Shawn Respert practically cringes when he hears a professional athlete labeled a bust. He knows from personal experience how uncomfortable that feels.
He also knows that sometimes that label doesn't provide context or important details that can alter a person's circumstance. That understanding, he said, gives him a certain "awareness" in his role as Timberwolves player development coach, a job with many tentacles geared toward helping players function better in all areas.
"The things I have gone through help," he said.
Respert experienced both ends of the spectrum as a player. He earned All-America and Big Ten Player of the Year honors as a senior guard at Michigan State in 1995. Several publications chose him as national player of the year.
The Portland Trail Blazers drafted Respert with the eighth overall pick and then traded him to the Milwaukee Bucks. A top-10 draft pick carries heightened expectations, but those never materialized for Respert, who played for four teams in four seasons and averaged only 4.9 points and 13.7 minutes. His NBA career ended in 1999, and the label got attached and recycled.
A backstory emerged six years later as Respert revealed publicly that he was diagnosed with abdominal cancer as a rookie but kept his illness private. Only the Bucks medical staff, athletic trainers and coach Mike Dunleavy were privy to his condition.
Respert didn't want to make excuses, even now as he shares his story again.
"I've always been kind of a private person anyway," he said. "The old-school coaches like Jud Heathcote, Gene Keady, Bobby Knight, a lot of things they handled in-house. If you had problems or issues -- whether it was personal, family matters, school, health -- that stuff they handled in-house and they didn't allow a lot of the public to see some things we went through. In my mind it was just the way I grew up. My problem was my issue. I dealt with it the best way I could."
Respert felt a lump in his stomach during his rookie season. The area became more sensitive to the touch as the tumor grew. Even as his play suffered, he declined to share his problem publicly or with those around him.
"If I wasn't going to make it, let me just not make it on my basketball skill set," he said. "If I'm not good enough, I'm fine with that. But to have to talk about [the effects of cancer], I wasn't ready to tell that story."
He underwent daily radiation treatments after the season and lost 15 pounds. He weighed 178 pounds at the start of his second season.
"People said, 'Wow, it looks like you're in great shape,' " he said.
The Bucks traded Respert that season, a sharp reminder that professional sports are business. He suffered a recurrence in 1997 and required more radiation, but he has been cancer-free ever since. Respert played four seasons in the European League before retiring to pursue a career in coaching and player development.
His experiences -- the "gamut" he says -- provide a perspective wide enough to relate to players in different situations.
"I've been at the lowest of lows and the highest of highs," he said. "It's easy for me to identify with a guy who is struggling at the end of the bench, trying to figure out how to make it. And the superstar who's trying to figure out how to maintain his level."
Respert looks as if he's a perfect fit in player development. He works with players individually after practice. He rebounds for them, goes over defensive assignments, even plays one-on-one. He always keeps his laptop close by for extra tutorials.
Respert's responsibilities include analyzing the team's defense. His computer stores defensive possessions from each game with notes typed at the bottom of each clip. He sits down with players after practice and goes through defensive sequences, good and bad.
"I'm like the bridge between the old school and new school," he said. "I have something for every guy."
He finds the most satisfaction in his personal relationship with players and offering them guidance and support off the court. He sees a particular value in that, whether he stays in coaching or moves into a front office job some day.
"That's a tough feeling when you feel alone," he said. "Lonely is OK, because sometimes you get people who don't understand. But to feel like nobody has ever gone through this situation, that is tough."
He speaks from experience.
Chip Scoggins • firstname.lastname@example.org