Some of them didn’t even get the chance to play in the NBA. Some of them were only able to scratch the surface of their potentials as NBA players. Some of them were entering the NBA’s stardom. But each and every one of them had much more to offer than they were given a chance to. Here’s a list of 10 NBA players who left us too soon before fully showing their talents to the NBA world.
He was supposed to be the one to give Michael Jordan a run for his money. But as fate would have it, Len Bias never got the chance to compete against the best. Just two days after he was drafted by the Boston Celtics, a 22-year-old University of Maryland star collapsed in his Washington Hall dormitory suite on the College Park campus. Two hours later, he was pronounced dead.
An autopsy revealed that “an unusually pure dose of cocaine” triggered a heart failure, “interrupting the normal electrical control of his heartbeat, resulting in the sudden onset of seizures and cardiac arrest.” Bias stood no chance. He was supposed to be the next guy to take the NBA by storm. Instead, he was gone, way too soon.
Unlike Bias, Reggie Lewis got to showcase his talent on basketball’s biggest stage. He was six years into his NBA run, was already an All-Star, and one of the best performers at the shooting guard position. But unfortunately, that’s where it ended.
On July 27, 1993, at the age of 27, Lewis collapsed and went into cardiac arrest. Attempts to resuscitate him at the scene were unsuccessful. A Celtics captain was dead on the spot.
This happened months after Reggie collapsed during their first-round matchup against the Hornets. He underwent a battery of heart tests and was diagnosed with a career-ending heart disorder. Lewis later received a second, somewhat less serious diagnosis that allowed him to get back playing basketball. But we never got to see him wear #35 for the Celtics, and no one ever will. The number was retired by Boston in ’95, as a tribute to a gone-to-soon Maryland native.
LeBron James called him “the best European player ever.” He’s universally recognized as one of the best shooters in NBA history. He was one of the first Europeans to make a successful transition from Europe to the NBA. He paved the way for all who followed. And still, Dražen Petrović never fully realized his potential as a basketball player. His doors closed on him, way too soon.
On June 7th, 1993, Petrović passed away in a fatal car accident on the Autobahn in Bavaria. He was traveling home to Zagreb, Croatia, from the qualifying tournament for the European basketball championships in Wroclaw, Poland. Instead of flying home with the team, Petro decided to drive home with his new girlfriend, Klara Szalantzy, and her friend Hilal Edebal. At the moment of impact, Dražen was sleeping in the passenger’s seat. He died on the spot.
The Mozart of Basketball was inducted posthumously into The Hall of Fame in ’02. With a three-point percentage of .437, he’s still No.4 on the NBA’s list for 3-Pt Field Goal Pct. And he could’ve done so much more. If only he had flown.
“With the first pick of the 1990 NBA Draft, the New Jersey Nets select Hank Gathers from Loyola Marymount.”
According to most scouts and GMs in the NBA at the time, that’s what David Stern should’ve said. Instead, the Nets took Derrick Coleman. Hank Gathers wasn’t on the board. He died in a West Coast Conference tournament semifinal game after collapsing from a heart condition on March 4th, 1990. An autopsy showed that the Loyola Marymount star didn’t take his prescribed medicine for at least eight hours before his death. He passed away due to heart muscle disorder, with no illegal substances found in his body.
Gathers had led the country in both scoring and rebounding. He was the focal point of coach Paul Westhead’s offensive system. “He was Amare Stoudemire before there was an Amare Stoudemire.” And he never got the chance to showcase his talent in the NBA.
Praised as one of the funniest basketball players at the time, Wendell Ladner was the nomad of the ABA. A 6-5 forward played for five different teams over the course of just five seasons. He was a 2x All-Star, ’74 ABA champ, and a solid all-around contributor no matter where he played. But like everyone else on this list, Ladner didn’t get the chance to maximize his basketball talents.
On June 24th, 1975, Wendell boarded the plane from New Orleans to New York City. Nearing NY, the weather caused the plane to malfunction, causing a crash that killed 113 of 124 people on board. Unfortunately, a 26-year-old Ladner wasn’t among the survivors. Due to the nature of the crash, the Nets forward wasn’t identified on the spot. However, a ’74 championship ring confirmed that Wendell was one of the victims of the horrific crash.
The Nets paid tribute to Ladner by retiring his number four jersey since that fateful day. Despite being a journeyman in the ABA, that’s where Wendell Ladner left his biggest mark.
“He was competitive as hell,” said Mike Fratello, who was an assistant coach with the Hawks during Terry Furlow’s tenure in Atlanta. “He’d fight you in a game, and he understood the toughness of the NBA. There were some other things that he just couldn’t get past.”
Unfortunately, those other things cost Furlow his life. On May 23, 1980, he was killed in a car accident in Ohio, after he crashed into a pole with his ’79 Mercedes Benz. An autopsy later discovered he had illegal substances in his bloodstream after a long night of partying in Cleveland with his former Cavaliers teammate Clarence Walker. Terry stood no chance.
His four-year run in the NBA was cut short. The trajectory he was on, it seemed like Furlow was just scratching the surface of the player he could’ve become. He was coming off a career year with the Jazz, where he averaged 16 points and 4 assists in 55 games played. It seemed like, after years of bouncing around the league, he had finally found his place in the sun. But it wasn’t meant to be. Furlow died at the age of 25, and he had so much more to give to the NBA world.
Kenny Smith described Ricky Berry as “Reggie Miller with a handle.” Former Kings forward Henry Turner called him “Peja Stojaković before Peja Stojaković.” Longtime Chicago Bulls college scout Dave Bollwinkel saw him as a perennial All-Star. But it was all in vain.
Ricky took his life at the age of 24. His wife Valerie found him on the floor of the family room with a gunshot wound to his head. A suicide note was found at the scene offering Berry’s explanation on why he did what he did. The note began with Ricky telling his parents, younger sister, Pam, and Valerie that he loved them. He also added that the suicide “could have been avoided,” but the frustrations with “the little things” in his struggling marriage were why he took his life.
Berry was coming off his rookie campaign, where he averaged 11 points in 64 games played. It was enough for the entire NBA community to see the potential a kid from Michigan State University had. But Ricky decided against maximizing his basketball talents. He decided he’s had enough. The NBA world can’t say the same.
After years of wandering, it seemed like Bobby Phills finally found his groove in the NBA. A second-round pick from the ’91 NBA Draft established himself as one of the key contributors for the Charlotte Hornets and even had an NBA All-Defensive Second Team selection to his name. But his NBA story had a tragic end to it.
On January 12, 2000, Bobby was involved in a car crash after reportedly racing with teammate David Wesley at more than 75 mph. The Hornets’ guard lost control of his 1997 Porsche 993 Cabriolet and collided head-on with a vehicle heading towards him. Phills was killed instantly, and two people in vehicles involved in an accident were hospitalized.
Stunned and tearful teammates and Charlotte’s officials gathered at the accident scene. Minutes earlier, Phills had been practicing for Wednesday night’s game against the Bulls. The next day, his teammates were saying goodbye to him, along with an entire NBA community.
Five months after Bobby Phills died in a car crash, the Timberwolves’ forward Malik Sealy was killed in a head-on collision in a Minneapolis suburb. Malik was on his way home from Kevin Garnett’s 24th birthday party when his Range Rover got hit by a Dodge pickup driven by 43-year-old Souksangouane Phengsene.
Sealy’s death left the Timberwolves organization in shock. “He was a wonderful person who touched everybody in a special way. We are a tight-knit family, and we are suffering right now,” T-Wolves coach Flip Saunders said. The NBA paid tribute to Sealy by holding a moment of silence before a Western Conference final playoff game between the Lakers and the Trail Blazers. Years later, Kevin Garnett did the same by changing his jersey number from 5 to 2 and getting a tattoo with Malik’s name on his right arm. KG paid tribute to his late friend and the guy he looked up to throughout the entirety of his NBA campaign.
Over his 8-year-run in the association, Sealy averaged 10.1 PPG, 3.2 RPG, and 1.7 APG. He was 29 when the fatal crash took place. Malik’s best basketball years were ahead of him. But unfortunately, fate wanted otherwise.
Bryce Dejean-Jones is the only active NBA player to die in the past decade. The former New Orleans Pelican was fatally shot after breaking down the door to a Dallas apartment on May 28, 2016.
23-year-old was visiting his ex-girlfriend for his daughter’s first birthday. The two got into an argument, after which Jones went for a walk. He returned hours later, but unfortunately, went to the wrong apartment. He was banging on the door before finally kicking them open. The resident thought someone was breaking in and shot the intruder, causing Jones to die due to a gunshot wound to the abdomen.
Bryce appeared in 14 games for the Pelicans. He averaged 5.6 points, 3.4 rebounds, and 1.1 assists before suffering a season-ending wrist injury. A week prior to undergoing wrist surgery, the Pelicans signed Dejean-Jones to a partially guaranteed three-year contract. But he never got the chance to play it out.