Ex-Buck Respert slipped, but he never fell

BY foxsports • September 19, 2012

Joan Niesen

MINNEAPOLIS — The flecks of gray give him away.

From a distance, Shawn Respert could be a player, another jersey lurking in the bowels of an arena weeks before NBA training camps are scheduled to begin. He's got the look down to a tee: red shirt, black sweats, sneakers, a gargantuan gym bag and a basketball under his arm. He's a guard, you'd assume from afar, with his 6-foot-2 frame of compact muscle.

And he was a guard, at least, all those years ago, in East Lansing and Milwaukee and then in more cities than he'd care to mention. So that guess isn't too far off. But Respert is no player, not anymore, and the gray in that beard speaks volumes.

The beard says he's aging, that 40 came and went last winter. The beard says to look past the outfit and the NBA physique, to dispense with the assumptions that were so easy from 10 feet away. And the beard, perhaps most notably, says that Shawn Respert is comfortable.

A year ago, Respert was in the midst of the NBA lockout. After four years on the Rockets' staff, he was unsure where he'd land when now-Minnesota Timberwolves coach Rick Adelman left Houston. Respert was ready for something different. He was prepared. He doesn't always like change.

"Last year, I stayed clean-shaven," Respert said. "I was like, at any time, you (can) get a call. I had to make sure I'm ready. Now, I'm looking like a grizzly bear."

His smile is sheepish as he strokes those whiskers and surveys the room deep inside the Target Center. He shrugs. It's only been a year, but this has become home. It's only been a year, but Respert has already built a reputation and identity in Minneapolis.

On paper, Respert is a Timberwolves player development coach. That translates to a man of high-fives and handshakes who hustles down the court with players two decades younger. He's known for this job and little else, and that's a miracle and shame. Respert's relationship with basketball is so much more than just that. It's a story of celebrity and tragedy that goes beyond coaching, beyond the NBA, beyond this century. Yet somehow, it's faded to little more than an afterthought.

But on Thursday, Respert will get the best kind of reminder of that past, the one that's so present in everything he does yet that most have forgotten. He'll grin and fend off compliments, but his successes of nearly two decades ago will be foisted back at him en masse. On Thursday, Respert will be inducted into the Michigan State Athletics Hall of Fame. On Thursday, we'll remember.

Jud Heathcote called Shawn Respert in February to wish him a happy 40th birthday. It's been 18 years since the two started their final season at Michigan State together, Heathcote as the beloved coach and Respert as the shooting guard bound for bigger things. It's been 18 years, but get Heathcote talking, and it's 1995 again.

The coach, now 85, breaks down Respert's game like the Spartans' first-round upset loss to Weber State in the 1995 NCAA tournament was just last week. Respert was Heathcote's final star, and his records and accolades still stand: Michigan State's all-time leading scorer with 2,531 career points, second-leading scorer in Big Ten history, 1995 Big Ten Player of the Year, best three-point shooter in the conference for two straight seasons.

"Players always talk about the green light," Heathcote said. "That means a guy can shoot anytime, and I had a couple guys complain, 'How come Shawn has the green light and I don't?' I used to say, 'Because he can make baskets, and you can't.'"

But Respert is no image of perfection to Heathcote, not when the man spent hours debating with his assistants the merits of recruiting him, a high school forward, to play guard. Not when he logged days on the court working on his shot creation, when he designed plays with Respert as the first and then third option in case the initial plan failed.

But Respert was a star, no doubt, and Heathcote knew it. This is the man who coached Magic Johnson in college. He could recognize talent. Still can. That's why Heathcote was in such suspense in the spring of 1994, when Respert had the option to go pro after his junior year. That's why he waited before the press conference, wondering and selfishly hoping that maybe his shooting guard would return. That's why he breathed a sigh of relief when Respert came up to him before the whole thing started and let him in on a secret: He was staying.

Respert wasn't ready to go. He was comfortable, and in that comfort he thrived.

That call in February wasn't the first Heathcote has placed to Respert since he graduated. It's less often these days that the former coach picks up the phone at his home in Spokane, Wash., and talks to or even about Respert, but there was a time when those conversations were more frequent and important.

After his standout senior year at Michigan State, Respert was picked eighth overall in the 1995 NBA draft. He landed with the Bucks after a draft-night trade, and there was no reason to believe he wouldn't have a solid rookie season. No reason, at least, until the stomach pain began. Respert struggled, unable to hit his shots or produce at anything close to the level he had in college. Milwaukee coach Mike Dunleavy called Heathcote, worried about his rookie and wondering if his college coach had any tips to improving his shot. Nothing had worked.

Then, in May 1996, after Respert had finished the season averaging just 4.9 points, the Bucks learned why. The 24-year-old had stomach cancer, and he began treatment. It would have been the perfect explanation for what went wrong. It could have been -- if Respert had told anyone beyond just the Bucks' training staff, doctors and Dunleavy.

No one had a clue. Not family, not friends, not teammates. And when Respert lost 20 pounds during treatment that summer, few noticed. Without the Internet and Twitter and constant scrutiny, he got away with his secrecy. He got away with it, and the cancer went into remission. He got away with it, and he seemed to have a fresh start.

Except he never really did. Respert returned to the court with a new coach, Chris Ford, who didn't play him in the first two games of the 1996-97 season. He returned without the strength and the stamina he'd taken for granted. He returned having just gone through the most trying event of his young life, and yet there was no one to talk to.

His second season, Respert averaged just 4.2 points and played 495 minutes, barely more than half what he'd logged the previous year. He was sent to Toronto midway through the season, then to Dallas halfway through the next. He gave it one last shot in Phoenix in 1999, playing in 12 games and averaging 3.1 points.

And then Shawn Respert was finished. He'd never gotten a chance at the comfort he'd found at Michigan State. He'd pushed people away. All these years later, he's far enough removed to no longer be upset, but he wonders if he did it all wrong.

"I really feel like I could have managed some things better," Respert said. "When I go back to some early interviews, I talk about how I didn't want to say anything, and I feel like that was probably just a level of fear of what people would think."

Now, embedded as he is with a team, the arbiter of his young players' problems, Respert can see that he had no such support system. Back then, he said, neither teams nor the league had a procedure deal with crises. He thinks that his disease was treated more as something to be hushed lest it cause panic, when really it needed to be discussed and managed. Time has afforded him those observations, and after years working in basketball administration, Respert knew what he needed to do. He wanted to be that guy to young players, the one who could help them on the court and off it. He wanted to prevent some young player from becoming the next Shawn Respert.

So in Minnesota he tries to be a buffer between coaches and the players. When players struggle, they go to Respert. He invests time and compassion into these young men. He's been in their position as a top draft pick who struggled, and he wants their paths to be different than his. He's getting a sort of second chance, and yet there's no resentment that this new generation of players has the resources he never did.

"He doesn't have a jealous bone in his body or feel like he's getting the short end of the stick," Timberwolves assistant Jack Sikma said. "He's just real positive. He wants people to succeed . . . I just think he's got a great grasp of reality and can accentuate the positive and acknowledge all the blessings and good things that he has."

And so Respert runs up and down the court. He listens. He high-fives. Again, he has a clear role, a home. He's needed and appreciated. He's comfortable, and this time, he doesn't take it for granted. So maybe he wants to be something more than a player development coach. Maybe he wants a higher-profile job someday. But right now, this is enough.

"The most success I've had as an individual person is me showing patience and diligence to be consistent, consistently good at what I do," Respert said. "Whatever happens will happen."

He strokes that beard and smiles. This Shawn Respert, with the gray-flecked stubble and the easy smile, has finally made it. So don't call him a bust. Call him a success story, even if it took a decade longer than it should have.

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