The NBA is the greatest league in the world. Almost every basketball player’s dream is to play on the big stage, and there is none bigger than the NBA. The players on this list have a wide variety of reason for not playing in the NBA. Some died tragic deaths, got into the drug world, while others thought that they were better fits on the streets of New York City. Whatever the reason, these players could have been perennial All-Stars in the greatest league in the world. Some players even turned down the opportunity. Back when the ABA was around, it was a legitimate option for aspiring pro basketball players. Players today also have the option of going to Europe or Asia to ply their trade if they deem that NBA life is too demanding.
Some of these players you may have heard of but I’m sure some of these players will surprise you. Whether they have played professionally overseas or just played in college and pickup games on the streets, or even in prison, the greatest players that never played in the NBA could have been great anywhere they played. Without further delay, here are the greatest players that never played in the NBA.
15. Marques Haynes
Haynes is really the father of dribbling. It is said that he could dribble the ball 6 times in one second. He played for the Harlem Globetrotters and also started his own team called the Harlem Magicians. He played for 46 years professionally but I think it’s pretty obvious that he wouldn’t have had the same career longevity had he played in the NBA. By the end of his career, Haynes was estimated to have played over 12,000 games. Despite never playing with the world’s elite, in 1998 he was inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame. Haynes passed away last year at the age of 89. His legacy on the game of basketball will always leave behind the question of ‘what if Haynes had pursued an NBA career?’.
How great was he on the court? Wilt Chamberlain, arguably the greatest of all time said: “I could do anything on the basketball court, but I could never do what he did.”
14. Joe Hammond
Joe Hammond set Harlem’s Rucker Park record by scoring 82 points in a single game. Hammond decided the NBA life wasn’t for him by declining an offer from the Lakers. He was a big drug dealer and thought he would make more money doing that than playing in the NBA. The only place drug dealing took Hammond was to prison.
“I was stupid for not signing, but I loved the streets too much, and I figured I could play ball in my spare time,” said Hammond to the New York Times. “The streets are where I spent most of my time, and that’s where I made all of my money.”
There are still legends of Hammond with crazy stories like lighting up Dr. J for 50 points in the second half of a Rucker Park game, but there is no proof. If he really did do all of these things, it is clear that he could have been in the NBA.
13. Angelo Cruz
Angelo Cruz was a Puerto Rican that dominated the courts in NYC. He was a short guy but he could play with the best of them. He had a big rivalry with Nate Archibald and played against Drazen Petrovic. He averaged 15 points and 5 assists per game in Puerto Rico. He played in two FIBA world tournaments, including the 1986 and 1990 games in Spain and Argentina.
Cruz retired from basketball in 1993 and found a job at Yankee Stadium, where he befriended Jose Valentin.
Cruz went missing in 1998 and has never been seen since. However, he lives on to this day in the memories of many basketball fans around the world. His family created a scholarship in his name in 2011. The Cruz family is still seeking answers regarding Angelo’s disappearance nearly 20 years ago.
It will always remain a mystery as to what his possible NBA career could have been like.
12. Lenny Cooke
Everyone knows LeBron James’ dominance at the high school level and he was expected to be an NBA superstar before his career even started, but I’d bet you don’t know who Lenny Cooke is. Let me tell you, Lenny Cooke was a player that was a year older than LeBron, and was actually ranked higher. He truly was a great player but when he played LeBron at the 2001 ABCD camp, LeBron dominated him and Cooke lost aspirations to play in the NBA and that started his life down the wrong path.
Cooke looks back on where his life went and says that for so long, it hurt him to even watch a game of basketball. “At first it was difficult,” he told the New York Times. “I saw guys I grew up playing with, guys I was better than. I couldn’t watch anything LeBron would do — know what I’m saying? I thought I should have been where he is.”
11. Dejan Bodiroga
Bodiroga played his entire career overseas. He has played in many different leagues and has won more than his fair share of MVP awards. His career is highlighted by his tenures in Yugoslavia, Italy, Spain, and Greece. His best season was with Panathinaikos in 2001 when he averaged 20 points and 5 rebounds per game. He was drafted by the Kings in 1995 with the 51st pick but never ended up coming over and never played for them. Nicknamed, “White Magic” had a ton of hype around him when it appeared he was set for the NBA. Bodiroga could’ve served as a solid player at the NBA level if he wanted to.
“He was an unbelievably mature player for his age,” said his old coach Bogdan Tanjevic. “He was a very generous man, always worried about the team. He had no selfishness in him… It was a privilege to have him on my team.”
10. Ed “Booger” Smith
Ed Smith was a streetballer and gangster. Standing at only 5’10, nothing on the basketball court was given to him, he had to work for every shot. Smith even had a movie made about him when he was 17 years old called “Soul in the Hole.” His ball-handling and his passing abilities are what he is famous for. You may be saying, “how good could he be, he was only a streetball player,” well Sports Illustrated thought that he was good enough to grace the cover of their magazine. There is no doubt that Ed Smith could have played in the NBA if he wasn’t involved in the drug game.
Teams got scared of the prospect of signing Smith, because he was out front about his backup plan if the NBA didn’t work out: “I think that when I said that if I didn’t make the NBA I’d be a drug dealer, people got scared of that,” said Booger. “But it was a real story. I mean, that’s what I was going to do. Did they want me to lie and say I was going to be an architect or something? I don’t regret saying it. She just told me to be myself, but I never really liked getting too much attention.
9. Theodoros Papaloukas
Theodoros Papaloukas was considered the world’s greatest playmaker by some. While that may be a stretch with guys like John Stockton and Magic Johnson on this earth, Papaloukas was certainly an amazing playmaker. In two separate seasons, “Greek Magic” led the league in assists as a 6’6 shooting guard/small forward. Papaloukas is a basketball legend that would fit in the NBA as an important spark off of the bench. Papaloukas went undrafted in the 1999 NBA draft which now seems crazy.
There’s no doubt that Papaloukas is a legend in the game of basketball over in Europe and it’s a shame he never got a chance in the NBA. Papaloukas said that part of why he grew to be so successful that he always was playing with a chip on his shoulder: “I was never considered a first-class player when I was young. I was a good player, but there were always players better than me on my teams. That situation always gave me motivation to work hard to try to make it to the top.”
8. Dimitris Diamantidis
If you are a fan of the Euroleague or Greek League you surely know and are probably a fan of Dimitris Diamantidis. The EuroLeague legend played for Panathinaikos Athens for his entire 12-year career. His achievements are endless and he has won nine Greek League championships. Dimitris has won six Greek League MVPs was even the ‘Greek Athlete of the Year’ in 2007. Dimitris went undrafted in the 2002 NBA draft, but that was before word was out that he could play ball. I’m sure that if teams had a do-over, he would have been drafted.
Diamantidis represented the Greek national team on several occasions and even won the FIBA Eurobasket Championships in 2005. He made a great living for himself over in Greece, as Panathinaikos paid him millions of Euros. It just goes to show you that just because you don’t make it in the NBA, it doesn’t mean you can’t have a good basketball career.
7. Nikos Galis
We come to another Greek player, albeit a Greek-American. Galis was painted as the greatest scorer in European history. That’s exactly what he was, a scorer. He had every facet to his scoring that you could think of. Galis would dominate the Greek league, winning five MVPs and finishing as the league’s top scorer on 11 occasions. In 2007, Galis was inducted into the FIBA Hall of Fame, which shows you how revered he was in the game.
To put in perspective how great of a scorer he was, there are stories of Galis playing Michael Jordan and dropping 50 on him. Now there are no videos of this or factual evidence, it is possible. Galis had a killer mentality just like Jordan. It would be great to go back and see the two of them go at it. I still have my money on Jordan however.
6. Benji Wilson
Benji Wilson was just a kid from Chicago. He was supposed to be the greatest basketball player the city of Chicago ever produced. He really was special. He was the #1 high school player in the nation and he was marketed as “Magic Johnson with a jump shot”. Wilson was 6’7 and he could play multiple positions much like Magic. Then one day right near his high school, Wilson was shot and killed. The world got robbed of a huge talent. His loss was mourned by the entire city of Chicago and the entire world of basketball mourned as they all knew just how big of a star he was going to be. His death remains one of the most tragic in all of sports history.
It’s painful to think about how great he could have been.
5. Hank Gathers
Gathers was a Philadelphia hoops legend who played for Loyola Marymount. He and Bo Kimble led their high-powered offense. Gathers was a dominant college player. He was the 2nd player in D1 history to lead the NCAA in scoring and rebounding in the same season. He was projected to be the first overall pick in the NBA draft. Unfortunately, this entry is another case of tragedy.
Gathers, who was being treated for a heart condition, passed out during a game on March 4, 1990. Tragically, he passed away later that evening at just 23 years old. His story is devastating as he was a fine man destined for NBA stardom. His brother Derrick recalls how beloved Hank was. “Really, he died before his time,” Gathers said. “I really want them to know that if he had stuck around, he would have blessed a lot of the youth. He was a giving guy.”
4. Earl “The Goat” Manigault
Earl Manigault was another guy who got caught up with the wrong crowd. He was as gifted as could be and even scored 57 points in a middle school basketball game. Manigault gained recognition from greats at Rucker Park such as Connie Hawkins and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, who went as far as to say that he was the greatest basketball player they had ever played against. Legend has it that “The Goat” had a 52″ vertical leap, which would be 4″ higher than Michael Jordan’s NBA-record 48. He was famous for being able to grab coins from the top of the backboard. With these hops, Manigault surely would’ve been an extremely popular player throughout the NBA.
Manigault developed a heroin addiction in Harlem and spent several years behind bars early in his adult years. He turned down an opportunity to play with the Harlem Globetrotters, electing to start his own summer tour. Manigault’s health eventually began to deteriorate due to heart problems and in 1998, he passed away at the age of 53.
3. Oscar Schmidt
Oscar Schmidt was simply the greatest Brazilian basketball player ever. He also played a portion of his career in Italy and Spain. The 6’9 Schmidt is considered by many to be the best basketball player to never play in the NBA. He has unofficially scored 49,737 career points, tops in history. With such an amazing scoring ability, it’s hard to believe that Schmidt couldn’t have had a role in the NBA, even if his career coincided with the NBA’s most star studded years. Schmidt was in fact drafted by the Nets in the sixth round of the 1984 draft, but turned down a spot in the NBA to continue playing in Brazil.
He played 29 professional seasons (1974-2003), the longest professional career on record. Additionally, he is the only basketball player ever to score 1,000 points in the Olympics. Schmidt was inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in 2013.
2. Pee Wee Kirkland
Pee Wee Kirkland was a streetball legend. He practically invented every move you see in the NBA, the spin move, the crossover and the 360 dunk. The Bulls drafted him in 1969 but he turned down their offer because he could make more money hustling unsuspecting ballers, and selling drugs. Kirkland got in trouble with the law, but that didn’t stop him from playing basketball. Kirkland played in the prison league at Federal Correctional Institution, La Tuna. It was reported that several times he scored more than 100 points in a game. He was unstoppable but he never wanted to be in the NBA because he did just fine on his own. He rolled up to Rucker Park games in a Rolls Royce.
Today, Kirkland is 71 years old and has become a motivational speaker, trying to inform kids of his past mistakes and how they could learn from his errors.
1. Len Bias
Len Bias is probably someone that you have heard of. When Bias was at the University of Maryland, he was expected to be one of the greatest NBA players of all time. He even drew comparisons to Michael Jordan. Bias was the second overall pick in the 1986 draft, taken by the Boston Celtics, but he never put on a Celtics jersey. He never put on any team’s jersey for that matter. The day after he was drafted, Bias overdosed on cocaine. His death was really a wake up call for all of America, as cocaine was at its peak in consumption, but Bias’s death highlighted the dangers of it.
He would have had an immediate impact and arguably be the best player on the Celtics roster. His death was a real tragedy, not just for his family and the Celtics, but hoops fans everywhere.
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