Top 5 Careers Cut Short
Yao Ming’s retirement earlier this summer was a blow not just to basketball fans in China, but to basketball fans everywhere, because a player that big and that skilled simply doesn’t come along every day. The fact he was forced into calling it quits at so young an age strictly because of injuries is truly heartbreaking. Yao hasn’t played meaningful minutes in an NBA season since he was 28 years old, which means the guy’s career was basically over when most other players are just hitting their prime.
It’s a tragedy, to be certain, but is it the most tragic early end to a player’s career in league history? Not even close, as we’ll see in today’s top five. The following are the players whose careers were cut too short for one reason or another, but all have stories that still make fans shake their heads and wonder what could have been…
#5 – Magic Johnson, L.A. Lakers – We know without question that Magic Johnson was one of the ten best players in NBA history, and he earned that distinction retiring about five years before he was ready. At age 31, Johnson contracted the HIV virus, which in 1991 was basically considered a death sentence that forced him to quit basketball immediately.
The fact he made a brief comeback in 1995-1996 and averaged 14.6 ppg, 6.9 apg, and 5.7 rpg shows that he still had game despite being away from professional basketball for over four years makes us wonder what his final career numbers would’ve looked like had he never retired at all. Were the world a little less afraid of HIV and AIDS at the time, he might have continued his career, but instead we’re left wondering how many more championships he may have won (perhaps even a couple at the expense of Michael Jordan’s six-ring legacy) had he never left the game.
#4 – Drazen Petrovic, New Jersey Nets – There are so many “what-if’s” surrounding Petrovic’s career it’s borderline painful to recall them all. He was drafted as a 21-year-old but didn’t make it to the NBA until four years later. Then he spent his first season buried on the bench in Portland, a team that never gave him a full chance to shine. He finally started to flourish as one of the deadliest shooters in the league after a trade in his second season to the New Jersey Nets, where he quickly transformed into the player so many people thought he could be.
The problem, of course, was that he died at age 28 in an offseason car accident in Germany. Petrovic obviously had a huge impact on the influx of European players to come in the following years, but the real tragedy is that he passed away right as his NBA career was starting to take off. Had he lived, we may be talking about him as one of the best three-point shooters of all time.
#3 – Jay Williams, Chicago Bulls – Rebuilding the Bulls after Jordan retired and the rest of that championship squad moved on to other teams was no easy task. Those early 2000′s Chicago teams lost a record number of games, and the first real sign of hope for the future, at least after the team traded away Elton Brand, was the drafting of Duke point guard Jay Williams.
He didn’t have a great rookie season, but it wasn’t an awful one either, and most smart basketball people assumed he’d see steady improvement his first few years and eventually end up playing on an All-Star level. Had he not crashed his motorcycle, for which he had no license, in the summer following that rookie campaign, those smart basketball people may have been proven right. Instead, we’ll never know.
Williams underwent a number of surgeries and worked very hard to get himself back into playing shape, but he never got onto another regular season NBA team. Chicago, meanwhile, had to draft another point guard in Kirk Hinrich the very next year with their lottery pick, taking a Jay-Williams-sized step backwards in their rebuilding process.
#2 – Bill Walton, Portland Trail Blazers – The 1977 Blazers were one of the most exciting teams in the history of the game, and their star, Bill Walton, had one of the snazziest array of post moves anybody had ever seen. It was borderline impossible to stop the guy when he was healthy and at his best. The problem, of course, is that he was almost never healthy.
In ten seasons in the league, he missed four full seasons and played more than 67 games only once. Surgery after surgery on his foot failed to completely fix the ongoing problems, and as a result one of the most gifted post players of all time never really was given the opportunity to show what he could do on a consistent basis. He still managed to win two championships in his career, but things were never really the same after that 1977 season. With healthier feet, Walton probably would’ve been more than just a Hall of Famer; he’d be a legend.
#1 – Len Bias, Boston Celtics – Magic Johnson and Larry Bird were the 1980′s biggest basketball stars, but in the middle of the decade, that torch was to be shared and eventually passed on to the next generation, led by Chicago’s Michael Jordan and University of Maryland stud Len Bias. Jordan’s career success is well-documented, while Bias never played a single NBA game.
Those who saw Bias play in college said he could’ve been every bit as good as Michael Jordan and possibly even better. I’m not sure any of us necessarily buy that, but his combination of size (6’8″), athleticism, and physical ability certainly had a lot of teams excited about him, most notably the Boston Celtics, who took him with the 2nd overall pick in the 1986 draft.
Bias died two days after getting drafted due to a cocaine overdose. He was 22 years old and prepared to join the defending champion Celtics, obviously one of the most talented teams in the league. Had he ended up in Beantown, the Celtics probably would’ve put together a string of a few more championships, then Larry Bird would’ve retired and Bias could’ve kept the C’s competitive through the Jordan Era. It boggles the mind to think about what kind of dynasty Boston could’ve strung together with Bias, and one night’s celebration taken too far ruined it all.
Yao Ming, Houston Rockets– While Yao is not the most tragic case of a career cut short by injuries, he certainly deserves mentioning because of the player he could’ve been had he been able to play 75+ games every season of his eight-year career. But in truth, he only was able to accomplish that four times, and he only played five games in his last two seasons as a Rocket, making his recent retirement not all that surprising. What makes this so sad is the fact that we all knew it was going to happen.
From the outset, there were concerns about how the knees and feet of someone that large would hold up over time, and when you add in all the double-duty he pulled early in his career between the NBA and the Chinese National team, there was just no way he was ever going to have a long career like other legendary big men who turned into old farts long before retiring, such as Shaquille O’Neal, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Robert Parish, and others. Instead, Yao retired at age 30, which is when most other players are just hitting their primes.
Greg Oden & Brandon Roy, Portland Trail Blazers – We can’t put either guy in the top five just yet because they’ve still got years left to their career to prove their worth. But let’s face it; Oden’s entire NBA career thus far has been either an injury, an injury recovery, or an injury waiting to happen, and Brandon Roy’s poor knees aren’t going to afford him many more All-Star seasons, if any. Who knows how good the Blazers could’ve been had their two best potential players stayed healthy long enough to gel with each other and the rest of their talented young roster? Hopefully, they’ve each got enough left in their various lower extremities to get at least a few solid runs out of their bodies before it’s too late.
Nobody wants to see players and human beings as good as Oden and Roy go through the problems that some of the other guys on this list went through, but the fact is that sometimes really good young players just don’t get the opportunity to play deep into their 30s. Brad Daugherty, Reggie Lewis, DaJuan Wagner—all these guys could’ve been spectacular had they just been given the time and/or good fortune to do so, but things don’t always work out for everybody that plays the game.
At least nobody has made Bias’s mistake again. Injuries aren’t always avoidable, but things like that are. Hopefully, that’s the way it stays, and we can keep future tragic stories of athletes lost too soon to a minimum.