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The sad story of Reggie Harding -- the first player to skip college straight for the NBA

Reggie Harding was the first player to skip college and enter the NBA, Sadly, bad decisions doomed his once-promising career.
Reggie Harding

Reggie Harding

Reggie Harding had a rough childhood, and that haunted him throughout his adult life. Here’s the story of the man once touted as the next Wilt Chamberlain and Bill Russell.

Reggie Harding’s potential

In 1963, the Indiana Pacers made history by making Reggie Harding the first player to skip college to play in the NBA. His drafting wasn’t based on his talents alone but because of eligibility issues. He led Eastern High School to three straight championships, further boosting his stock as one of the most promising young big men out there. Standing at 7’0” and weighing 250 pounds, Reggie played beyond his age. Unfortunately, he became a problem for the opposing team and even his squad.

Reggie applied for the draft in 1962, but his eligibility was questioned because of a rule that high school players who wanted to skip college could go to the NBA after sitting out a year. When he finally played in the pros, his impact was immediately felt. Legendary Boston Celtics head coach Red Auerbach couldn’t help but heap praise on the youngster.

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"Say what they want to about all the fine, big fellows coming out of college in 1964, but the Pistons already have a guy who probably will outshine them all,” Auerbach said.

However, his hype was short-lived. The big man’s poor decisions would soon catch up with him. What was once a promising talent would turn into the poster child of one of basketball’s greatest lessons.

Reggie Harding’s downfall

Sleeping through practices and missing flights were considered a light offense for the Detroit, Michigan native. Harding was charged with assault and battery against a policeman, prompting the NBA to suspend him. 

When he returned after a hiatus, Reggie played like an NBA-caliber player. Dave DeBusschere even called him the 5th best big man in the league after Wilt Chamberlain, Bill Russell, Walt Bellamy, and Nate Thurmond. However, the troubles would continue to persist. He threatened to shoot his teammate once and threatened to kill his general manager, an offense that would put the nail in the coffin of his NBA career.

Harding struggled with drug addiction and was arrested 11 times. The center also allegedly raped a girl in high school. He died in 1972 after being shot twice in the head. At that time, there were still no adequate counseling resources and mental health services. Something like that could've saved his life.

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