Disabilities suck. And whether the disabilities are mental or physical, those who suffer from them should get all the credit in the world. They put up with the fact that even the simplest tasks can be excruciatingly difficult or frustrating; they deal with the stares, prejudices, and sometimes downright mean comments or actions of people around them; and often they eventually and routinely triumph over their parts of their disabilities.
In some cases, a few extremely brave and dedicated people even overcome their mental or physical ailments altogether. And in even rarer instances, the challenged become the challengers, as some end up even more intelligent or physically talented than the average person.
In each of the following instances, the individuals in question encountered some type of condition which would generally hinder one from playing or excelling at a sport, or would make it more difficult for them to comprehend information, learn, take exams, or get good grades. These challenges might have been inherited at birth, developed at an early age, or not occurred until later in life. But for every person on this list, there was eventually a success story, as everyone not only competed in basketball, but made it to the highest level, and didn’t let their issues hold them back. Here are the top 15 NBA players who overcame mental/physical disabilities.
(Note: We apologize to anyone who finds the term “disability” offensive. If you prefer “differently abled,” “challenged,” etc., please go ahead and mentally swap the words in this article.)
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15 Lance Allred
He never reached superstar status, and only played in three games of a single season, but when Lance Allred made the Miami Heat in 2008, it was historic. With 75-80% hearing loss, Allred was the first legally deaf player to ever make it to the NBA. Not only that, but Allred had also been previously diagnosed with obsessive-compulsive disorder and posttraumatic stress disorder, and had allegedly been routinely berated by coach Rick Majerus during his time at the University of Utah. Lance Allred’s accomplishment was no fluke either: the power forward/center went on to become a two-time NBA D-League All-Star (2008, 2009) and continued playing well abroad until his retirement in 2015.
14 Royce White
Although Royce White wasn’t diagnosed with general anxiety disorder until 2008, he traces his condition back to 2001, when he was just 10 years old. It followed him to two different high schools, it followed him to two different colleges (Minnesota and Iowa State, as well as sinking his chances of playing with Kentucky), and it stuck with him when he was picked 16th overall in the 2012 NBA Draft. Unfortunately, although White was able to conquer his demons enough to completely dominate NCAA ball (and rack up a whole slew of accomplishments), he struggled to adapt to the constant air travel required in the NBA due to his anxiety. The talent is still there, and so is White, he just needs to find the right opportunity to make it all work.
13 Mitch McGary
Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) might not seem like something that would substantially hinder a basketball player, but it can affect a young player in school, which could still doom their future in the game. Mitch McGary’s on-court talent has always been undeniable, but as a high schooler he had poor grades, no confidence, and was in danger of flunking out and thus failing to get accepted to a Division I university. Taking drastic measures, McGary decided it was do-or-die and moved 1,000 miles away to attend Brewster Academy prep school. The new school did wonders for his academics and self-esteem, and McGary eventually got accepted to Michigan, and was selected 21st overall in the 2014 NBA Draft by the Oklahoma City Thunder. Although injuries have provided some stumbling blocks in his first two seasons, McGary has remained a strong performer in NBA, and is signed by OKC through 2016-17.
12 Randy Foye
No matter how caring of an individual NBA guard Randy Foye is, his heart will never be in the right place. Literally. Foye was born with a condition called situs inversus, which means his internal organs are reversed, or a mirror image of a normal human body. Normally this would cause a whole mess of medical issues, but in Foye’s case, his organs are still arranged perfectly (albeit on opposite sides) and the only complications he suffered involved an increased chance of developing pneumonia or other infections.
This made his childhood a bit rough at times, but Foye overcame the odds and became a star basketball player in high school, college (at Villanova), and now the NBA, where just last week he was traded to the Oklahoma City Thunder after stints with the Timberwolves, Wizards, Clippers, Jazz, and Nuggets.
11 Evan Turner
There’s no single physical disability that Evan Turner overcame in his childhood; he was just, in his own words, a sickly child. Weighing 10 pounds at birth, Turner was diagnosed with chickenpox, pneumonia, severe asthma, and measles before his first birthday. His mom even waited until he was a year old to baptize him, fearing he wouldn’t make it through the first months, or even weeks, of his life. In addition, the young Turner needed surgery to remove his tonsils and adenoids at an early age, had an enormous overbite, and was hit by a car when he was only three. Shockingly to those who knew him, Turner eventually overcame all his childhood issues and became a basketball phenom, eventually getting drafted second overall in the 2010 NBA Draft. Turner currently plays for the Boston Celtics, and owns a 10.8 PPG career average.
10 Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf
In addition to growing up in poverty and often malnourished, Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf (born Chris Johnson) also suffered from a moderate form of Tourette syndrome, which went undiagnosed until he was 17, although he was placed in special education classes and had to repeat the fourth grade earlier in life, Abdul-Rauf emerged as a basketball prodigy in high school, averaging a whopping 29.9 points and 5.7 assists per game. He carried his success to LSU, where he constantly set scoring records, and was drafted third overall in the 1990 NBA Draft by the Denver Nuggets. Miraculously able to put his condition aside on the court, Abdul-Rauf ended up playing for eight seasons in the NBA (followed by over a decade abroad), with his career highlight being a 51-point game against the Utah Jazz on December 8, 1995.
9 Brandon Roy
When Brandon Roy was a teenager, he was one of the best basketball players in the entire state. Although universities came knocking, Roy suffered from a learning disability that hindered his reading comprehension and threatened to relegate him to junior college and derail his basketball plans. After failing the SATs three times (with an ample amount of tutoring beforehand), Roy finally passed on his fourth and final opportunity of the year, attended Washington, and went on to be picked sixth overall in the 2006 NBA Draft by the Portland Trailblazers. Although Roy was named Rookie of the Year in 2007 and had an All-Star selection in each of the three following years, a degenerative knee condition ultimately ended Roy’s NBA career in 2013.
8 Gerald Green
Gerald Green began his NBA career after getting drafted 18th overall in the 2005 NBA Draft, and has since played with the Celtics, Timberwolves, Rockets, Mavericks, Nets, Pacers, Suns, and Heat (his current team) in addition to a couple of years abroad. Despite having 15 seasons of experience and exposure, some fans might still be shocked to find out the shooting guard/small forward has done it all with only nine fingers. When he was in sixth grade, Green got a ring he was wearing caught on a makeshift basketball hoop while dunking, and it tore his finger off.
While some people might be wondering how a player with a missing digit could still post a 10.8 PPG average over 15 years, we’re more curious why a 12-year-old was wearing a ring in the first place.
7 Chris Wilcox
By the time Chris Wilcox’s heart condition required season-ending aorta surgery, he had already played in the NBA for 10 years as a member of the Seattle SuperSonics/Oklahoma City Thunder, New York Knicks, Detroit Pistons, and Boston Celtics. Boston waived the power forward/center in 2012 after learning they would lose him, but welcomed him back with open arms after a successful procedure and a triumphant return to the NBA...only four months later! Although Wilcox posted one of the lowest PPG averages of his career in 2012-13, he rewarded the team with a career-best .719 field goal percentage through 61 games.
6 Delonte West
Delonte West was first diagnosed with bipolar disorder in 2008, but the symptoms had been plaguing him almost his entire life. The tipping point came during a preseason game in which he blew up at an official, and ended up taking two weeks away from the team to seek counseling and get medication to treat his condition. After previously playing in the NBA for four years with the Celtics, SuperSonics, and Cavaliers, Delonte West returned to finish his time in Ohio (and posted an impressive 11.7 PPG), and followed it up with a stint on the Minnesota Timberwolves, a return to Boston, and a season with the the Dallas Mavericks.
Unfortunately, and possibly due to his condition, Delonte started acting out in 2012 and received a pair of suspensions. He bounced around the NBA’s D-League and China in the years that followed, and attempted to make another comeback last year, but his plans were derailed after suffering a season-ending injury.
5 Olden Polynice
When Olden Polynice was born, he suffered from a deformity that caused both of his feet to turn inward, and was told he would never walk. For the first two years of his life, Polynice had to constantly wear a cast on both legs. “My feet had to be reset and positioned,” he said. “It was very difficult, especially in Haiti, [where] we don’t have the best healthcare.” Once he eventually (and triumphantly) learned to walk, the rest was easy; the time between the first moment Polynice ever picked up a basketball and his eventual NBA debut was shockingly only seven years. During the 6-foot-11 center’s 15-year NBA career, he played for the SuperSonics, Clippers, Pistons, Kings, and Jazz.
4 Sean Elliott
Following a 1998-99 championship run in his second stint with the San Antonio Spurs, two-time All-Star forward Sean Elliott announced that he had been previously diagnosed with a potentially-terminal kidney disease, focal segmental glomerulosclerosis, over five years prior. Despite attempting treatment with medication, Elliott would need a kidney transplant. Not only did he eventually receive one from his brother, but to the surprise of many, Elliott managed to return for the tail end of the 1999-00 NBA season, playing in San Antonio’s last 19 games. He also started 34 of the 52 games he played in the Spurs’ 2000-01 season, before retiring in 2001.
3 Lamarcus Aldridge
University of Texas standout power forward/center Lamarcus Aldridge was in his rookie NBA season when his health suddenly took a turn. After working his way up to a starting role with the Portland Trailblazers, Aldridge experienced dizziness and a rapid heartbeat seven minutes into a March 31, 2007 game, and was taken to the hospital. Tests revealed he suffered from the heart condition Wolff-Parkinson-White syndrome, which caused him to miss the remainder of the season. Undeterred, Aldridge not only returned the following year, but he has played in at least 69 games almost every season since. The only exception was the beginning of the lockout-shortened 2011-12 season, when he missed two weeks following surgery for a resurgence of his syndrome.
2 Alonzo Mourning
On November 25, 2003, seven-time All-Star Alonzo Mourning announced he was retiring from the NBA due to complications from focal segmental glomerulosclerosis, the kidney disease that also plagued Sean Elliott a few years earlier. On the very same day, retired U.S. Marine Jason Cooper, Mourning’s estranged cousin who only knew him through basketball, learned of the news while visiting Alonzo’s terminally ill grandmother. Many people were tested for compatibility (including NBA superstar Patrick Ewing), but only Cooper matched, and Mourning found out on the day of his grandmother’s funeral that he would be receiving his cousin’s kidney. Shockingly, not only did Mourning emerge from retirement in 2004, but he also eventually helped the Miami Heat win their first-ever NBA title in 2006.
1 Magic Johnson
With the unbelievable basketball career and post-playing HIV activism and philanthropy of Magic Johnson, most people forget (or never even knew) that Earvin “Magic” Johnson actually suffered from a learning disability at an early age. Johnson struggled with dyslexia as a child, which made some people doubt he would ever read or become a functioning member of society, let alone one of the greatest basketball players of all time. He took summer courses to catch up and pass all his classes, and eventually graduated high school and got accepted to Michigan State. I’ll spare you the already-well-known details of his illustrious NBA career, as it’s abundantly clear Johnson is a bonafide success story.
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