A Brief History
On May 11, 2011, former NBA and current European league basketball player Robert Traylor died of an apparent heart attack at his home in Puerto Rico. He was only 34 years old and had played in a professional basketball game only a couple of weeks prior to his untimely death. Sadly, the history of basketball is filled with similar sad stories, and today we take a look at some of these athletes that died too young.
(By the way, the loss of Kobe Bryant in January of 2020 in a helicopter crash at the age of 41 was shocking, but recent enough that we believe our readers have already recently read enough about his wonderful career and tragic death. We mean no slight to his memory.)
1. Robert Traylor, age 34.
Known as “Tractor” Traylor because of his ruggedness and physical play, this 6 foot 8 inch powerhouse weighed a hefty 290 pounds and played center and forward. While talking to his wife on the telephone, the line went blank, causing the wife to call the police to check on Robert. When the police arrived, they found Traylor dead of an apparent heart attack. He had played in the NBA from 1998 to 2005, and then in European pro basketball from 2006 to 2011. A first round draft pick in 1998, Traylor was immediately traded for Dirk Nowitzki, a German basketball prospect that went on to play with the Dallas Mavericks from 1998 to 2019, a remarkable career that saw him win an MVP award and finish with the 6th highest points scored total in NBA history, making the trade perhaps the best/worst trade in NBA history.
2. Wilt Chamberlain, 63.
Although the oldest player we have listed here, 63 (the author’s current age!) is too young for an otherwise healthy athlete to keel over and die. One of the most dominating players of all time, Chamberlain was the leading scorer in NBA history when he retired and had once scored 100 points in a single NBA game, the all time record. Known as “Wilt the Stilt” or “The Big Dipper” because of his 7 foot height, he AVERAGED over 30 points per game and 22 rebounds per game for his entire career! He also dished out 4.4 assists per game, a number some ball hog guards could aim for. In the 1961-1962 season, Wilt averaged 50.4 points scored per game, a scoring average never approached by any other player. Chamberlain died of congestive heart failure after having had dental surgery a week before he died. Having claimed to have had sex with 20,000 women in his life, we wonder if he just wore his heart out!
3. Pete Maravich, 40.
A 6 foot 5 inch shooting guard, shooting was what made this guy get the name “Pistol Pete,” a prolific scorer who never shied away from launching the ball at the hoop. Born in Pennsylvania but playing high school ball in the Carolinas and college ball at LSU, Pete was the #3 overall pick in the 1970 NBA draft, and paid off with a stellar career scoring 24.2 points per game and dealing 5.4 assists per game. Playing before the 3 point shot was instituted, Maravich was known for lobbing in ultra long shots that would have greatly padded his scoring totals if the 3 point rule had been in effect. An authority no less than the great John Havlicek said of Maravich, “the best ball-handler of all time was Pete Maravich.” Knee problems cut his spectacular career short at the age of only 30, and his untimely death at the age of 40 came when he was playing a casual pick-up game of hoops at a church gym. His last words were, “I feel great!” He then died of a heart attack brought on by a previously undiagnosed congenital heart defect.
4. Jason Collier, 28.
Only 5 years after Malik Sealy died as an active NBA player, Jason Collier died in 2005 of a heart attack during the off season from a previously unknown condition of having an enlarged heart. A first round pick in the 2000 NBA draft (#15 overall), the 7 foot tall Collier did not have a chance to blossom into the player his college career and high draft status indicated, having a career best year of 2003-2004 in which he scored 11.3 points per game.
5. Lorenzen Wright, 34.
The 7th overall pick of the 1996 NBA draft, Wright played for several teams for 13 NBA seasons, never reaching the promise of his lofty draft status. In 2010, during the off-season,Wright disappeared, said by his wife to have left for unknown places with a load of money and drugs. His dead body was found several days later, having been shot to death. A mysterious 911 call had been made on Wright’s cell phone, in which 11 shots could be heard being fired. The dispatcher (moron?) did not report the call to a supervisor for over a week after the call, which of course would have resulted in quicker law enforcement involvement in searching for the missing ballplayer. The obvious victim of a murder, Wright’s case went unsolved for years, finally getting a break in 2017 when the murder weapon was found in a lake in Mississippi. A Shelby County, Tennessee church deacon was arrested for the murder, and Wright’s ex-wife was indicted as a co-conspirator. The ex-wife pled guilty to “facilitation” of murder and got a 30 year prison sentence. Motive for the murder was believed to be a $1 million insurance policy on Wright’s life.
6. Nick Vanos, 24.
Selected with the #32 overall pick of the1985 NBA draft, Nick’s promising career was cut short after only 2 years with the Phoenix Suns. The 7 foot 1 inch center died tragically in an airliner crash on take off from Detroit in 1987, along with a total of 154 passengers on the plane, including his fiancé. Also killed were 2 motorists on the ground.
7. Ricky Berry, 24.
Another high draft pick, Berry was snagged by the Sacramento Kings of the NBA in the 1988 draft, and played a single season of pro basketball, turning in a solid performance of 11.0 points per game with a 40.6 % 3 point field goal accuracy. During the off season in 1989, Berry died of an apparent self-inflicted gunshot, and left a suicide note although he was not known to be troubled or depressed prior to the tragedy.
8. Reggie Lewis, 27.
In 1993, Lewis played in his last NBA game, a playoff game in which he scored 17 points in only 13 minutes before suffering from dizziness and confusion after collapsing on the court. Helped to the locker room, he actually returned to the game briefly before suffering similar symptoms once again. Intensive medical examination revealed Lewis suffered from “focal cardiomyopathy,” a debilitating heart condition that spelled the end of his basketball career. Seeking a second opinion, Lewis was then diagnosed with a less threatening condition, “neurocardiogenic syncope.” Only 3 months after his collapse during the playoff game, Lewis suffered a fatal heart attack during an off season work out. A pair of Brandeis University police officers performed CPR on the downed athlete, but to no avail. (Note: This author has performed CPR on about a dozen people while working as a police officer, all but one of whom died.)
9. Len Bias, 22.
Selected with the #2 pick of the 1986 NBA draft, the Boston Celtics thought they had a sure bet for a future Hall of Famer in Len Bias, a former standout at the University of Maryland. The Cleveland Cavaliers had the first pick that year, and used it to choose Brad Daugherty of the University of North Carolina Tar Heels, a center, a steady and reliable 7 footer that played and led his life with consistent decency, playing 9 years in the NBA and earning 5 selections to the All Star Game. Many Cleveland fans groaned when the Cavs snagged big Brad instead of the much flashier Bias, but this author was tickled pink with the Cav’s selection, as Daugherty was clearly a young man of high moral character and a selfless team player. (I argued with my brother about this subject.) While celebrating his selection with the #2 pick and the riches that awaited him in the professional ranks, Bias made the ill advised choice to indulge in cocaine, and suffered a life ending heart attack induced by using the drug less than 2 days after being selected! He was only 22 years old and Boston fans to this day regret the wonderful career that might have been.
10. Hank Gathers, 23.
Gathers has the distinction of being only the second player in NCAA history to lead the nation’s college players in scoring and rebounding in the same year (1989). During his senior year at Loyola Marymount University, he was diagnosed with an irregular heartbeat after he collapsed on the court. Although given medicine and a return to the basketball court a few weeks later, he was suffering from a lack of energy and his medication was increased. He collapsed and died during a WCC tournament game in 1990 during his senior year, ending what would have been a promising career in the NBA had he survived to play in the big leagues. Rumors concerning his death included that he did not take his medication on game days in order to prevent the lethargy induced by the prescription.
Plus, Many Car Crash Victims.
Too many pro basketball players have died during their careers or soon afterwards due to car crashes, and rather than merely picking one to represent the bunch, we acknowledge some of them here: Drazen Petrovic (28), Eddie Griffin (25), Malik Sealy (30), bobby Phils (30), terry Furlow (25), and Fernando Martin (27),
Question for students (and subscribers): Who is your favorite basketball player of all time? Please let us know in the comments section below this article.
Your readership is much appreciated!
For more information, please see…
Grange, Michael. Basketball’s Greatest Stars. Firefly Book, 2018.
Jankowski, Matt. The Greatest Basketball Players of All Time. Gareth Stevens Publishing, 2020.