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Respert’s battle

Michigan State's Shawn Respert drives on Michigan's Dugan Fife in a Big Ten game 10 years ago.
 (File/Associated Press / The Spokesman-Review)
Michigan State's Shawn Respert drives on Michigan's Dugan Fife in a Big Ten game 10 years ago. (File/Associated Press / The Spokesman-Review)
Larry Lage Associated Press

DETROIT – For years, Shawn Respert swallowed his pride when he was called an NBA bust.

Now, six years after his career in the league ended, he is ready to tell his side of the story.

“I had cancer,” Respert said quietly this week in an interview with the Associated Press. “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.”

Life was great for Respert 10 years ago.

He averaged nearly 26 points a game as a senior shooting guard at Michigan State, and impressed enough people to be the eighth pick in the 1995 NBA draft. Portland drafted him and traded him to Milwaukee for the 11th pick, Gary Trent.

“He was a great shooter and his character was great,” Mike Dunleavy, then Milwaukee’s general manager and coach, said this week.

But Respert wasn’t himself as a rookie with the Bucks.

His picture-perfect shooting stroke wasn’t leading to baskets. Toward the end of the season, he felt awful. Respert’s stomach started bothering him, so he altered his diet. But that didn’t make the unbearable cramps go away.

“One day I felt a lump the size of a marble below my belly button,” Respert said. “After I finally saw a doctor a couple weeks later, the lump had gotten bigger.”

When medicine didn’t make the lump go away, Respert went through a series of tests at St. Joseph Regional Medical Center in Milwaukee in May 1996.

“When the doctor said, ‘You have cancer in your abdomen,’ I said, ‘C’mon. There’s no way. I’m 23 and I’m in the NBA,’ ” Respert recalled during a telephone interview from Houston. “I was in denial, so I got a second opinion. But then another doctor in Milwaukee verified that I had cancerous cells in my stomach.”

Respert underwent radiation therapy every day for three straight months, but his condition didn’t improve.

“When doctors then said we had to do more radiation and medicine, that’s when reality hit me that this was truly for real,” he said. “I had been optimistic before that and was worried about proving that I was worth the eighth pick, but then I started concentrating on just getting healthy.”

While Respert was dealing with his cancer, the only people who knew about it were the Bucks’ trainers, doctors and eventually, Dunleavy.

“It’s crazy, but I didn’t tell my mom or dad, my grandparents, or my girlfriend at the time, who is now my wife,” he said.

Dunleavy, now coaching the Los Angeles Clippers, vividly recalls the situation.

“We regarded his wishes and I never told anybody. Even I was a little bit late to know,” Dunleavy said. “It was going on for a period of time, and finally I did find out about it. I had no idea at the time why he was playing poorly and didn’t seem to be himself. He could have easily explained the situation to people and it certainly would have made it easier for him.”

Respert, who lost 20 pounds during three months of radiation treatments, still was determined to make it heading into his second NBA season.

“On a Sunday morning, I had a treatment then flew to Los Angeles that same day because we were playing in a summer league out there,” he said. “The Bucks had just drafted Ray Allen. Even though I could only eat soup and crackers, I was behind only Ray in scoring on our team that summer.”

Just when Respert thought he had turned the corner with his health and career, new coach Chris Ford didn’t play him in the first two games of the 1996-97 season.

“That took the air out of me,” he said. “I started feeling what most survivors feel, alone. It devastated me as a player and a person, and it changed the way I focused my life.

“I figured that what I did at Michigan State was more than a dream come true, so I didn’t care about anything other than my health and my 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.”

Respert’s cancer went into remission, and hasn’t come back, but his NBA career never revived.

In his second season, Respert was traded to Toronto, where he averaged 5.6 points a game.

Respert played briefly in Dallas the next season and then had a second stint with the Raptors. His NBA career ended quietly in Phoenix during the 1998-99 season.

In 172 games over four seasons, he averaged 4.9 points in 13.7 minutes per game.

“It killed me every time my name was associated with being a bust,” Respert said. “I really wanted to say, ‘Look. This is what I’ve had to deal with.’ But people don’t want to hear excuses in pro sports, even if the excuse is cancer.

“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 had something to gain.”

Cleveland Cavaliers point guard Eric Snow, his backcourt mate at Michigan State, was one of the first to know about Respert’s condition other than the few people in Milwaukee.

“We talked about it like we’re family because we really are. We’re both married to our girlfriends from our freshman year in college,” Snow said. “I’m glad that he’s come forth publicly with his story because it was a burden in his life.

“And, I’m really happy that he’s still in basketball, helping people become better men and better players. I just wish I was half the golfer he is.”

Following the four NBA seasons and four more seasons overseas, Respert started the next chapter of his life as a volunteer coach at Prairie View A&M in Texas last season. Earlier this year, he was hired to be director of basketball operations at Rice University in Houston. His ultimate goal is to work in an NBA front office, perhaps as a scouting director.

During the past two years, Respert has reached out to people who meant a lot to him.

“Life is so busy for a lot of us that we don’t take time to say thanks to anybody,” Respert said. “When I overcame what I did, and, inspired by my grandfather’s passing, I really took a step back and realized there were a lot of people I should say thanks to.”

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