For every uplifting moment in the history of basketball, there is also a dark and painful one marred by tragedy. In the world of sports, it is easy to look upon professional athletes as having a sort of superhuman quality that makes them seem invincible and impervious to harm, but that is simply not the case. Basketball has had many wonderful moments that serve to lift the spirit, but there are many other tragic moments that have caught the basketball world off guard and sent many into unexpected mourning.
Even though we routinely marvel at the athletic talents that enable an individual to seemingly soar gracefully through the air, or stare in amazement at the unbelievable accuracy of a sharp-shooter, these individuals remain all too human and are prone to the same failings that entrap people of every walk of life. Whether it is the result of a health condition or simple reckless behavior, there have been far too frequent tragic moments in basketball, some serving as cautionary tales, while others have become sources of inspiration and hope.
What follows are 15 of the most tragic moments in basketball, moments that forced players, executives and fans alike to consider what is truly important in life and to take stock of their own behavior in order to make positive changes. These tragic moments shocked the basketball world in a number of ways, and while some could have been avoided, many of these moments were unavoidable but shocking nonetheless.
15 Ricky Berry
Berry was the 18th overall selection of the 1988 NBA Draft, taken by the Sacramento Kings following a standout career at San Jose State University. He enjoyed a solid rookie season, averaging 11 points per game while seeing an average of 22 minutes per contest, but his first season would also be his last. Following the season, Berry was found dead from a self-inflicted gunshot wound just a few weeks before his 25th birthday. Berry had a promising career ahead of him, and his suicide came as a shock to teammates who had seen no signs of trouble in Berry.
14 Terry Furlow
Furlow was coming off of his best season as pro in 1980, having just completed a season in which he averaged 13.9 points and 3.9 assists at the age of 25. His pro career would be cut short, however, as Furlow was involved in a fatal car accident while driving on I-71 in Ohio. Furlow, who had been out partying with a former teammate, had Valium in his bloodstream, and three beer cans were found in his car at the time of the crash, according to MLive.com. Furlow is still considered one of the best players to ever come out of Flint, Michigan, a hotbed for basketball talent that has produced many Michigan State stars.
13 Jason Collier
Collier, a seven-footer who played for the Houston Rockets and Atlanta Hawks, died suddenly due to an enlarged heart in 2005. Collier was about to begin his sixth NBA season and third with the Hawks, but the 15th overall pick of the 2000 NBA Draft collapsed and passed away just before the 2005-06 season began. The Hawks wore black armbands for the entirety of that season in honor of their fallen teammate. Collier had a solid 20-game run after joining the Hawks in 2003-04, when he averaged 11.3 points and 5.6 rebounds per game.
12 Eddie Griffin
Griffin was an immensely talented but troubled basketball player. After a standout prep career in which he earned McDonald’s All-American honors, Griffin spent a season at Seton Hall playing under then-coach Tommy Amaker. Following a somewhat contentious freshman year with Seton Hall, Griffin declared for the NBA Draft but slipped to the seventh overall pick due to concerns about his attitude.
Griffin showed flashes of the talent that made him a lottery pick, but after five seasons he appeared on his way out of the NBA. The summer following the 2006-07 NBA season, Griffin was found dead after a collision with a train, and the crash was so brutal that Griffin had to be identified by his dental records. According to reports, Griffin’s blood-alcohol content at the time of the accident was more than three times the legal limit.
11 Malik Sealy
Sealy was in the midst of a solid NBA career when his car was struck by a drunk driver following the 1999-00 season. After stints with the Pacers, Clippers and Pistons, Sealy spent two seasons with the Minnesota Timberwolves, averaging 11.3 points and 4.3 rebounds in the season that would ultimately be his last. The fatal car accident occurred following a birthday party for teammate Kevin Garnett, and Sealy’s SUV was hit by a truck going the wrong way on the highway. Sealy was just 30 years old at the time of his death.
10 Maurice Stokes
Stokes was one of the most talented young players in the NBA in the 1950s, as he was named to three consecutive All-Star teams and was an All-NBA selection in three consecutive seasons as well. During his brief career, Stokes averaged 16.4 points per game and 17.3 rebounds, leading the league in the former during his rookie season in 1955-56 with the Rochester Royals. Unfortunately for Stokes and the NBA, the brilliantly talented forward was knocked out during a game, suffering a head injury that later resulted in his having a seizure that left him paralyzed.
Stokes worked diligently in physical therapy and was able to communicate by blinking, and he was cared for by his friend and teammate Jack Twyman. Though he made progress in physical therapy and regained some movement, his condition worsened and he passed away 12 years after the accident at the age of 36. The NBA recently named an award in his and Twyman’s honor, the Twyman-Stokes Teammate of the Year Award, in 2013.
9 Bobby Phills
Phills was in the midst of a successful NBA career when an automobile accident cut it short in January of 2000. According to a police report filed after the accident, Phills and Charlotte Hornets teammate David Wesley were both driving erratically at speeds in excess of 75 MPH when the fatal accident occurred, with Wesley ultimately being charged with reckless driving. Phills was having a productive season at the time, having averaged 13.6 points per game before the accident took his life at midseason.
8 Jim Valvano
Jimmy V had a long and successful coaching career that included an improbable run to the NCAA Championship in 1983. The footage of Valvano running all over the court in seeming disbelief after the NC State victory while looking for someone to hug is shown every year around tournament time, but it is surely his stirring 1993 speech at the ESPY Awards that he is most remembered for. Valvano passed away from metastatic cancer that same year, but he has left behind a legacy that includes the V Foundation, an organization dedicated to finding a cure for cancer.
7 Pete Maravich
“Pistol Pete” was one of the best scorers in the history of the NCAA, and his incredible ball-handling skills made him a true joy to watch throughout his career. He owns the highest per-game scoring average in NCAA history at 44.2, which is astounding even before considering the fact that there was no three-point line in the NCAA game at the time. Maravich’s pro career was somewhat disappointing, and he struggled in post-retirement before eventually turning to Evangelical Christianity. At the age of 40, Maravich died of heart failure while playing a pickup basketball game in California. It was later discovered that Maravich was missing his left coronary artery, leaving his right coronary artery to be significantly enlarged due to its having to compensate for the missing artery.
6 Benji Wilson
Wilson was a standout prep player that seemed destined for stardom after being ranked the top basketball player in the country in 1984. At 6’9”, Wilson was referred to by his high school coach as “Magic Johnson with a jump shot.” Simeon High School was about to begin defending its state championship when Wilson was shot and killed on the afternoon of November 20, 1984 over a disagreement with a student from another school. Wilson was just 17 years old and was only one day from beginning his senior basketball season. Nick Anderson, who had transferred to Simeon that year, wore Wilson’s number 25 throughout his pro career in honor of his fallen friend.
5 Hank Gathers
Hank Gathers and Loyola Maramount were an offensive juggernaut under then-coach Paul Westhead, with Gathers leading the nation in both scoring and rebounding with 32.7 points and 13.7 rebounds per game during the 1988-89 season. During that season, however, Gathers was diagnosed with an irregular heartbeat after he collapsed on the court during a game. He was given medication and cleared to play in games thereafter, but he would collapse on the court again a few months later. Following an alley-oop dunk, Gathers turned to run back on defense, staggered, and then collapsed due to a hypertrophic cardiomyopathy. Despite attempts to resuscitate him, Gathers passed away at just 23 years of age.
4 University of Evansville Basketball Team
The 1977 University of Evansville Basketball team was involved in one of the greatest tragedies in basketball history due to a devastating plane crash. In total, 14 members of the team and its head coach were killed in the crash, which occurred just minutes after takeoff due to dense fog and rain, according to Aviation-Safety.net. In an odd twist of fate, the lone member of the basketball team who was not on the plane was killed in a car accident just two weeks after the tragic plane crash.
3 Len Bias
Bias, a dominant collegiate player at the University of Maryland, was viewed as a future star when he was drafted by the Boston Celtics with the second overall pick of the 1986 NBA Draft. The two-time ACC Player of the Year would never make it to the professional ranks, however, as he died of an overdose shortly after being selected by the Celtics. Bias had been highly regarded by NBA scouts, with Ed Badger of the Celtics saying, "He's maybe the closest thing to Michael Jordan to come out in a long time. I'm not saying he's as good as Michael Jordan, but he's an explosive and exciting kind of player like that."
2 Drazen Petrovic
Basketball Hall of Famer Drazen Petrovic’s promising career was cut short due to a fatal car accident in Germany during the NBA’s offseason. Just 28 at the time, Petrovic had established himself as one of the game’s best guards and was quite possibly the best shooter in the league at the time. Petrovic had a successful pro career in Europe before coming stateside, as he was named one of FIBA’s 50 Greatest Players in 1991. Before the car accident that took his life, Petrovic had earned All-NBA honors for the first time and seemed destined for a long and productive NBA career with the then-New Jersey Nets.
1 Reggie Lewis
Before Lewis passed away in 1993, he seemed poised to make the Boston Celtics’ transition from the Bird-McHale-Parish era a successful one. The Celtics captain was coming off a season in which he averaged 20.8 points, 4.3 rebounds and 3.7 assists, and he had recently earned his first All-Star appearance in 1992. Lewis, however, collapsed and died during a workout at Brandeis University on July 27th, 1993 due to hypertrophic cardiomyopathy, an event that may have been foreshadowed when Lewis collapsed during a playoff game against the Charlotte Hornets three months before.