The honor of playing high school basketball in Tucson 36 years after her famous uncle Sean Elliott competed in his last game with Cholla is not lost on Pusch Ridge Christian Academy sophomore Vienna Elliott.
“It does put a little pressure on me some times,” Vienna said, “but it is sometimes a good pressure, like me wanting to live up to the expectations.”
Sean is the top local athlete in history who went on to a storied career at Arizona and worldwide fame in the NBA with his well-documented need of a kidney transplant in 1999 while with the San Antonio Spurs.
His brother Noel was fortunately found to be a good match for a kidney and he donated one of his as a life-saving gift. After a successful operation on Aug. 16, 1999, Sean returned to the Spurs the following season, becoming the first professional athlete to continue his playing career following a transplant.
Noel and wife Kathy have parented three kids now into high school athletics. Their children have all attended Pusch Ridge.
Their oldest, Lucas, is a redshirt freshman forward at Biola University, an NCAA Division II program in La Mirada, Calif.
Oldest daughter Geneva recently completed her volleyball career at Pusch Ridge and has committed to play at Division I program Abilene Christian, which is only 245 miles from Sean’s home in San Antonio.
Vienna plays volleyball and basketball for the Lions as a 6-foot-1 sophomore.
“She does not have a favorite of the two sports; it all depends really what season she is in,” said Kathy, who is the communications and marketing director at Pusch Ridge.
Noel is in his third year as a truck driver after being active in the home inspecting business in Tucson since 2003.
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Noel and Kathy attended Saturday’s game at Pusch Ridge, when the youthful Lions lost 44-17 to Show Low. Vienna did not take it as just another loss. She was one of the last to emerge from the locker room, almost a half-hour after the game ended.
“She takes after Sean with that,” Noel said. “He was always one of the last to leave.”
Kathy added, “She asks questions and wants to get to the bottom of why this or that happened. She’s unique in that aspect.”
The apple does not fall too far from the tree as far as that is concerned. Kathy, who is 6-foot-3, is a former standout Iowa high school player who averaged almost 30 points a game and went on to star at Nebraska-Omaha from 1985-89, the same years Sean became Arizona’s greatest under Lute Olson.
When Lucas was about to enter his sophomore season at Pusch Ridge in the summer of 2016, he played in an AAU tournament at Las Vegas. He was a slender and raw talent who was starting to garner recruiting attention from college coaches because of his potential and his last name.
“I’ve been around basketball all of my life,” Lucas told me in his first media interview that year. “I started playing in the seventh grade but didn’t really become competitive in it until last year in the ninth grade.
“(Sean) has played a big part in my development so far. I talk to him a lot on the phone. … He just tells me he wants me to enjoy the game. He tells me that’s the key to unlocking your potential. If you’re not having fun, you’re not going to play to your potential.”
Vienna is almost at that same stage now embarking on her sophomore season.
She gave her first media interview on Saturday, and much like Noel, she was a natural expressing herself.
As I wrote about Lucas five years ago, it is obvious Noel and Kathy are raising their children with the values of Noel’s mom Odiemae Elliott, who was known in Tucson as being a noble, hard-working, respectful and caring person. She embodied that do-what-it-takes mantra that impacted her family.
Vienna said of her strong family relationships, including with her older siblings, “It’s very important; I feel like it is a support to always have people I know I can go to who know more than me and can help me grow as an athlete.”
That includes her interactions with Sean, who connects with his nieces and nephew as much as he can. Sean’s own children have progressed to success, including daughter Jordyn Elliott, who completed her soccer career at Cal-Berkeley last season and earned her degree in Business Administration with a minor in African-American Studies.
Sean has stayed mostly in quarantine in San Antonio since the COVID-19 outbreak last March because of the health risks from his kidney condition. That precludes him from seeing his family in person.
Vienna last saw Sean in San Antonio two years ago when he and Noel celebrated the 20th anniversary of the kidney transplant.
“He did like a basketball camp with me and my brother and a couple of other kids he knows who live in the area,” Vienna said. “That was fun. I got to learn skills, like post moves and ball-handling.”
Noel and Kathy waited patiently for Vienna to emerge from the locker room after the loss Saturday. Following a 27-point defeat, they did not know what to expect.
Vienna, who is also part of the Arizona Premier Volleyball Club, did not have a look of despair or frustration as she approached them. Instead, she had that appearance her uncle Sean always displayed, one of subtle confidence and determination.
She smiled when Noel gave her a hug. As the kidney transplant saga indicated with Noel and his brother, no situation is too difficult to keep this family from looking ahead.
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ALLSPORTSTUCSON.com publisher, writer and editor Javier Morales is a former Arizona Press Club award winner. He is a former Arizona Daily Star beat reporter for the Arizona basketball team, including when the Wildcats won the 1996-97 NCAA title. He has also written articles for CollegeAD.com, Bleacher Report, Lindy’s Sports, TucsonCitizen.com, The Arizona Republic, Sporting News and Baseball America, among many other publications. He has also authored the book “The Highest Form of Living”, which is available at Amazon.