Perhaps one of the most definitive elements to being a citizen of any American city is the teams we root for. Particularly when it comes to basketball, the inches a team grinds for season by season are what makes it a sport that urban dwellers can relate to the most. The fans are there for every inch: the triumphs and bruises of rooting each year, speculating on trades, monitoring player development, screaming at the radio when management or ownership makes a boneheaded move, wishing it was your ACL that was torn instead... When two nobodies quietly share a diner counter for a cup of coffee before starting the early shift, the only thread that links the experiences of them both is the teams they love and support. It’s a cult culture, a tacit common ground that can bring us to our feet with no money to win, no family or personal gains, just pride for the colors we bleed. For all of those reasons, it’s so much harder to suffer some of the darkest tribulations franchises have seen. Beloved icons will come and go, thwarting cities or embracing others. When tragic events hit these towns, their teams and fans feel it too. Buckle up and grab a box of kleenex, as we dive into each NBA franchise’s darkest days.
29 Atlanta Hawks: Losing Out on Bill Russell
On the eve of the 1956 NBA Draft, the then-St. Louis Hawks made one of the most ill-fated trades one could possibly imagine: the rights to the second overall pick for two Hall of Famers in Ed Macauley and Cliff Hagan... Now, the myopic fan in the 1950s (who would now probably be rounding 100 years of age) might defend this move. After all, those two players did go on to be key parts of the Hawks only championship team in 1958. But there’s the rub... that number two pick they traded? Well, that pick turned into eleven-time Boston Celtic champion Bill Russell. Salt... meet wound. Maybe St. Louis had it coming though. After all, the rampant racism in the area at the time caused Russell to declare before the draft that he would not play for them anyway.
28 Boston Celtics: Tragedy Strikes...Twice
Two of the most tragic moments on this list come from the NBA’s most storied franchise, the Boston Celtics. The year was 1986 and the Cs were amidst their historic Larry Bird-led run of contention. With the number two pick in the draft they took Len Bias, the forward out of University of Maryland who was meant to be the franchise cornerstone of the future, the guy who could give the ailing Larry Bird some relief on his decline. Shortly after his selection, national-headlines streamed in, reporting the untimely death of the young star, who had overdosed on cocaine. Not only did the moment destroy the hearts of the family, friends and fans of Bias, but it successfully nixed any chance the Celtics were hanging onto of being relevant in the post-Larry Bird era. Fast-forward one year later and the Celtics once again selected a young promising forward in Reggie Lewis, who played from ’87 - 1993 for the Celtics. Once again, one of the saddest moments in NBA history occurred for the same franchise, when Lewis collapsed during an off-season practice, and was pronounced dead on the scene of cardiac arrest. The two great talents have been honored in a slew of different venues, but these no doubt mark the darkest hours for the league’s brightest franchise.
27 Brooklyn Nets: Eurostar Tragedy
It would be tough to confuse losing back-to-back finals in 2002 and 2003 as the darkest moments for the ABA-surviving Brooklyn Nets franchise, as this post will mark the third and final death in this count down. The then-New Jersey Nets were struggling when they traded for European star Drazen Petrovic in 1991, but they got more than they bargained for when he evolved into the team leader and one of the league’s more effective combo-guards who would eventually bring out the best in young talents Derrick Coleman and Kenny Anderson. The future was looking bright for the Nets, until it was cut tragically short, as Petrovic died in a car-accident during the summer of 1993. Not only did Petro take the league by storm, he made the Nets a playoff team with tons of promise, and paved the way for generations of European players to follow suit to join the NBA. Once again, death came knocking in this untimely and tragic ending, making this not only one of the darkest moments for the Nets franchise, but for the NBA.
26 Charlotte Hornets: Stripped of Identity
The Hornet fan base was actually amidst a priming Baron Davis-led playoff run when the truth set in: there would be no basketball in Charlotte next season. Due to discord between ownership and the city of Charlotte, the break was considered to be mutual as the team moved on to New Orleans, where they were re-named the Pelicans many years later. After seeing some real success with the ‘90s big 3 of Muggsy Bogues, Larry Johnson and Alonzo Mourning, the city was officially a basketball town. Nothing hurts more than to see a franchise bolt town. In this case, fortunately, it was only void of basketball for two seasons, as the league introduced the expansion Charlotte Bobcats. Looking back, this is one of the darkest moments for the franchise because not only were they stripped of their identity, but their actual name was given to another city, forcing them into a new and unfamiliar Bobcat persona, which turned out to be an overwhelming failure.
25 Chicago Bulls: MJ Wants to Play Baseball?
After winning the franchise’s first three rings in the ‘90s, Bulls fans had cleared their Spring calendars for the following five or six years, knowing that they couldn’t possibly miss contention, if not a championship run, as long as the man wearing #23 would be on the floor. And they were right to assume that! Much to the shock of the basketball world however, Michael Jordan announced in an off-season press conference in 1993 that he would be retiring from basketball after the death of his father, with the intention of playing Major League Baseball... it still bums people out to just read about it! MJ’s retirement not only shocked global spectators, but singlehandedly knocked the wind out of the Windy City. Michael’s absence in the 1993-4 season not only gave way for the Patrick Ewing led Knick-nemesis to finally get to the finals, but it broke up what could have been the most dominant NBA Finals streak outside of Boston, and certainly an unprecedented record for the modern-NBA global stage. Instead, Chicago fans had to settle for two three-peats. Not bad!
24 Cleveland Cavaliers: The Decision
In case there were folks worried about the MJ’s harsh departure, there is a historic break-up that trumps that as one of the harshest of all time. Ah yes, “The Decision” - a nationally broadcasted hour-special not only breaking up LeBron James with his adoring Cleveland Cavalier fans, but making a it a public spectacle. This impossibly ill-advised public relations faux pas will no doubt mark the darkest moment for the Cleveland Cavalier’s storied franchise. Now, one homecoming later, a Kyrie Irving trade-demand is making the buzz more undeniable than ever: LeBron James may be preparing for ANOTHER break up! Only time will tell, but if the King bolts town again, it may go down as at least the second darkest moment for the Cavs franchise.
23 Dallas Mavericks: Substance Abuse and Roy Tarpley
The Mavs have been lucky! There is no way anyone thought Dirk Nowitzki would have become the franchise cornerstone he has been for nearly 20 years. But the darkest moment for this franchise actually comes from a missed-opportunity, a sad spiral of substance abuse of a young player named Roy Tarpley, the power forward who could have been a super-star, but instead was a cast-away who couldn’t get his personal life together. No doubt, the eventual NBA-expulsion of the double double machine out of the ’86 draft class had a significant impact on the potential future in Dallas, but more importantly it is a true testament to one of the most important characteristics of a star and franchise player: character and mental health. After just two seasons in Dallas, the rookie was officially booted from the league after several breaches of the substance abuse, a sad realization for fans out in Dallas that their prized star was a goner.
22 Denver Nuggets: Coach Karl's Battle
Although many will remember the Knicks vs. Nuggets 2006 brawl as a pretty dark moment, the franchised suffered an even harsher blow when their beloved and winning coach, George Karl, who presided over the brawl-squad in 2006, was diagnosed with prostate cancer amidst the 2005 season, relegating him from the pine to the hospital. After undergoing a successful battle with cancer, Karl did eventually make his return. But for such a beloved icon in Denver to receive such daunting news amidst the team’s most successful run, with a roster adorned with a young budding superstar Carmelo Anthony, it no doubt took the wind out of the teams’ sails. With basketball aside and life and death on the line, Karl’s news marked the darkest moment in the Denver Nugget team history.
21 Detroit Pistons/Indiana Pacers: Malice at the Palace
You all knew this was coming; perhaps the darkest black eye the NBA has ever received came in November of 2004, when then-Ron Artest was laying down on the score-table after a fight with Piston center Ben Wallace, and the most unheard of and terrifying moment in NBA history came. After a bone-headed fan poured a beer on him, Artest actually climbed into the stands throwing fists, and sparking an all out fan vs. player brawl. Nothing like this had ever happened up until this point, and while the team match-up of the night had relevance in the league as a potential Eastern Conference Final preview, all of that went out the window as both franchises scrambled to save face and cover up the terrible spectacle. Unfortunately for both franchises, there isn’t enough make-up in the world to cover up this black eye of historic proportion!
20 Golden State Warriors: Blowing the Perfect Season
A lot of people will tell you that watching the Patriots blow the perfect season in the Super Bowl to the New York Giants in 2008 was the biggest collapse they had seen in the modern era... and those people are probably not basketball fans. The 2016 Finals Game 7 was quite possibly the most exciting moment for moment ending in NBA history. And as inspiring as it was for Cleveland supporters, it was that much worse for fans of the historic record-shattering 73-win season Warriors, who truly blew their chances with a mental breakdown of epic proportions. What hurts more? Having loved and lost or having never loved at all? In this case, the Warrior fans had love for 73 games, and lost it in the most painfully dark moment in their franchise’s history. Damn.
19 Houston Rockets: Double the Injury Plague
Most will tell you Vernon Maxwell’s punching out a fan under the baseline of a game in 1995 was the ugliest moment for the Rockets. True: it may be the ugliest, but it wasn’t the darkest moment. Realistically, he wasn’t that good of a player when he ultimately did not return from the suspension, it’s not like the team was devastated. In addition, the Rockets still won it all that year, and it was kind of hard to feel bad about that. No, no. The real darkest moment for the franchise out of Houston came at their second round playoff exit against the Lakers in the summer of 2009. Look: the Rockets rostered two Hall of Famers in their primes, both with unstoppable moves, in Yao Ming and Tracy McGrady. And that was only enough to see two blown first round exits in ’05 and ’07. The culprit? Season ending injuries. By the time they finally lost to the Lakers in ’09, Yao had suffered yet another season ending injury, which inevitably ended his career. There aren’t many transcendent players who get into the Hall of Fame and are so injury riddled they have little to nothing to show for it... the Rockets found two at the same time. You want to be mad, yet somehow you’re also impressed. Bravo.
18 Los Angeles Clippers: Livingston's Gruesome Injury
Most people don’t believe it when they find out Warriors back-up point guard and NBA champ Shaun Livingston is only 31 years old... except for Clipper fans. They know just how young and impressive he once was. Despite an unrealistically bad streak of luck for Clipper players, in 2004, the Magic Johnson-like framed point guard took the league by storm, standing at six foot seven inches, and causing a lot of mismatch problems with a six foot eleven inch wingspan. He was really, really good... until a game against the Bobcats in 2007 came along, and he suffered possibly the ugliest injury that completely wrecked his chances of playing for a long, long time. Watching the man’s leg snap in half was hard enough for Clipper fans, and it’s hard to think about the franchise’s future at such a gruesome time... yet still, it sure didn’t help the Clippers chances. Another great player with unlikely and untimely injuries ends the Clippers chances of building a contending team. Tsk, tsk.
17 Los Angeles Lakers: Magic Johnson's Retirement
When Magic Johnson announced that he was HIV positive, it wasn’t just a Laker nation guttural blow, it was a wake up call to the face-less disease that was already a silent epidemic for a decade before-hand. Although the Lakers lost a declining Magic Johnson, the bleak announcement left fans in a dark, dark space, not knowing how long their championship winning hero would even live. So little was known publicly about HIV and AIDS at that time, and since then, Magic has become the driving force to spreading awareness and helping to find a cure.
16 Memphis Grizzles: Denied by Steve "Franchise"
If we treat the Grizzlies like a Memphis-only organization, their darkest moment retrospectively was signing Chandler Parsons to this miserably bloated contract, only to see him become a shadow of the promising young player he was in Houston. However, despite the extreme culture shift when the team moved from Canada, the darkest moment for the Grizzly name came out of Vancouver. The year was 1999, and the lowly Grizzlies took Steve Francis with the second overall pick in the draft. Amidst the team’s struggle to prove it could be a basketball town, Francis flat out denied them of his services. After getting publicly humiliated, where a city might be so undesirable that a promising and lightning quick prospect would risk it all just to escape playing for them, the team never quite recuperated, eventually leaving for Memphis in 2001.
15 Miami Heat: Bosh's Forced Retirement
Perhaps one of the hardest moments for the Miami franchise came recently, when Hall-of-Famer and two-time champion Chris Bosh was diagnosed with blood clots that would inevitably end his career. While this was a difficult moment for the team, Bosh maintains to this day that he can and will play again. This is what makes the moment so cringeworthy though: the Heat not only had to find a way to respectfully due their diligence in keeping their beloved champ off the floor, but they had to navigate “precautions” that came with dubious concerns from fans and media alike, as the rebuilding team did indeed stand to benefit greatly from Bosh staying off the floor for a certain period of time (to make his contact eligible for disability, and thereby off the books). Not only did they force Bosh out to potentially save his life, but their is no reason to believe they weren’t just as motivated by moving on from him. Yikes.
14 Milwaukee Bucks: Losing a Priming All-Time Great
What hurts more than being told flat out that a player just doesn’t want to live in your city? Despite helping the Bucks win it all in 1971, four short years later, one of the greatest players ever to suit up, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar asked Bucks’ management to trade him to either New York or the Los Angeles. Sorry Knick fans, but we all know how this one shook out. Unfortunately for the Bucks, the Dream went on to play for fourteen illustrious years with the Lakers, winning five titles along the way. That’s gotta hurt!
13 Minnesota Timberwolves: RIP Flip Saunders
Speaking of places nobody has wanted to play, only recently have players actually asked to go out to Minnesota to play basketball. Just ask Kevin Garnett and Kevin Love. A sad and tragic moment that is no doubt the darkest for this franchise was the loss of team president Flip Saunders in 2015 to Hodgkin’s lymphoma. Saunder’s was not only a beloved icon for the city and franchise, but the oft-credited mastermind behind the current young core that is poised for many years of contention ahead of them.
12 New Orleans Pelicans: Battling Back from Katrina
This team spent a lot of time blended with the Charlotte Hornet brand, but now stands proudly as its own team with its own identity. But a large part of what has defined this team is its perseverance. After the debilitating damages caused by Hurricane Katrina in 2005, the team was actually moved to Oklahoma City temporarily, and had the entire nation supporting them. The reoccurring perseverance theme has mirrored their roster with injury riddled talents like Tyreke Evans, Jrue Holiday, and Anthony Davis. Despite the support, the team being moved away from their own city amidst a crisis certainly marks their darkest franchise moment.
11 New York Knicks: Riley Says "C'ya!"
Where to begin? The proud and storied Knick fans deserve better than the tomfoolery and shenanigans that have been the team identity since the early 2000s. But when considering the definitive darkest moment for the Knicks, one can’t help but think about what set off that chain of events. And all roads in this case point back to Pat Riley. Yes, the man who has proven to be a basketball genius in Miami since leaving New York. In 1995, Pat Riley who was in the middle of making the 90s Knicks as memorable as they were, left the largest contract a coach had seen to date on the table. Although the Knicks had memorable runs until their 1999 Championship loss to the Spurs, things were never really the same after that. Supposedly, the straw the broke the camel’s back was that he wanted control of personnel as well as a stake in ownership. Even so, it was never fully clear why the brilliant basketball mind left the world’s greatest arena, but one thing is for sure, the Knicks have still not recovered!
10 Oklahoma City Thunder: KD's Ditch
Two words: James Harden. Oh wait, sorry. Two words: Kevin Durant. No wait, Eric Bledsoe... Yes. All of these players, and a variety of other solid current NBA players have somehow found their way in and out of Oklahoma City since its inception in 2008. This is truly a rags to riches to rags story, since the team has still yet to win anything significant. Besides a Finals appearance and subsequent sweep in 2012, the team has simply been unable to capitalize on the talent that has come their way. But Kevin Durant was truly the icing on the cake. The 2016 free-agency decision to move to the Bay Area not only devastated fans, but put co-superstar Russell Westbrook in an arguably unfair situation where most will question if he can coexist with other superstars. A double injury to OKC.
9 Orlando Magic: Shaq Bolts for Hollywood
Speaking of splitting town, the unceremonious exit of prime-time Shaquille O’Neil was all the more painful for the Magic because they were such a young franchise, with so many exciting things happening for them so quickly. It is like dating a really attractive girl just for the summer, only to find out she has a boyfriend at home in her way more awesome-to-live-in city. Despite getting swept in the championship by the Rockets in 1995, Shaq’s departure was truly the darkest day in Disney World.
8 Philadelphia 76ers: Can't Trust the Process
The darkest moment for another incredibly storied franchise came recently, when #1 overall pick Ben Simmons was announced to have a foot injury that would keep him sidelined for the entire 2016-17 season. Keep in mind, when this announcement was made, the Joel Embiid glimmer of hope had not yet calmed the nerves of the perpetually tanking 6er fans, and at this point, it was becoming a foregone conclusion that they would simply fold every season. Despite suffering all of the injuries and set-backs of a tank-heavy game plan, now it appears the 76ers are ready to finally make a splash in the lowly Eastern Conference.
7 Phoenix Suns: The Flip of a Coin...
Luck was not on on the side of the Suns when the expansion team’s draft lottery chances came down to a coin flip in 1969, a coin flip won by the Bucks. Who did the Bucks take with that pick? Lew Alcindor, who went on to change his name to Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. Yes, that’s right, the Suns missed out on a top-5 all time great based on a coin flip. Tough way to start out, huh? At least they had some solid year's down the line with the likes of Steve Nash on the court.
6 Portland Trail Blazers: Worst Decision Ever
The darkest moment for this team in retrospect was dark for two distinctly different players at the same exact moment: when they selected Ohio State University product Greg Oden with the #1 overall pick in the 2007 draft. Why was this moment so painful now looking back? Well, not only did Oden go on to become perhaps the greatest draft bust of all time, but the guy taken right after him? Just Kevin Durant. You can ice that, but it’s still gonna leave a bad bruise.
5 Sacramento Kings: The Ref that Truly Blew It
At the turn of the millennium, the Kings were actually sporting a really competitive roster, making the playoffs year in and year out. What many don’t know, is that they actually should have made the Finals one of those years, and that year was 2002. The Kings were the #1 seed, and the Shaq and Kobe-led Lakers were as dominant as ever. The dark moment however, came years later, when it was discovered that referee Tim Donaghy had actually thrown their Western Conference Finals series to help win big in sports gambling. Now spending his days in prison, there is nothing the NBA can do to replay the scenario, but you can be sure that those what-ifs certainly replay in the minds of Kings’ fans every spring.
4 San Antonio Spurs: The Rodman Trade
It is hard to place any blame on one of the league’s most well-run franchises, but in October 1995, the Spurs finally made a poor management decision: to trade away the great Dennis Rodman to the Chicago Bulls. Now granted, he wasn’t the player he was in Chicago when he played for the Spurs, but to call this their darkest moment would be more than fair. Rodman went on to help win three rings in Chicago. Certainly not day Spurs fans would like to remember.
3 Toronto Raptors: Half Man, Half Out-the-Door!
Another expansion team experiment that nearly went wrong. Vince Carter’s exit from Toronto in 2004 for the New Jersey Nets was perhaps one of the saltiest exits from the league’s greatest dunker of all time. Turns out “Half Man, Half Amazing” was also half-way out the door. Although the loss of Chris Bosh in 2010 for Miami was eerily similar, nothing will compare to the loss of such a leader who was also such an electrifying presence in a thirsty basketball market.
2 Utah Jazz: Coach Sloan on His Own!
Many will forget his name, but Jerry Sloan was one of the most consistent and hard-working coaches this league had ever seen. And unlike most other coaches, he loyally coached just one team from 1988-2011: The Utah Jazz. He single-handedly kept any breath of hope in fans that a player would actually opt to stay in such a small and undesirable market. And yet, his departure was anything but characteristic, citing feuds with then-super star point guard Deron Williams. Williams went on to demand a trade but only after acting as the home-wrecker for the steadiest franchise for player development in the past three decades.
1 Washington Wizards: All Fired Up!
This one is pretty ironic. The team that had to change its name from the Bullets to the Wizards due to the violent implications, saw its darkest day when news leaked that then-Super Star Gilbert Arenas and Javaris Crittenton brought guns into the locker room of the team that represents our nation’s capitol. Embarrassment was the least of the team’s problems, as both players were swiftly suspended for the rest of the season. Although Arenas would return to action, he was never the same player again. The reason for the beef? A dispute over an $1,100 pot in a card game... Arenas had just been awarded a $111 Million contract that year. If there was a time to shake your head, now would be it.
There you have it: the most chilling and upsetting dark moments that every NBA fan around the nation will always remember. While some teams were beat out of franchise players, others saw deaths and injuries that are more sense-awakening than anything the basketball world could offer. Just remember next time your team does something you don’t like, it could be worse!