’s NBA ensuing career was a disappointment for such a high draft pick. He played 172 games for five teams in four seasons before fading out of the NBA. With that, he became something of a footnote – a name who excelled in college but whose skills did not translate to NBA stardom. It was not until years later that Mr. Respert revealed something that he had kept secret during his brief NBA career – that he had been diagnosed with cancer during his rookie season.

I only just found this 2005 story, and I thought it was worth sharing with readers.

Shawn Respert’s Battle With Cancer

Mr. Respert revealed in 2005 that he had been battling cancer during his brief NBA career. I stumbled on the article recently.

Shawn Respert’s NBA career was stunted by cancer. January 8, 2005. AP via ESPN.

Mr. Respert revealed in a 2005 interview that he began to feel sick toward the end of his rookie season in 1996. He was suffering from unbearable stomach cramps. Mr. Respert decided to go to the doctor after he felt a lump under his belly button. After undergoing tests in May 1996, Mr. Respert was diagnosed with cancer in his abdomen. He was in disbelief, and he sought a second opinion, but that second opinion confirmed that he had stomach cancer.

Mr. Respert underwent radiation treatment that summer, but his condition did not immediately improve. Mr. Respert stated in his interview: “When doctors then said we had to do more radiation and medicine, that’s when reality hit me that this was truly for real.”

Shawn Respert Played Through Cancer Treatment in Silence

One might think that a high draft pick being scrutinized for poor play would make public that he was diagnosed with cancer. Mr. Respert took a different path: “It’s crazy, but I didn’t tell my mom or dad, my girlfriend at the time, who is now my wife.” The only people who knew about Mr. Respert’s diagnosis were the trainers and doctors for the Milwaukee Bucks, his then-Coach, Mike Dunleavy, and his college teammate and fellow NBA player, Eric Snow.

Mr. Dunleavy noted that he, too, was “a little late to know” that one of the players on his team had cancer. He had observed that Mr. Respert was playing poorly and “did not seem to be himself” before learning about his illness. Mr. Dunleavy stated that the team did not make Mr. Respert’s situation public at Mr. Respert’s request, while adding that he thinks Mr. Respert would have had an easier time had he made known his diagnosis and treatment.

Mr. Respert lost 20 pounds in three months while undergoing treatment, but he nevertheless reported to Summer League (games played in the off-season that typically feature young players and journeymen), despite only being able to eat soup and crackers. Mr. Respert was battling for his NBA future after the Bucks had used a high draft pick on Connecticut’s Ray Allen, who played the same position.

The Rest of Shawn Respert’s Career

Mr. Respert’s cancer went into remission during his second season. After playing little with Milwaukee, he was traded to the Toronto Raptors. There he remained until he was again traded in the 1997-98 season, that time to the Dallas Mavericks. Mr. Respert played his final NBA games for the Phoenix Suns in the lockout-shortened 1998-99 season. His playing career was over after playing overseas for an additional four years, and Mr. Respert moved into coaching and management.

Since retiring as a player, Mr. Respert has worked mainly in coaching and front office roles for several NBA teams.

Shawn Respert On Why He Stayed Silent

Mr. Respert stated: “It killed me every time my name was associated with being a bust.” Why then did he decide to stay silent for so long about his struggle? While there is no guarantee that Mr. Respert would have had a more successful professional playing career had he been in good health, having cancer in one’s first season – a crucial time for growing as a player and finding a role in the NBA – did not help matters. Furthermore, it certainly contributed to his poor play in his first two seasons.

Mr. Respert stated that he stayed silent because “people don’t want to hear excuses in pro sports, even if the excuse is cancer.”

He did however plan to tell his story once his playing days were over:

“I just had to swallow my pride because I knew there would be a time that I would get my story out when my career was over and people didn’t think I would have something to gain.”

In deciding to finally tell his story in 2005, Mr. Respert explained that part of his motivation was to clarify any misconceptions that people may have had about why he struggled in the NBA:

“I don’t want people to feel sorry for me, or think I’m making an excuse about why it didn’t work out for me in the NBA. I just want people who have wondered, ‘Whatever happened to Shawn Respert?’ to know that I wasn’t strung out on drugs or anything bad like that.”

My Thoughts

For an athlete to keep a cancer diagnosis secret while spectators and others are wondering about his poor performance, and even questioning whether the player’s own behavior was at fault, is remarkable. I do not disagree with Mr. Dunleavy’s suggestion that Mr. Respert may have had an easier time had he allowed information about his illness to be made public. The fact that he played in Summer League games while undergoing radiation treatment would have vitiated any suggestion that he was making a play for pity or sympathy. Players in all major sports sit out from real games in the season for far, far less significant reasons than undergoing radiation treatment for cancer.

But what Mr. Respert did cannot be boiled down to a cost-benefit analysis. While Mr. Respert was clearly concerned that people would think he was making excuses if he disclosed his cancer diagnosis and treatment, his statements suggest that there was also a very personal sense of pride and dignity informing his decision. He would only allow himself to talk about his struggle after his career was said and done. Mr. Respert’s story is not only that of a player who played through cancer treatment, but also the story of a player who was determined to succeed or fail based on what he accomplished on the court – no matter what externals life threw at him. Mr. Respert’s choosing not to make what he calls “excuses” is intrinsic to his character and the story of his time as a professional basketball player.

I cannot help but respect the decision, regardless of whether it ultimately hurt his NBA prospects.

Afterword

In the end, Mr. Respert suggested that his battle with cancer gave him a new outlook on life. He came to see his success in college as a sort of “dream come true,” and he concerned himself first and foremost with his own health and his family. “That pushed me away from the mentality that made me successful as a player, but it helped me become more happy as a man.”