Drugs and sports have an all-too-comfortable relationship with each other, and it’s important to understand why that is the case. Many professional athletes were raised in poverty or otherwise grew up in the kind of situations where you’re always looking for an escape. For prospective NBA players, basketball can be that escape, but as their career advances, new options emerge. When you’re young, rich, and have your whole world ahead of you, performance enhancing and recreational drugs are suddenly a very appealing option. It’s a common misconception that the day a star athlete starts doing drugs is the day they forfeit their career. It’s not that simple. Some star athletes did drugs throughout their careers and still retired untarnished.
Not every NBA player is so lucky. What likely started as a casual drug habit soon become an addiction that demanded more attention from them than basketball did. Once that happened, it was game over. While many NBA players have succumbed to one substance or another, there are a select few number of players who traded in a promising career for a lifetime of substance abuse issues. These are the top 15 NBA players who were ruined by substance abuse.
15. Richard Dumas
While this list is primarily about NBA players who messed up their careers due to substance abuse issues, let it be known that substance abuse might have been the least of Dumas’ problems. After being drafted in the second round of the 1991 NBA Draft, Dumas proceeded to turn in an exceptional rookie season as a member of the Phoenix Suns. He entered rehab at the start of the next season to deal with various substance abuse issues, He tried to mount a comeback, but was never the same. Later in his life, Dumas was arrested for stealing from various retail stores over a period of years. He later stole from a store on a military base and was reportedly involved in a series of such petty crimes.
14 Michael Ray Richardson
As the fourth overall pick in the 1978 NBA Draft, Richardson entered the league burdened with high expectations. Richardson immediately lived up to nearly all expectations and established himself as a particularly great defensive player who could also put up points when called upon. A few years after he joined the league, many were already starting to call Richardson one of the NBA’s best. Then, in 1986, David Stern banned him for life due to Richardson’s rampant cocaine usage. Richardson felt he was being discriminated against because he was black and proceeded to speak out against the NBA while cycling further into depression. He eventually went on to play international basketball but continued to make controversial statements that kept him in trouble. He has, however, reportedly stopped using cocaine.
13 William Bedford
In the ‘80s, big centers ruled the NBA. While guys like Magic Johnson and Michael Jordan were certainly making the case for high-scorers and all-around performers becoming major stars, the popular belief was that every team needed a big man anchoring the offense. The Phoenix Suns thought they got their big man of the future when they drafted William Bedford in 1986. They thought they were getting a seven foot tall future star. What they really got was a big man with a big need for cocaine. Bedford’s career stats sank as his cocaine use increased over the years. Even after he left the NBA, Bedford struggled to get his life together. He was eventually arrested in 2003 for marijuana smuggling and sent to prison for 10 years. He currently coaches basketball in Memphis.
12 John Drew
The John Drew story is a pretty sad one. In 1974, he was drafted by the Atlanta Hawks. At the time, Drew was thought of as a pretty good prospect who might be able to become great but wasn’t necessarily going to be great right away. As a rookie, Drew averaged 18.5 points per game and 10.7 rebounds per game. He continued to improve year over year but was suspended in 1983 so that he could attend drug rehab. After winning NBA Comeback Player of the Year the following season, John Drew began using cocaine again.
In 1986, he became the first player to be banned for life over drug use. Drew never saved his once promising basketball career, but he did manage to get his life together some years later.
11 Chris “Birdman” Andersen
Chris Andersen wasn’t a college basketball star. In fact, he endured a pretty rough childhood that severely limited his options in regards to colleges. Eventually, he played in some international exhibition games which caught the attention of NBA scouts. He was eventually acquired by the Nuggets in2001 and immediately made a name for himself as a very eccentric, yet talented, big man. Andersen’s drug suspension came in 2006 when the NBA found him guilty of violating the league’s substance abuse policies.
While Andersen returned to the NBA following his suspension, his career was never quite the same. Andersen ceased to improve year after year and became a bit player who was best known for his ability to foul and draw fouls when called upon.
10 Roy Tarpley
Once upon a time, the University of Michigan was the premiere place for future NBA stars to go if they wanted to maximize their exposure and chances of winning a National Championship. So, when Roy Tarpley dominated the NCAA during his time at Michigan, many teams - including the Dallas Mavericks who snagged him in the first round of the 1986 NBA Draft - felt that Tarpley was bound for greatness. As it turned out, most of Tarpley’s greatness was limited to his rookie season. After a brilliant first year, Tarpley’s alcohol abuse issues became unmanageable. Following his third DWI arrest while a member of the NBA, the league eventually decided to suspend Tarpley. Soon after joining the NBA in 1994, he was suspended for life after another incident involving alcohol. Tarpley truly could have been a special player.
9 Lewis Lloyd/Mitchell Wiggins
These two are forever linked together by their shared history both on and off the court. While Lloyd and Wiggins didn’t play together in high school or college - Lloyd played at Drake, Wiggins at Florida State - they eventually found their way onto the Houston Rockets’ roster. While Wiggins was seen as a somewhat restrained individual and Lloyd was thought of as much more of a playboy, both men would test positive for cocaine and be suspended by the league during a promising run the Houston Rockets were enjoying. Following this incident, neither man found a way to put their past behind them. Lloyd’s career ended after a couple of comeback games, while Wiggins’ brilliant play couldn’t outshine his drug habits. Actually, many of you might know Wiggins best as the father of current Minnesota Timberwolves star, Andrew Wiggins.
8 Keon Clark
More often than not, some of the most dangerous people are those who can actually function as addicts. Because they often don’t exhibit any warning signs of addiction, the reveal of their problems are usually quite dramatic. Such is the case with Keon Clark. Clark’s brilliant collegiate play made him a top-20 pick during the 1998 NBA Draft. In his first few years, Clark proved to be a low-key defensive powerhouse with the potential to become a star. He never quite reached that tier, though, and it seems the reason he didn’t may have something to do with his problems with alcohol.
Following several incidents related to a drug arrest in 2006, Clark admitted that he had been drinking pretty much every day since high school and never played a game in the NBA while sober. He even stated he would drink during halftime.
7 John Lucas II
When John Lucas II was selected first overall by the Houston Rockets in 1976, everyone involved with the deal just knew that Houston had signed a future star. They were right. Granted, his NBA numbers never quite lived up to his college stats, but Lucas was an undeniably talented point guard who helped lead Houston - and other teams - to several successful years. That’s why everyone was shocked to learn that Lucas was the third man on the famous 1986 Houston Rockets team that was addicted to cocaine. After Mitchell Wiggins and Lewis Lloyd were suspended for their drug usage, Lucas voluntarily submitted himself to rehab in order to battle his own abuse issues. While Lucas ended up mounting a fairly successful comeback, his career was forever hindered by his association with addiction.
6 David Thompson
There’s a possibility that you don’t know the name David Thompson, but you really should. Thompson wasn’t just a great basketball player, he was a true legend who helped show the world how a shooting guard could dominate the court. In his final year at North Carolina State, Thompson averaged 29 points a game to go along with 8.2 rebounds a game. To this day, his number is the only one NC State has ever retired. In the NBA and ABA, Thompson continued to exhibit the kind of exceptional play that led some to describe him as the Michael Jordan of his era. The reason you might not know David Thompson’s name is because Thompson took his record breaking 1979 contract and used it to feed his substance abuse issues. Thompson became lost in the cocaine scene and didn’t really get his life together until well after his retirement. Despite being inducted into the NBA Hall of Fame, Thompson’s sub-par later years brought on by his drug use forever impacted his legacy.
5 Vin Baker
Prior to the 1998-99 NBA lockout, Vin Baker had it all. He was the 8th overall pick in the 1993 draft and immediately began to play like a top-10 pick. Baker’s imposing style helped him to make four straight All-Star rosters from 1995-1998 and a couple of All-NBA teams during that time. Then, when he came back from the NBA lockout, he had gained somewhere in the neighborhood of 80 pounds. At that time, Celtics coach Jim O’Brien quickly discovered that Baker was a raging alcoholic who liked to drink heavily after bad games. The Celtics quickly cut him and while Baker did go on to play for other teams, he was never able to rise above the ranks of a reserve player.
4 Duane Washington
You may not know Duane Washington that well, but you most certainly know his little brother, Derek Fisher. So did Washington have Fisher’s greatness? Not quite. Washington was drafted in the second round of the 1987 NBA Draft following a pretty good college career. Ultimately, Washington would only play 19 NBA games over a period of five years. That’s because the NBA suspended Washington for two years in 1988 due to a violation of the league’s substance abuse acts. It’s important to note that Washington could have come forward and admitted he had a drug problem in order to avoid suspension as was the NBA’s policy during this time.
Because he kept it a secret, he was essentially kicked out of the NBA for life. Later in life, Washington would be charged with hitting an elderly woman with his car and fleeing from the crime scene.
3 Chris Washburn
Sometimes, red flags during the draft process are really just the result of scouts being overly cautious. Other times, red flags are actual red flags and should be a warning to stay far away from a player. When the Golden State Warriors selected Chris Washburn with the third pic in the 1986 draft, they knew about his red flags.Scouts said that he lacked work ethic and had attitude problems. Golden State could only see the incredible numbers Washburn regularly put up. Soon, everyone learned that many of Washburn’s issues could be traced back to a severe cocaine problem that soon led to him being briefly bounced around the league for a brief period of time. Washburn is considered by many to be the greatest draft bust of all-time. Washburn admitted to living in crack houses and eating from garbage containers not long after he received a lifetime ban from the NBA in 1989. He eventually kicked his habit.
2 Len Bias
You may have noticed that many of the players on this list played during the ‘80s. That’s no coincidence. During the ‘80s, many young basketball players became ensnared by the massive amounts of cocaine and crack being tossed around. It’s why the NBA had to implement a lifetime ban drug policy system during this time. Ultimately, Len Bias would become the poster child for the drug problem. Bias achieved national fame during college, but when Bias died just days after being selected by the Boston Celtics in the 1986 NBA Draft, the whole nation learned his name. Bias’ death by cocaine overdose soon became the wake-up call that led many young stars to realize just how easily drugs could ruin even the most promising of athletes. Bias is considered the biggest “what if?” in NBA history.
1 Shawn Kemp
Len Bias may have been a “What if?” but we sadly know the full story of Shawn Kemp’s NBA career. Let’s be clear about one thing: Shawn Kemp was an incredible NBA player. Actually, that doesn’t really put his talent into perspective. Kemp was a six-time NBA All-Star whose talent level was just a notch below the best players of the era. Kemp was well on his way to a Hall of Fame career when he suddenly gained a tremendous amount of weight around the time of the lockout season and was soon exposed as a cocaine and alcohol addict. Kemp was never able to get back to his previous talent level and eventually sank his reputation following his inability to kick his habit during a couple of comeback attempts. Kemp eventually got his act together, but his reputation was forever hindered.