New Utah Jazz center Francisco Elson plays to honor late brother

Published: Wednesday, Oct. 7 2015 7:00 a.m. MDT

New Utah Jazz center Francisco Elson, being interviewed at the team's media day, says he plays for his older brother who died on a basketball court at the age of 21. (Scott G. Winterton, Deseret News) New Utah Jazz center Francisco Elson, being interviewed at the team's media day, says he plays for his older brother who died on a basketball court at the age of 21. (Scott G. Winterton, Deseret News)

SALT LAKE CITY — Francisco Elson stuffs himself into a gray plastic chair, and before he can get comfortable his heart pours out.

Basketball, he explains, is an outlet.

The Jazz's newest big man plays not for the glory, or the riches, or even the satisfaction that comes with winning a ring.

It's for one reason, and one only: to honor the memory of his late brother, Patrick.

"I'm not saying I'm an awesome player, or I'm the best player, or I'm good at this, I'm good at that," Elson says. "No. It's just my dedication to him, showing I can play.

"It might not be to the ultimate level, like some of the stars in the NBA. But I'm gonna try, and go out there and compete.

New Utah Jazz center Francisco Elson. (Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News) New Utah Jazz center Francisco Elson. (Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News)

"And him looking over me — that's all that matters. I don't really care what everybody else says, or everybody else thinks," adds Elson, who for reasons quite understandable didn't begin playing in earnest until he was 17 years old. "It's just me, out there on my own, doing my own thing and not listening to anybody. Because when I'm on the court, I have one thing in my mind — and it's just satisfying him."

Patrick Elson was 21 when he died of a heart attack — on a basketball court.

Francisco Marinho Robby Elson remembers the day like it was last week.

He was 13, at home with his tight-knit family in the Netherlands port city of Rotterdam.

Patrick was with his local club team, and there was no reason to suspect what was about to come. He was athletic, well-fed and — as far as anyone could tell — the picture of health.

New Utah Jazz center Francisco Elson (Michael Brandy, Deseret News) New Utah Jazz center Francisco Elson (Michael Brandy, Deseret News)

And then he passed.

"He was playing a game, and he collapsed," Elson said.

"We got a phone call saying that something is not right. So we tried to rush over there, and by the time we got there they took him to the hospital and he was gone."

Like so many pre-teens, Francisco — his parents originally are from the former Dutch colony of Suriname, in South America — dabbled in this sport and that.

Both his father and a younger brother played soccer, but none of it, especially not basketball, meant too much to him.

"I was more into karate, and soccer, and having fun on the streets, and playing," Elson said. "But doing something serious? Even if (Patrick) hit me upside the head, I wouldn't be serious, you know?"

At the time of Patrick's passing, Francisco was just beginning to understand — and appreciate — his brother's passion. He played some outdoor hoops, and occasionally showed up for a formal club practice.

Yet when Patrick was asked if that was his little brother, he responded, " 'Yeah, but he doesn't want to play.' "

Patrick, however, sensed something.

Rather than push his brother prematurely into a direction he didn't want to go, though, he said nothing to Francisco.

But he did tell someone, and she held the thought tight for four years or so.

Following the tragedy, Orsine Williams Elson didn't want Francisco to have anything to do with organized sports or excessive exertion.

"The kids on the street used to always say, 'Let's go out and play, let's go out and play,'" Elson said.

All too often the answer was, "No."

On the rare occasions Francisco was allowed to join in, he could not shake clues as to why his mother felt so protective.

"Anything I did," Elson said, "I always had to have people around me, trying to look over me and see if everything was all right."

Another reminder always was within reach.

He dubbed it his "S.O.S." chain, and it came with instructions in case of medical emergency: "All the descriptions of what I had was in this little medallion I had around my neck."

After a while, Elson had had enough.

He didn't care if anyone was willing to give him permission or watch over him.

"I never really played, or did anything," Elson said. "Then one day I just got sick of it, and I used to sneak out of the house and just go play basketball on my own."

It wasn't long before he was busted, and the one whose feelings mattered most found out.

"Somebody told her they saw me playing outside, and she asked me what I was doing," said Elson, his voice sounding now as if he'd just been caught. "I said I just played a little bit, and she asked me if I really wanted to play."

He did.

The pain of her loss hurt no less.

But Orsine, Francisco suggested, knew then it was time to loosen the strings and finally share the secret.

"He (Patrick) told my mom if I ever played that I never should stop playing," Elson said. "They (his mother and sister) told me he didn't want me to stop playing basketball.

"He talked to my mom, and he told her I had something going on, because I was fast. He probably saw something nobody else saw."

Well, maybe there were a few.

Francisco acknowledged as much, though not before a deep breath and a long pause.

"Other people," he said, "also said, 'Why don't you come back and play basketball? Your brother probably would have liked it if you came back.' "

Before Orsine would give her blessing, however, she demanded a battery of tests.

Just to be sure.

Things didn't go well.

"We did all the exams — heart exams, specialists," he said. "And they discovered a leaky valve."

Francisco's aortic valve wasn't closing properly, causing blood to leak backward and forcing his heart to work harder.

If it toiled too much, it could become enlarged.

But even knowing that didn't stop him.

A scout in Europe saw Francisco play, and before he knew it he was trying out for the Dutch national team he now captains.

American coaches caught wind of him via a basketball magazine and he wound up at Kilgore College in Texas.

Still, there was a hurdle to be cleared.

It was huge, and had little to do with his decidedly limited basketball skills and similarly limited ability to speak English.

He needed medical clearance.

Initially, Elson couldn't get it.

The staff at Kilgore heard about his brother and thought, "No way."

"We were not aware of (Patrick's passing) until Francisco explained it to us," then-Kilgore coach Scott Schumacher said, "and that's why we were so cautious."

Francisco, unable to take part in preseason practice, was devastated.

"They killed my whole dream for playing basketball, and pursuing my brother's dream," he said.

A few visits to specialists in Dallas and elsewhere later, though, and Elson was good to go.

"We were comfortable," Schumacher said, "because they said his heart is as normal as anybody else's heart is."

Right away, the junior-college coach — who took Elson sight unseen — knew what he had.

"He was extremely raw," said Schumacher, now head coach and athletic director at North Dakota State College of Science.

"But he had a very, very good work ethic. His shoulders and his upper body really started to fill out, and he could really run and move for a guy his size.

"I used to tell Francisco, 'Every second you're not in class or studying you need to be in the weight room or on the basketball court, because you're gonna be able to make some money — if you work at it. Because you're 7-foot, and can run like a deer.' "

Elson heeded his coach's advice, and to this day is glad he did.

"He took me in, he took care of me," Elson said of Schumacher, who has also coached current New Orleans Hornets guard Marcus Thornton and ex-Jazz/Weber State guard Ruben Nembhard on the juco level.

"Coming from a foreign country, barely speaking English, I didn't understand a word. But (I) showed him I wanted to play, I wanted to learn the game. He basically saw me as his son, and anything I wanted to do he was there for me."

Schumacher was spot-on about Elson's speed, evidenced by then-Oklahoma State assistant coach Paul Graham's comment as the two watched him run a 200-yard sprint on the track.

Before Elson even came off the turn, according to Schumacher, "Graham said he can have a Division I scholarship anywhere."

Graham wasn't alone in Kilgore.

The Houston Rockets scouted Elson, and everyone from Lute Olson and Bob Huggins to Tom Izzo, Norm Stewart and Gene Keady took a crack.

But Elson didn't pick Oklahoma State or any team coached by the aforementioned major-college heavyweights.

"I guess fate had me go to Cal," he said.

After two years in Berkeley, the Denver Nuggets selected Elson 41st overall in the NBA Draft's second round.

But he spent his first four pro seasons playing in Spain, and the Nuggets didn't sign him until Carmelo Anthony's rookie season in 2003-04.

Jazz head scout David Fredman recalled the Nuggets liking "his ability to run the floor and make a shot."

"He was one of the harder workers we had in Denver," said Fredman, who was a Nuggets' assistant general manager when they brought him over.

Elson spent three seasons in Denver, was a part-time starter on San Antonio's 2007 NBA title team and had brief stays with Seattle, Milwaukee and Philadelphia before Utah signed the free agent for depth last month.

The heart situation never concerned the Nuggets, and — though he gets tested regularly — it hasn't been an issue during seven NBA seasons.

"I guess it's just been (Patrick's) blessings over me, saying that, 'I'm going to look over you and nothing is going to happen to you,' " Francisco said. "I think everything is fine now. I don't really think about it anymore."

If it's not in his mind, though, it's on his mother's.

Orsine, Fransisco said, "told me she's happy she let me go, because she never really knew what I could be."

But that joy rings with an undertone of melancholy heard all the way to Rotterdam.

"She's happy, but somewhat sad, because she's not here close to me — because she never knows what could happen," Elson said. "She's always calling, asking me how I'm doing, if I need anything. That makes me sad, because she really wants to be with me and take care of me."

"You never know what life brings," he added. "Anything can happen."

Francisco Elson leans forward, knowing full well that anything really can happen. The plastic chair tips from its backside.

"Me playing basketball is just me remembering (Patrick)," he says.

It's a blessing, but a weighty one.

"The burden is that it's never enough," Elson says. "I don't know when it's enough for him. ... But as long as I'm feeling good, and I can get a job, I'm gonna keep going."

Just like he did when he couldn't get cleared.

"If I couldn't play I couldn't play. But when I got the green light to play, I was going to play until I died. I would say, 'OK, if I die on the court, then I'll die on the court.' "

Elson is 34 now, and has never averaged more than 5 points a game.

But he's not done.

Not yet.

"Me and my brother never really talked about playing pro. I never really thought about (it)," he says softly. "It was just trying to prove something to him. I'm doing this for him, basically saying, 'This is for you, man.'

"Everything I want to do, everything I achieve or accomplish, is because he's pushing me. There's nobody else. There's only one person that's pushing me, and that's him. That's how I feel."

E-mail: tbuckley@desnews.com

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