5 tragic deaths that rocked the NBA world and beyond

Kobe Bryant #24 reacts to a play.
Kobe Bryant #24 reacts to a play.
Omar Josef Guerrero

The NBA and the basketball world were shaken to its core on Thursday upon learning of the tragic death of Kentucky freshman Terrence Clarke. The devastating news pierced deep as the 19-year-old was about to step into his dreams of becoming a professional basketball player in a few months.

From the NCAA to the NBA, there was no shortage of people affected by the stunning news that called to mind similar tragedies that had previously stopped the basketball world in its tracks. The league is no stranger to the passing of players in ways that have left members of the NBA family and the world in tears.

NBA players who shocked the world with their deaths

5. Ricky Berry (1989)

Perhaps nothing tugs the human heart greater than a suicidal death.

Ricky Berry is considered the greatest basketball player in the history of San Jose State University in California. The Sacramento Kings drafted Berry in 1988 and he subsequently put up 11.0 points per game in 22.0 minutes of action during his rookie year.

“He was Reggie Miller with a handle,” said Berry’s former Kings teammate Kenny Smith to Marc J. Spears of The Undefeated.

But on Aug. 14, 1989, about an hour after a heated argument with his wife, the 24-year-old NBA player put a gun to his head and took his life, leaving behind a suicide note expressing his frustrations.

4. Drazen Petrovic (1993)

Named as a 1992/93 All-NBA 3rd Team member, Drazen Petrovic had the best season of his career and was widely believed to be the best European basketball player ever. The 6-foot-5 shooting guard was the leading scorer for the New Jersey Nets, averaging 22.3 points-per-game that season.

But in June of 1993, an out-of-control truck accidentally crashed into Petrovic’s car and took his life. At 28 years old, Petrovic was gone just as he was entering the prime years of his career.

The Croatian was the first international player to succeed in the NBA and paved the way for the globalization of the league.

"Drazen Petrovic was an extraordinary young man, and a true pioneer in the global sports of basketball," then NBA commissioner David Stern said.

The New Jersey Nets honored Petrovic by retiring his jersey number. He was later immortalized after being inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in 2002, and into the FIBA Hall of Fame in 2007.

3. Reggie Lewis (1993)

During the early 1990s, Reggie Lewis represented the future of the proud Boston Celtics franchise. He was the next Celtics superstar after the Big Three of Larry Bird, Kevin McHale and Robert Parish. Named an NBA All-Star in 1992, Lewis carried the franchise to the playoffs that year, averaging 28.0 points, 4.3 rebounds and 2.4 steals per game in the postseason.

A year later, in Game 1 of the first round of the 1993 NBA Playoffs, Lewis collapsed to the floor to the horror of everyone in the arena. After getting up moments later and trying to play through the dizziness, he was subbed out for good and was sidelined for the series.

On July 27, while playing a pickup game preparing for the next season, Lewis collapsed again as he went into cardiac arrest and was soon pronounced dead.

“Could things have been handled differently or better?” asked Lewis' wife, Donna Harris Lewis. “Of course they could have. Everybody learned some valuable lessons. His life could have been saved.”

Lewis was just 27 years old at the time of his death, cutting short a career that was destined for greatness.

2. Len Bias (1986)

Before Lewis’ untimely death, there was another future star for the Boston Celtics whose light faded too early.

Len Bias from the University of Maryland [Image: Malcolm Emmons-USA TODAY Sports]
Len Bias from the University of Maryland [Image: Malcolm Emmons-USA TODAY Sports]

Len Bias, a 6-foot-8 athletic wonder from the University of Maryland, was twice named ACC Player of the Year and the 1984 ACC Tournament MVP. In his senior year, he averaged 23.2 points and 7.0 rebounds per game.

After the Celtics had just won the 1986 NBA title, they took Bias with the No. 1 overall pick in the June draft. Two days later, during a party with his friends, Bias died from a cocaine overdose in a Maryland dorm room.

The 22-year-old’s death destroyed the hopes and dreams of every Celtics fan, not to mention those of his family who wanted nothing more than to watch him succeed.

"It's the cruelest thing I've ever heard," Larry Bird told Sports Illustrated at the time.

To this day, many continue to mourn and lament the tragic loss of one of the most talented players never to set foot in the NBA.

1. Kobe Bryant (2020)

Unlike the rest of the players on this list, Kobe Bryant was able to live out his dream of playing in the NBA. But that doesn’t take away from the emotional impact of his passing.

Jennifer Hudson performs a tribute to Kobe Bryant before the 69th NBA All-Star Game.
Jennifer Hudson performs a tribute to Kobe Bryant before the 69th NBA All-Star Game.

Bryant achieved more than what could be expected from a high school recruit who jumped into the NBA. The 13th pick of the 1996 draft is one of the greatest players in league history and widely regarded as the greatest LA Lakers player ever.

He was well into his retirement when tragedy struck on Jan. 26, 2020, as a helicopter crash ended the life of Bryant, his daughter and seven other individuals. The devastating news became the biggest story around the world, bringing many to tears, including his multitude of fans, and especially his wife and three remaining daughters.

"Kobe was the MVP of girl dads," said the late Bryant’s wife, Vanessa during her emotional tribute at Staples Center for the memorial service on Feb. 24 that year.
"He was the most amazing husband - Kobe loved me more than I could ever express or put into words."

This was a punch to the gut unlike any the basketball world had ever experienced. Many mourned Bryant's death for months to come. The legendary shooting guard will forever be immortalized in NBA history.

Also Read: 5 NBA teams that have a realistic shot at dethroning LA Lakers in the playoffs | NBA season 2020-21

Edited by Utathya Ghosh
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