Ralph Sampson was on the cover of Sports Illustrated five times in his college career alone. The 7’ 4” towering center was one of only two players (the other being UCLA’s Bill Walton) to win the Naismith Player of the Year award three time. However, as Chuck Klosterman wonderfully put it, “Ralph was the best college basketball player I ever saw with my own eyes, thus beginning my lifelong relationship with being wrong about things I’m totally confident about.”
Only a few years later, a skinny 6’ 2” point guard out of The University of Indiana poured in 23 of his school record 2,438 career points to lead his team to victory in the 1987 National Championship Game. Legendary coach Bob Knight later said of Steve Alford that the skinny 6’ 2” star point guard got “more out of his ability offensively than anybody I've ever seen.”
It was perhaps of no surprise therefore that Alford wasn’t taken in that summer’s NBA draft until the second round, selected 26th overall by the Dallas Mavericks, while Sampson was a #1 overall pick in 1983 to the Houston Rockets. Full of low expectations and extremely high expectations respectively (pun intended!), their divergent NBA career paths are now united today by one ignominious standard.
They, along with a baker’s dozen of others, are in our list below as we look back at 15 College Stars Who Were NBA Busts: Where Are They Now?
16 Pervis Ellison
Before John Calipari was re-loading his Kentucky teams annually with the nation’s best freshmen or Syracuse’s Carmelo Anthony was dismantling the favored University of Kansas squad full of upperclassmen (and future NBAers) in the 2003 NCAA title game, Pervis Ellison was taking the nation by storm and leading the Louisville Cardinals to become the 1980 champions. "Never Nervous Pervis" had 25 points and 11 rebounds in the final win over Duke, becoming along the way the first freshman in NCAA history to be named the Final Four's Most Outstanding Player.
Ellison was drafted #1 overall by the Sacramento Kings in 1989 and got better in each of his first three seasons, peaking with 20 points and 11.2 rebounds per game for the 1991-92 Washington Bullets. By the ripe age of 26 however, succumbing to injuries, he was contributing mostly from the bench, and after five straight years of barely getting on the court he finally retired in 2001. Not surprisingly, Ellison’s pro-nickname was not nearly as grand as his college one. Teammate Danny Ainge dubbed him “Out-of-Service Pervis.”
Ellison now goes by another nickname: “Coach.” He led his son Malik’s youth basketball team, and then brought many of his players along with his boy to form the nucleus of a high school squad at Life Center Academy in Burlington, NJ. Malik is now in his sophomore year at St. John’s as a 6’ 6” guard. And no, he hasn’t made the NCAA tournament… yet.
15 Jay Williams
The night before Jay Williams played his first game ever for Duke University — in Madison Square Garden at the Coaches vs. Cancer Classic — he slept in the Marriott Marquis high above Times Square. In a dream, he found himself dizzy and realizing he was about to crash into something and then… he woke up.
Unfortunately, real life wasn’t so kind for Williams, who suffered a horrific motorcycle accident on June 19, 2003, ending his NBA career just one season. A star with the Blue Devils, Williams won the Naismith and John Wooden award as a senior, following a junior year in which he became the first Dukie to lead the ACC in scoring since Danny Ferry in 1989, on the way to a National Championship. He was picked #2 overall by the Chicago Bulls in the 2002 draft and was named Second-Team All-Rookie after scoring 9.5 points and gifting 4.7 assists per game.
After battling depression for years, Williams now lives in Durham, the site of his former glory, with his mother and a Rottweiler named Heaven. He is an analyst for ESPN and recently made headlines for calling out his former coach, Mike Krzyzewski, and the team for only sitting star Grayson Allen out for one game when he tripped an opposing player for the third time in his career.
Williams’ book, titled “Life Is Not an Accident: A Memoir of Reinvention,” was published in January, 2016. “I hope people remind me of my accident every day of my life,” he said. “Because that means I’m a prime example of somebody who had it and lost everything and may not have gotten it back in the same capacity but still reinvented myself.”
14 Mateen Cleaves
The Flint, Michigan native seemed to be living a blessed existence when the hometown Detroit Pistons drafted him 14th overall in the 2000 NBA Draft, right after he played a starring role just down the road for the Michigan State Spartans as the only three-time All-American in the history of the school. The point guard still holds the Big Ten record for career assists with 816, set the single-season record as a junior with 274, and dramatically returned from a first half ankle injury in his final game as a senior to led the team to the 2000 NCAA Championship. Mateen Cleaves (Pictured Right) was not as successful in the NBA however, as after playing a strong bench role in his rookie year with the Pistons, he drifted with limited playing time among three other teams in five seasons before calling it quits in 2006.
Unfortunately, the “Hero of Flint” is, allegedly, not such a hero anymore. A judge recently did dismiss charges for unlawful imprisoning and sexually assaulting a 24-year-old woman in an area motel in his hometown in 2015, but the Wayne County Prosecutor’s Office plans to appeal. If found guilty, Cleaves faces up to 15 years in prison.
In the meantime, he continues to work as a studio analyst for Inside College Basketball on CBS. There is no word yet on whether the accusations will effect his job status.
13 Bobby Hurley
You can’t talk about the NCAA’s greatest point guards of all time without mentioning Bobby Hurley, still the record holder in career assists. He was also a proven winner, helping his team to the NCAA Championship three times, and claiming victory twice, in 1991 and 1992, when he was the Final Four’s Most Outstanding Player. Hurley was drafted seventh overall by the Sacramento Kings in 1993 and averaged six assists a game in a starting role in his rookie season. He was made a back-up the next year however and while he remained a solid ball handler during his five year career, he offered little else.
Hurley has brought his reputation built on his NCAA playing days for toughness, smarts, and a relentless drive to win to his new job: Coach. After assisting his brother at Wagner College in 2010, Hurley quickly graduated to Head Coach at the University of Buffalo, where he led them to their first NCAA tournament appearance in school history in 2015, playing #5 seed West Virginia tough before succumbing 68-62 int he 1st Round. Hired by Arizona State University that offseason, he has made headlines in his first year and a half there for calling his team’s lack of effort “embarrassing”, being ejected late in his first game against rival Arizona for arguing with officials, and, perhaps truest to form of all, already having his contract extended through the 2021 season. He’s definitely back where he belongs in the college basketball world.
12 Phil Ford
Phil Ford was the class of the storied University of North Carolina program when he played there from 1974-1978, and somehow managed to become one of only three players in ACC history to rack up 2,000 points and 600 assists without drawing much attention to himself. Drafted second overall by the Kansas City Kings, the 6’ 2” point guard would however sadly be one of the busts of the 1978 class.
He was a hit at first, helping the team to a whopping 17 win improvement in on the way to being named Rookie of the Year in 1978-79, but slowly saw his play and the team’s performance decline in the following seasons before being traded to the New Jersey Nets in 1982. He bottomed out averaging only two points per game in 1984-85 in what would be his final season at just 28 years old. He returned to North Carolina in 1988 and remained for thirteen years as an assistant coach and then was a Charlotte Bobcats assistant for three plus seasons in the late 2000s. He is also a public speaker, is involved in vitamin sales, and founded the Phil Ford Foundation to fight childhood obesity. He was inducted into the National Collegiate Basketball Hall of Fame in 2012.
Ford made recent headlines for his endorsement of Democratic Candidate for Governor Roy Cooper and coming out against the controversial House Bill 2, which limits anti-discriminatory protections for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people. Cooper went on to be elected to office in a tight race last fall.
10 Scott May
Averaging 23.5 points per game in his senior year in 1975, Scott May led the Indiana Hoosiers to a perfect season. No Men’s NCAA Basketball team has done so since. Nearly thirty years later, Sean May, Scott’s son, won the national title with UNC in 2005, making them only the third father-son duo to both win the NCAA championship. While college basketball success is clearly in the blood, NBA success has been more allusive for the Mays. The elder, a 6’ 7” small forward, was drafted 2nd overall by the Chicago Bulls in the 1976 draft, and became a First-Team All-Rookie after averaging 14.6 points and pulling down 6.1 rebounds per game in leading the team to a 20 win improvement from the prior season. Unfortunately, those numbers would serve as career highs and May was out of the league after just seven years. Sean, like his father, was also a lottery selection, taken thirteenth by the Charlotte Bobcats in 2005, and then lasted just five seasons.
But both men have been far more successful in their second careers. In the late 1970s Steve Ferguson, Scott May's attorney, suggested that he buy apartment units around the Indiana campus. He now owns more than a thousand apartments in Bloomington. Sean, meanwhile, is currently UNC’s director of player personnel.
When Bob Knight, Scott May’s former coach, was fired in 2000, he declined invitations to return to Indiana University. Father and son were in the crowd early in 2016 however, when Sean helped convince his dad to return for the 40-year reunion of the undefeated squad. “He decided to go – for his teammates,” Sean said. In sports, one has more than one family.
9 Butch Lee
Before Carmelo Anthony wore his half-Puerto Rican heritage with pride in a 2003 run through the NCAA tournament, native son Butch Lee led the Marquette Warriors to the 1977 National Championship (the team did not adopt the Golden Eagles moniker until 1994). With the score tied in the Final Four against North Carolina-Charlotte, the point guard memorably zipped a full-court pass to Jerome Whitehead for a buzzer beater before scoring 19 points in the Final to earn the tournament’s Most Outstanding Player. Lee would also go on to be the Naismith College Player of the Year in 1978 but the team would be upset in the tournament’s first round.
The NBA’s first Latino player, he was drafted 10th overall by the Atlanta Hawks, but only played two NBA seasons, bouncing between three teams, before retiring in 1980 due to injuries. He now resides back in Puerto Rico and has had some success coaching in their professional league known as the BSN, including taking a team to the finals. Now with three sons, two of who are playing youth basketball, he continues to coach, now with the Puerto Rico Guaynado Basketball Academy.
8 Jimmer Fredette
Jimmer Fredette dropped 51 points earlier this season, and has earned the nickname “Lonely God” on the way to averaging over 35 points per game. Unfortunately, the former 10th overall pick in the 2011 Draft by the Milwaukee Bucks was doing all this not in the NBA but in the CBA: Chinese Basketball Assocation. The most recent college star to already turn NBA bust, Fredette is trying to work his way back.
As a man who poured in a career high 52 in one if his final games as a senior at BYU on the way to leading the nation in scoring at 28.9 points per game and winning the 2011 John Wooden Award, its perhaps no surprise he is convinced he will return. "I think that the biggest thing is to find a coach and a team that believe in me and believe enough in my abilities to put me out there on a night-in and night-out basis," he opines. "I can provide a spark and be a good bench player for someone in this league."
Prior to the move to China, Fredette played Summer League ball for the Denver Nuggets, and makes his full-time home in Littleton, Colorado with his wife (a native of the state).
7 Walter Berry
Walter Berry was one of the best players ever in two different collegiate environments - first at junior college at Jacinto and then becoming a John Wooden Award winner at St. John’s - earning him the nickname, “The Truth.” He was an electric player who seemed to only score by driving to the hoop and finishing always with his left hand, never his right, traits that perhaps predictably did not lead to NBA success. Drafted 14th overall by the Portland Trailblazers in 1986, they quickly realized his deficiencies and shipped him to the San Antonio Spurs after only a handful of games. He started for two years at San Antonio and average 17.5 points per game, but was subpar defensively. Berry perhaps best summed up his NBA career himself when he described the Spurs bench leader at the time, Larry Brown. “He’s a fundamentally sound coach,” Berry remarked, “and my game does not consist of fundamentals.”
He was out of the league a year later, with rumors abounding that no coach could get along with him. From his words however, his 1989 signing with Basket Napoli in Italy, was “an offer I couldn’t refuse.” He would play international basketball until 2002. “Walt needed to be the man. It’s not like he was selfish, but Walt is not a role player,” says former NBA player Jaren Jackson. “The NBA was stifling to him. They wanted him to be content with a limited role but that’s not Walt’s game.”
At last report, Berry had returned to America and was taking classes to finish his undergraduate degree.
6 Steve Alford
One has to wonder what Steve Alford would have been capable of had the first NCAA season with the three point line not been the senior’s last, nailing seven of his 10 attempts to lead Indiana University to victory in the 1987 National Championship game, and setting a school record for career points that has never been broken without the benefit of the three ball for most of his tenure.
After a short lived four-year NBA tenure from the end of the bench, Alford’s second professional career attempt has been much more successful. He is now coaching for his fifth university, beginning at Manchester, a Division III institution in Indiana, directly after his retirement from his playing days in 1991. He has since progressed to Division I, first with Missouri State, then Iowa, New Mexico, and now, the legendary program at UCLA.
Alford looked like he might have finally reached the limits of his abilities as a coach in Los Angeles, running out a 65-38 record in his first three seasons, the worst overall winning percentage by a coach in the post-John Wooden era. Worse, his son, Bryce, who plays for the Bruins, has been fingered for his role in their down period, as many believe he has been stealing minutes from better players due to his dad’s position.
But Steve Alford may have just saved his job this year, as the team has surprised everyone by being ranked in the top ten nationally for most of the season with Bryce leading the team in scoring. Not bad for a second act.
5 Adam Morrison
The iconic image of “The Stache” remains him breaking down in tears on the court after Gonzaga lost to UCLA in the 2006 Sweet Sixteen, bringing an end to his prolific NCAA career. But we also remember him for his unkempt hair, general eccentricity, and immense talent. The junior led the nation is scoring that season, averaging 28.1 points per game, on his way to sharing the National Player of the Year Award with J.J. Redick. He declared himself eligible shortly thereafter and was taken 3rd overall by the Charlotte Bobcats. He lost his starting spot midway through his rookie year however, and the following preseason tore his ACL and was soon thereafter traded to the Los Angeles Lakers. He picked up two championship rings sitting on the end of the bench watching Kobe Bryant and Pau Gasol before being released in 2010 and never playing another NBA game.
Recently, former Bobcat Jared Dudley revealed that teammates had to force Morrison to take a shower, and shortly thereafter a fellow Gonzaga alum acknowledged a rumor he had an apocalypse bunker stocked with food and guns. It turns out Morrison, who coaches one of his two daughters’ basketball teams, doesn't have a bunker, though he does have a lot of guns and ammo in his basement. In choosing fatherhood over playing overseas (he played one year in Serbia and Istanbul before giving that up) or starting a second career as an analyst or coach, Morrison acknowledges his greatest battle. He has held a life-long battle with Type 1 diabetes, which he was diagnosed with at age 13. He recently had a third child, a son, and plans to be there for the long haul.
4 Frank Selvy
Just who is Frank Selvy? Only three men have average 40 points a game for the entirety of an NCAA Basketball season; Selvy, who starred at Furman University in Greenville, South Carolina from 1951-1954 is one of them. Then there’s this: Frank Selvy and Wilt Chamberlain belong in the same sentence. Just as Wilt is the only player to ever score 100 in a single game in the NBA, Selvy is the only one to do it in the NCAA, a feat he accomplished in his senior year against Newberry College.
The #1 overall selection to the Baltimore Bullets in 1954, he made an All-Star team in his rookie year, but from there forward the 6’3” shooting guard was mostly mediocre. At the age of 29 however, in 1962, Selvy suddenly had a career renaissance, playing 35.5 minutes and averaging 14.7 points per game, both high marks since his first year. But then: Selvy clanked an 18-foot baseline jumper in Game 7 of the Finals that would have lifted his Los Angeles Lakers to victory over the Boston Celtics for the franchise’s first championship.
To this day, he answers the phone to hear “nice shot, Frank!” a click and a dial tone (though an old teammate, Rod "Hot Rod" Hundley swears its always him making a prank call). It took 23 years for the Lakers to finally beat the Celtics for a championship. For his part, Selvy, now 84, was once again back on Furman’s campus for “Legend’s Weekend” earlier this year. After all, he has one game that will never be forgotten there… in a good way.
3 Austin Carr
Austin Carr finished his NCAA career averaging 34.6 point per game for the Notre Dame Fighting Irish, which remains the second highest scoring average in Division I history. He also holds the record for most points in a NCAA tournament game after pouring in 61 against Ohio in 1970, as well as the record for highest scoring average during the tournament (52.7 PPG), though his teams never made it past the Sweet 16.
Taken first overall by the Cleveland Cavaliers in 1971, Carr was First-Team All-Rookie on his way to three straight 20 point per game seasons for the franchise, including being named an All-Star in 1973-74. However, he considerably fell off from there becoming better known for his charity towards his adopted home town than his play. Thanks to those efforts, he was named the winner of the 1979-80 J. Walter Kennedy Citizenship Award in his final year with the club and saw his Cavs jersey retired on Jan. 3, 1981.
He is now the Director of Community and Business Development for the team as well as a full-time analyst for the Cavaliers Television Network.
2 Tyler Hansbrough
“Psycho T” they called the first player to be named first-team All-ACC for all four years of his NCAA career. The North Carolina big man Tyler Hansbrough was also the all-time leading scorer in conference history and the first ACC player to lead his team in scoring and rebounding for four straight seasons. After twice deciding to return to school when the lure of declaring early for the draft was pulling hard, it ended up paying off as Hansbrough rode out in style leading the Tar Heels to the 2009 National Championship.
From collegiate glory to NBA mediocrity, after being picked by the Indiana Pacers as the 13th overall selection in the 2009 draft, “Psycho T” played seven seasons as a hustle player off the bench for three teams, including returning to the state to play with the Charlotte Bobcats last year. He remains an unsigned free agent in the 2016-17 season. The only recent sighting of him we could find? Sitting court side at a recent Tar Heels game. Sorry, Tyler, as much as you may want to, you can’t play for UNC again.
1 Ralph Sampson
The University of Virginia never won a title with their 7’ 4” three-time Naismith Player of the Award winning star, but he was drafted #1 overall by the Houston Rockets in 1983 with expectations of championships to come. And that all seemed to be going great at first, as Sampson began his career with four straight All-Star appearances, and along with the 1984 #1 overall pick Akeem Olajuwon became known as “The Twin Towers,” leading the team to the 1986 NBA Finals (with Ralph hitting the game-winning shot over the Showtime Lakers to send them there). He was dealt to Golden State in December of 1987, and was traded again a year and half later to the Sacramento Kings. His declining career ended with a 10 game stint at the end of the bench for the Washington Bullets in 1991-92 at the age of only 31.
Post-NBA stints saw him briefly an assistant coach at James Madison University, a general manager and coach in the since defunct International Basketball League, and opening businesses such as Sampson Marketing and Sampson Sportswear. He then made headlines in the early 2000s for a tumultuous divorce and two child support cases brought against him, as well as going to jail for mail fraud and further arrests for an auto insurance violation and driving with a suspended license.
In 2012, to the surprise of many, Sampson was inducted into the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame, and was invited back to the NBA to serve in player development for the Phoenix Suns. And earlier this year, Sampson sat court-side and received a standing ovation in celebration of the Houston Rocket’s 50th Anniversary.
If we’ve learned one thing from the stories of these former NCAA stars turned NBA busts its that time certainly seems to heal all wounds.
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