San Antonio Spurs forward Sean Elliott, who underwent a kidney transplant last summer, was hospitalized four days the week before Christmas with a flu-like illness. That hospital stay and recovery period afterward hurt his conditioning, which he had been trying to improve in an effort to return to the Spurs this season.

"It sets me back a lot," Elliott said yesterday. "It was just one of the speed bumps that I had to face."

On Sunday, Elliott ran with his teammates. He was on the court again briefly yesterday, but didn't participate in practice. He also has been lifting weights recently.

Before getting sick, Elliott was cleared by doctors for "friendly contact" on the practice court.

Elliott, 31, received a kidney from his 32-year-old brother, Noel, in August. Elliott had a condition called focal segmental glomerular sclerosis, an illness that prevents the kidneys from properly filtering waste from the blood.

He played with the worsening condition but kept quiet about its seriousness as the Spurs won the NBA championship last season. Elliott's three-point shot as he was falling out of bounds was crucial in the Spurs' sweep of Portland in the Western Conference finals.

A return to professional sports after a kidney transplant would be unprecedented. Elliott is determined to do it.

Although he had wanted to make a comeback by midseason, now he won't offer a specific time.


Mets Release Bonilla

The Mets placed OF Bobby Bonilla on unconditional release waivers after he agreed to defer some of the $5.9 million he's owed over the next two seasons. Bonilla, who will be 37 this season, hit only .160 last year with four home runs and 18 RBI in 119 at-bats. . . .

Richie Phillips's Major League Umpires Association starts its effort today to overturn the election it lost two months ago. Phillips's group goes to the National Labor Relations Board, which is holding a hearing to consider the MLUA's request for a new election. . . .

The Major League Baseball Players Association filed a grievance against Commissioner Bud Selig. The union was angered when Selig decided last month not to make a free agent of Dodgers 3B Adrian Beltre. While Selig concluded Beltre was under the age minimum of 16 when the Dodgers signed him in 1994, he ruled Beltre made his claim for free agency too late. . . .

The Brewers hired former Blue Jays manager Tim Johnson as an advance scout. Johnson, 50, managed the Blue Jays to an 88-74 record and a third-place finish in the AL East in 1998. The Blue Jays fired Johnson last March after it was discovered that he lied about his experience in Vietnam. He never served in Vietnam. . . .

The Orioles signed RHP Jose Mercedes to a minor league contract. Mercedes, 29, has an 11-15 record and 4.54 earned run average in parts of five seasons with the Brewers, but spent 1999 at Class AAA, going 5-9 with a 3.70 ERA. He started his career in the Orioles organization. . . .

Shortstop Tony Batista agreed to a $16 million, four-year contract with Blue Jays.


Sweden Tops U.S.

The United States team of Alexandra Stevenson and James Blake didn't win a set in losing, 3-0, to Sweden in its first round-robin match at the Hopman Cup in Perth, Australia. Asa Carlsson, who had won only one set in eight previous singles matches in the mixed team competition, broke a Hopman Cup losing streak in beating Stevenson, 6-4, 6-4. Jonas Bjorkman then held off a late rally by Blake, the 1999 No. 1-ranked U.S. college player, in winning, 6-3, 7-5.

The Swedes then took the doubles, 6-3, 6-3.

Winter Sports

Lajunen Upsets Vik

Samppa Lajunen of Finland upset Olympic and world champion Bjarte Engen Vik of Norway to win a "sprint" Nordic combined World Cup competition in Oberwiesenthal, Germany. The victory extended Lajunen's overall World Cup lead over Vik. Lajunen, with three season victories, has 670 points, while Vik has 595.


Czechs Defeat U.S.

The Czech Republic discovered several Team USA defensive lapses on film, then exploited them to beat the Americans, 4-1, and qualify for the final of the World Junior Ice Hockey Championship in Stockholm. The Czech Republic will play Russia, a 3-2 winner over Canada, in today's final.


Rally for Redskins

A rally to celebrate the Washington Redskins' NFC East championship will be held today at 5 p.m. at Union Station, featuring the team's band, cheerleaders and some players. There will be a contest for the best banner, with the winner being awarded $2,000 by the team, as well as four tickets and transportation to each of the team's playoff games and a trip to the Super Bowl, regardless of which teams advance.