It’s always sad to hear that a former NBA player has passed away, as there was always at least one person that really looked up to them. Thankfully, many of them live long enough to the point where they pass away from natural causes and were able to reflect at the impact they made with their careers. Just this year, we have lost NBA legends like Nate Thurmond, Bobby Wanzer and Kenny Sailors, all at ages of over 70.
When we hear that a basketball player has died young, it turns into a tragedy, even moreso when they were still in the middle of their careers. This includes college players that had a big national impact and possible NBA careers in their future. Some of the players that have passed away during their basketball careers include Terry Furlow, Nick Vanos, Ricky Berry and Conrad McRae.
Now, we remember some of the others that have lost their lives before they were able to finish their careers in the NCAA, NBA and even former American greats that lost their lives while playing overseas. Here are 15 basketball players that were gone too soon and what happened to cause their tragic and early losses.
15 Bryce Dejean-Jones
After attending three colleges (with his last stop being Iowa State), Bryce Dejean-Jones went undrafted in 2015. However, he was picked up to play in the D-League for Idaho, and made his NBA debut with the New Orleans Pelicans in 2016, playing in 14 games and averaging 5.6 points per game in that time.
Dejean-Jones passed away earlier this year in Dallas when he was visiting an ex-girlfriend, who is the mother of his daughter. Dejean-Jones and his ex got into an argument, and he left to go for a walk. When he returned, Dejean-Jones had gone on the wrong floor and tried to kick the door open. The resident of the apartment that Dejean-Jones mistakenly entered fired a gun at the basketball player and he was pronounced dead at the hospital. He is the only active NBA player in the past decade to die.
14 Robert Traylor
A former standout at the University of Michigan, Robert “Tractor” Traylor was the sixth overall pick in the 1998 NBA Draft. Traylor played for the Bucks, Cavaliers and Hornets in his NBA career, averaging a total of 4.8 points, 3.7 rebounds and 0.7 blocks per game in seven total seasons.
While Traylor was not in the NBA at the time of his death, he was still playing professionally overseas. In May 2011, Traylor was on the phone with his wife, when suddenly the phone cut out. Panicked, she called police who went to his apartment in Isla Verde, Puerto Rico to find that Traylor had passed away from a heart attack. It was a sudden and tragic loss, as Traylor was just 34 years old.
13 Tyrek Coger
North Carolina native Tyrek Coger was hopeful that he would make a big mark in Division I basketball. Coger had transferred from Cape Fear Community College to Oklahoma State after once committing to Ole Miss. Coger had not played a game for Cape Fear before tragedy struck.
Coger suffered from an enlarged heart and was working out at Boone Pickens Stadium on the Oklahoma State campus. It was a hot and muggy day when Coger decided to sit down during the workout. It appeared that Coger was suffering from heat stroke, so paramedics were called onto the scene. Coger was taken to the hospital, but was pronounced dead less than an hour later. It was an ongoing problem for Coger, who had been dealing with arrhythmias through his life. He was just 21 years old.
12 Reggie Lewis
Graduating from Northeastern, Reggie Lewis was the 22nd overall pick by the Boston Celtics in 1987’s Draft. Lewis ended up being a pleasant surprise for Boston as his productivity increased dramatically and quickly. At the height of his career, Lewis was an All Star that was averaging 19.2 points and 4.7 rebounds per game while missing just nine games in his final five seasons.
Lewis was practicing with the Celtics in July 1993 when he collapsed on the court of Brandeis University. Lewis had suffered a hypertrophic cardiomyopathy and paramedics weren’t able to resuscitate the young star. There were rumors that cocaine use had led to Lewis’s heart problem, but coroners said that that wasn’t the case. The 27 year old had his jersey retired by the Celtics in 1995 as a tribute.
11 Demontez Stitt
Even though he was not heavily recruited, North Carolina native Demontez Stitt was able to secure a basketball scholarship with the Clemson Tigers in 2007. It was there that Stitt was the best player on the team, scoring 14.5 points and hauling in 4.3 rebounds per game in his senior season. Stitt led the Tigers to four straight NCAA Tournament appearances and had been playing internationally after his college career ended.
Like Reggie Lewis, Stitt was just 27 years old when he passed away. Stitt was found dead at his home in Charlotte, North Carolina in July 2016. After an investigation, officials found that it was natural causes that claimed Stitt’s life. It was ruled that “Stitt reportedly suffered a cardiac issue” and the heart attack was very unexpected to friends and family alike.
10 Eddie Griffin
Coming out of Seton Hall, Eddie Griffin had a lot of potential and he was taken seventh overall by the Nets (who traded him to Houston) in 2001. Griffin played his first two seasons with the Rockets and he would play his final three with the Timberwolves. For his career, Griffin averaged 7.2 points per game with 5.8 rebounds and 1.7 blocks.
Griffin was an NBA free agent at the time of his death in August 2007 and only 25 years old. Griffin was driving late one night, but made the poor decision to drive under the influence. Griffin had blown through a railroad crossing, colliding with a moving train. The vehicle caught on fire, taking Griffin’s life. The scene was so grisly that Griffin was not immediately identified and coroners had to rely on dental records to determine who he was.
9 Lorenzen Wright
Born and raised (and playing college) in Memphis, Lorenzen Wright was just like Eddie Griffin in the fact that he was once a seventh overall pick, with Wright being drafted in 1996 by the Clippers. Wright played for the Hawks, Grizzlies, Kings and Cavaliers in addition to the Clippers, finishing his career with 8.0 points, 6.4 rebounds and 0.7 blocks per game.
Wright was with his ex-wife on the night of July 18th, 2010 in Collierville, Tennessee when he left the home. The 34 year old wasn’t responding to calls and was deemed missing four days later. After searching for nearly a week, Wright’s body was found. The death is still a mystery and the only piece of evidence that remains is an emergency call that Wright placed after leaving his ex-wife’s house where gunshots could be heard in the background.
8 Drazen Petrovic
Nobody was quite sure what to make out of Croatian basketball star Drazen Petrovic before he made it to the NBA, but Portland took a flyer on him in 1986, drafting him in the third round. Three years later, Petrovic would join the Portland squad and play two seasons before heading to the Nets for two more seasons, where he became a star, averaging 19.5 points and 2.9 assists per game in New Jersey.
Petrovic was playing with the Croatian national team in Poland after the 1992-93 season and was considering leaving the NBA at the time. Early in the morning on June 7th, 1993, Petrovich was involved in a car accident on the Autobahn in Bavaria. The basketball player was sleeping in the back seat of a vehicle that was struck by a wayward truck in the rain, killing both he and the driver. Petrovic was 28 years old at the time of his death and had plenty of career ahead of him.
7 Wendell Ladner
Praised as one of the funniest men in basketball at the time, Wendell Ladner was a journeyman in the ABA, playing for five different teams over the course of just five seasons. Ladner was a two-time All Star that averaged 11.6 points and 8.3 rebounds per gamethroughout his career, which ended with the New York Nets.
On June 24th, 1975, a Eastern Air Lines Flight 66 took off from New Orleans en route to New York City. Weather caused the plane to malfunction near New York City and it crashed into the ground. Out of the 124 people on board, there were only 11 survivors. The 26 year old Ladner was not one of them. Ladner was not identified on the spot due to the nature of the crash, but his championship ring confirmed that Ladner had indeed passed away and the Nets have unofficially retired his number four jersey since that fateful day.
6 Steve McElvene
Earlier this year, the Dayton Flyers received terrible news when they found out that Steve McElvene had passed away. McElvene came to Dayton and made an immediate impact thanks to his defensive prowess. The shot blocker recorded 55 blocks in the 2015-16 season (most in school history) while also adding 6.1 points per game.
McElvene was 20 years old in May 2016, when he suddenly collapsed at his home in New Haven, Indiana. A neighbor was with McElvene at the time, and that neighbor called paramedics to the home. They attempted to resuscitate McElvene, but sadly he did not regain consciousness. McElvene was pronounced dead at his home. Members of the Dayton team went to his house and his former AAU coach Jamal Howell said “That’s when I lost it, when I saw my big fella get wheeled out.”
5 Len Bias
At the University of Maryland, NBA scouts were drooling over the potential to draft Len Bias. Bias was being compared to Michael Jordan already and the defending champion Boston Celtics drafted him in 1986 with the second overall pick. It appeared the Celtics had another franchise cornerstone, but that all changed shortly after the draft’s conclusion.
The death of Bias is perhaps the most infamous one in basketball history. Bias returned to Maryland shortly after being drafted and partied with some of his college teammates. After partying all night, doing drugs and alcohol, Bias started to convulse early in the morning on June 19th, 1986. Bias was rushed to the hospital after multiple resuscitation attempts and he was pronounced dead shortly before 9:00 AM due to cardiac arrhythmia brought on by drug use.
4 Jason Collier
Seven footer Jason Collier was the best high school basketball player in Ohio in 1996 and then attended college at both Indiana and Georgia Tech. Collier would go on to be drafted 15th overall in 2000 and debuted with Houston. Though he had a stint in the D-League in the 2003-04 season, Collier would spend his final NBA season in 2004-05 with the Atlanta Hawks.
In October 2005, the 28 year old was experiencing trouble breathing in his home after showing no signs of health problems leading up to that night. His wife, Katie, called paramedics and said the basketball player was “turning blue” and she applied CPR. Sadly, the paramedics that arrived lost him on the way to the hospital. After an autopsy, it was found that Collier had an enlarged heart, nearly 1.5 times the size of a normal person’s. The following season, the Hawks wore black patches to commemorate their former teammate.
3 Malik Sealy
A New York kid through and through, Malik Sealy decided to stay in the area for college and attend St. John’s. The Pacers made him the 14th overall pick in 1992 and he would also end up playing for the Clippers, Pistons and Timberwolves in his seven NBA seasons. In his career, Sealy would score 10.1 points per game, adding 3.2 rebounds and 1.7 assists per game on average.
Sealy was attending Kevin Garnett’s birthday party on May 20th, 2000 and started to drive home. Sealy was driving down the correct side of the highway when someone that had been drinking swerved their pickup truck into the wrong lane, striking Sealy head-on. The man that hit Sealy survived the accident and had actually been arrested multiple times for driving under the influence. Sealy’s vehicle did not have airbags and his life was taken from him at just 30 years old.
2 Bobby Phills
Shooting guard Bobby Phills from Southern University was a second round pick in 1991 and started his career in the CBA. After making a brief appearance with the Cavaliers, Phills headed to Spain before returning and playing several seasons with both the Cavaliers and Hornets. Phills averaged 11.0 points and 2.7 rebounds per game, and was named to the 1996 NBA All-Defensive Second Team.
When he was 30 years old and on the Hornets roster, Phills was driving his Porsche at around 80 miles per hour when he lost control of his car. Phills collided with traffic in the oncoming lane and it turned into a three vehicle accident. Phills was the only one that did not survive the collision, as he was pronounced dead at the sight of the accident. Phills was determined to be at-fault for the accident, and teammate David Wesley, who was driving in front of him, was also cited for reckless driving.
1 Hank Gathers
In the 1990 NBA Draft, there was talk that the first overall selection might end up being Hank Gathers. Gathers, after all, would lead the country in scoring and rebounding while playing at Loyola Marymount University after transferring from USC. Gathers was an All-American that averaged 28 points and 29 rebounds per game at Loyola Marymount, but his name was never called in the draft.
Gathers had a health scare in December 1989 after collapsing on the court during a game and he was diagnosed with an abnormal heartbeat. After being given medication to help with the problem, Gathers stopped taking it after saying it was making him play worse. The decision possibly cost him his life, as Gathers collapsed once again on March 4th, 1990 in the West Coast Conference Tournament. The 23 year old stopped breathing and was taken to a hospital where he was pronounced dead.
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