There are few things as shocking as when a professional athlete passes away during their career. Athletes commit their life to a healthy and fit lifestyle where they exercise every single day, so to see them pass away at such a young age is truly tragic and it serves a reminder as to how fragile life can be. Throughout NBA history there have unfortunately been a number of different instances where players have died during their career. This is shocking for fans of the entire sport, the league, the team for which they play, coaching staff and teammates. It of course impacts nobody more than the family, friends and loved ones of the individual. These athletes are never forgotten in the sport that they loved, and their impact can still be felt around the league today.
The causes of these tragic deaths will always differ, and much like real life it will often be completely unexpected and unpreventable. Some athletes carry heart defects which are only identified after they unfortunately pass away, and across all sports you are now seeing more testing being carried out to pick up on these defects so that they can be properly treated. Not all of these tragic deaths are related to underlying health issues however, and there have been some cases of sudden accidents, drug use and suicide. Life can be cruel and shocking, and sometimes we put athletes on such a pedestal that we forget that they are in fact human after all.
Here are 15 NBA players who passed away during their careers. They may be gone, but they are certainly not forgotten.
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15 Fernando Martin
A remarkable all-around athlete, Fernando Martin is considered to be one of Spain’s greatest basketball players and was also the first Spaniard to enter the NBA (1986). Due to injuries, Martin would unfortunately only play 24 games for the Blazers, and at the conclusion of the season he decided to return to his former team in Spain, Real Madrid. On December 3rd, 1989, Martin died in a traffic accident at just 27 years old, stunning the entire basketball world and particularly in Spain. During his time with Real Madrid, Martin won four leagues, three Copa del Rey’s, two Saporta Cups, a Korac Cup and a Club World Cup. He has since been enshrined at the FIBA Hall of Fame.
14 Terry Furlow
Terry Furlow is one of the top players to come out of Michigan, and he is placed 7th on the Michigan State Spartans all-time scoring list as well as being the only Spartan to drop 50 points in one game. He was the 12th pick in the 1976 draft by the 76ers, and would be traded to Cleveland where he would spend a season and a half. He was traded to the Hawks in 1979, and halfway through the season he would be traded to the Jazz where he averaged a career high 16 PPG. On the 23rd of May, 1980, Furlow crashed his car into a pole in Ohio and was killed in the incident. It is suspected that he was using cocaine at the time.
13 Conrad McRae
Coming out of Syracuse, Conrad McRae was selected by the Washington Bullets in the 2nd round of the 1993 draft. He failed to make the team and instead went on to find success in Europe and starred at several big clubs. In 1999, the Nuggets signed McRae to a 10 day contract, but after he twice collapsed during practice this was terminated. A year later, he was playing for the Orlando Magic summer league team and would suffer a fatal heart attack on court during practice. McRae was just 29 years old.
12 Robert Traylor
Robert Traylor, nicknamed “Tractor Traylor” due to his enormous frame, was the 6th pick in the 1998 draft. He would go on to play with the Bucks, Cavaliers, Hornets and then back to the Cavaliers before going over to play overseas (Spain, Puerto Rico, Turkey, Italy and Mexico). Throughout his career he had struggled with his weight, and even had surgery on his heart in 2005. Traylor would sadly lose his life in 2011, after he had suffered a heart attack in his home in Puerto Rico. He was talking to his wife on the phone when it happened, seeing the connection being lost and this led his wife to alert team officials to investigate. Traylor was a gentle giant and this made him a fan favorite during his time in the NBA.
11 Pete Maravich
Although Pete Maravich was retired at the time of his passing, he was still shockingly young and passed away doing the thing he loved the most. The NBA legend, pioneer and Hall of Famer had a dazzling career and had his jersey retired by both the Jazz and New Orleans, but he would retire after just 10 seasons due to knee injuries. A few years after his retirement, at the age of 40, Maravich collapsed and died whilst playing a pick up game at a church in Pasadena, California. The autopsy revealed that Maravich was carrying a rare congenital defect where he was born with no left coronary artery, and this caused his right coronary artery to compensate and this left it consequently grossly enlarged. “Pistol” Pete’s impact on the NBA can still be felt today, as every single point guard will have drawn inspiration from this revolutionary player.
10 Bobby Phills
Bobby Phills spent time in the Continental Basketball Association, Spain and in the NBA, but he would sadly only have a 9-year career which was cut short on January 12th, 2000. As a member of the Hornets, Phills was killed in a car accident after he and teammate David Wesley were driving at speeds of over 75 mph, which police reports later deemed to be “erratic”. Phills’ Porsche spun out of control and crossed into oncoming traffic, causing a collision with two other cars. The two other drivers recovered, whilst Phills was pronounced dead at the scene. His jersey was retired by the Hornets, making him the first player to have his jersey retired by the franchise. In 2014, the newly-renamed Hornets re-hung his jersey at the Time Warner Cable Arena.
9 Jason Collier
Jason Collier was selected with the 15th pick of the 2000 draft, and would go on to play for the Houston Rockets and Atlanta Hawks. During the 2005 offseason whilst he was with the Hawks, Collier suddenly died in his home after having difficulty breathing. An autopsy later revealed that Collier had an enlarged heart, and about one and a half times larger than it should have been even for a man of his size (seven feet). Collier was only 28 years old and had a wife and young daughter.
8 Lorenzen Wright
Lorenzen Wright’s death remains shrouded in mystery, with the case being investigating as homicide. Wright was the 7th pick in the 1996 draft and was selected by the Clippers. He would also play for the Hawks, Grizzlies, Kings and Cavaliers, spending 13 seasons in the league and proving himself to be a valuable asset. He announced his retirement in 2009, and on the 18th of July 2010, he left his ex-wife’s house in Tennessee and was never seen or heard from again. His body was found 10 days later in a wooded area, and it was revealed that a 911 call was made from his phone the day after he went missing, with the dispatcher stating that gunshots were made during the call. The case has never been solved.
7 Nick Vanos
The death of Nick Vanos is a great tragedy and it also saw 155 other people lose their lives that day. Vanos had played two seasons with the Phoenix Suns at the center position, and during the summer of 1987 he and his fiancée boarded a flight from Detroit to Phoenix after visiting his parents. The flight would never make it, crashing shortly after takeoff and killing 154 passengers and crew plus two motorists. Vanos had just recently taken great strides both as a person and a player, making him a fan favorite in Phoenix.
6 Malik Sealy
Malik Sealy was selected by the Pacers with the 14th pick in the 1992 draft. He would play for the Pacers, Clippers and Pistons before joining the Timberwolves in 1999. On May 20th, 2000, Sealy was driving home from best-friend and teammate Kevin Garnett’s 24th birthday party, when a drunk driver on the wrong side of the road crashed into Sealy in his SUV. The driver suffered head and chest injuries, and would be given a four-year prison term. The Timberwolves retired Sealy’s no.2, and Garnett got a tattoo of Sealy’s name on his right arm and changed his number to Sealy’s when he joined the Nets in 2013.
5 Ricky Berry
The death of Ricky Berry remains somewhat of a mystery. After a successful rookie season with the Kings, Berry showed great potential and was expected to have a bright future in the league, but in the 1989 offseason just weeks before his 25th birthday, Berry was found dead in his home from a self-inflicted gunshot wound. He had left a suicide note and was arguing with his wife, but there is still plenty of mystery surrounding his tragic passing. He had a bright future ahead of him, he was earning a lot of money, had a nice house and car, a beautiful wife and was clear of drugs and alcohol.
4 Eddie Griffin
The shocking and tragic story of Eddie Griffin’s death stunned the entire NBA and sporting world. The standout performer at college was touted to be one of the next great players in the NBA, but he was clearly a troubled soul and this would plague his NBA career. He started his career brightly in Houston, but he struggled with alcoholism which caused him to miss the entire 2003-04 season as he entered rehab. He was picked up by the Timberwolves in 2004 and began to show promise, but in 2006 he crashed his car whilst intoxicated and would be later released by the Timberwolves.
In 2007, Griffin died after ignoring a railroad warning and driving through a barrier onto the tracks where his car was then hit by a moving train. Griffin had to be identified through dental records and he had more than three times the legal alcohol amount in his system. During his career several people tried to help Griffin, but he was clearly battling demons and was just 25 years old when he passed.
3 Reggie Lewis
Reggie Lewis was becoming a star for the Boston Celtics after being drafted by them in 1987, and even became an all-star in 1992. He tragically suffered a cardiac arrest on the court during an offseason practice in 1993, causing him to lose his life at 27 years old. Lewis had collapsed during what would be his last ever NBA game, falling down with nobody around him during a playoff game against the Hornets just months earlier. His cause of death was later attributed to hypertrophic cardiomyopathy, which is considered to be the most common cause of death in young athletes. Lewis’s jersey was retired by the Celtics during a ceremony in 1995, with teammate Dee Brown making a speech.
2 Drazen Petrovic
The impact that Drazen Petrovic had on the NBA can still be felt today, as the Croatian played a key role in paving the way for European players to make the jump to the NBA. He was a star in Europe and internationally before joining the NBA in 1989, and he would set the league alight and many consider him to be one of the all-time great shooters. Petrovic tragically died in a car crash in the summer of 1993 at 28 years old, just after his best season in the NBA. The accident occurred in Germany after meeting up with his national team, and the Nets would retire his jersey later that year.
1 Len Bias
Nearly 30 years after his tragic death, there are still “what if?” questions surrounding Len Bias. The star coming out of Maryland was touted to be one of the greats and was said to be the “closest thing to Michael Jordan.” Bias was then selected with the 2nd pick in the 1986 draft by the Celtics, but he would unfortunately never grace the hardwood in the NBA. Just two days after the draft, Bias was back on campus at Maryland and would pass away from a cardiac arrhythmia induced by a cocaine overdose. He has been inducted into the Maryland Hall of Fame and Boston hung his jersey from the rafters, making him the only player to have his jersey retired without playing an NBA game.
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