Being a skilled basketball player does not make someone immune to the difficulties of real life. For the dozen players below, friends, fans and families felt the pain of their deaths all too soon.
There have been 12 NBA players who died while actively playing in the league. Five players died in various types of car crashes, three died from heart conditions, two players died by suicide, one died in a plane crash and one was shot upon mistakenly entering the wrong apartment.
It is worth noting that deciding which players were active in the NBA at the time of their death can be difficult.
Len Bias never actually played in the NBA, but, since he had been drafted by the Celtics before his death and was about to begin an NBA career, I include him in this list.
Some players, like Eddie Griffin and Bill Robinzine, were recently released by NBA teams when they died. But since they had just completed NBA seasons and had not retired, I include them as well.
Conrad McRae could be included in this list. He died running wind sprints for the Orlando Magic summer league team.
While McRae was drafted in the second round of the 1993 NBA Draft, he played all seven of his professional seasons overseas.
McRae was unlikely to sign a deal with the Magic and was more likely to continue his career in Europe, so I did not include him. McRae never played an NBA game. He died from a heart condition.
Table of Contents
Which NBA Players Died While Still Playing?
|Cause of Death
Terry Furlow was a star high school player in Flint, Michigan who served as an inspiration for Magic Johnson. Furlow went from high school to college in Michigan, becoming a national name for the Michigan State Spartans.
Furlow’s professional career was all-too-brief. He played four seasons in the league and moved around a lot in those four years.
He was drafted by the 76ers but traded quickly to the Cavaliers. He spent two seasons in Cleveland before being moved to Atlanta.
He was once again moved from Atlanta to his last team – the Utah Jazz. Furlow averaged 11 points per game for his career, including a career-high 16 per game for the Jazz in his final seasons.
Furlow died tragically on May 23, 1980 at the age of 25 in a car crash on an Ohio highway.
Furlow was traveling at a high speed when he crashed. . An autopsy showed there were drugs in his system at the time of the crash and police found drugs and an open alcohol container in the car.
|Cause of Death
Bill Robinzine played seven seasons in the NBA. He played five seasons with the Kansas City (new Sacramento) Kings and one season each for Cleveland, Dallas and the Utah Jazz.
Robinzine was a power forward known for toughness, rebounding and defense. He averaged ten points and six rebounds per game for his career.
Robinzine’s best years were for the Kings, though he also had a nice bounce-back year with the Mavericks in his second-to-last year in the NBA when he was one of the team’s leading scorers.
He was perhaps best known for being under the rim for one of Darryl Dawkins backboard shattering dunks.
Dawkins cited Robinzine in his name for the dunk: The Chocolate-Thunder-Flying, Robinzine-Crying, Teeth-Shaking, Glass-Breaking, Rump-Roasting, Bun-Toasting, Wham-Bam, Glass-Breaker-I-Am-Jam.
Unfortunately for Robinzine and his loved ones, things were not all fun and games for him. In September of 1982, he died by suicide. He was a free agent at the time.
His wife and friends reported that he was struggling to deal with the potential loss of his basketball career and struggling with some financial issues that they all believed were quite manageable.
|Cause of Death
|Heart Failure (related to cocaine use)
Len Bias’ tragic death is well known among most sports fans. Bias was a huge college basketball star for the Maryland Terrapins.
During his four years at Maryland, Bias developed from a relatively raw athlete to a dominant force. He led the competitive ACC conference in scoring his junior year and won back-to-back Player of the Year awards in the league.
In his senior season, Bias was selected as an All American. He became one of the most sought after players in the 1986 NBA Draft.
Brad Daugherty, a center from conference rival North Carolina, went first overall to the Cleveland Cavaliers.
The 1986 Boston Celtics were one of the greatest teams of all time. To fans, like me, it seemed like a dream that they had somehow won the rights to the 2nd pick in the draft that year. To the rest of the league it seemed unfair.
Red Auerbach, the legendary Celtics president, had traded Gerald Henderson to the Seattle SuperSonics in 1984 for the pick that ended up being 2nd overall in 1986.
The Celtics chose Bias with that pick and seemed destined to continue their dynasty for many years to come. That was not to be.
Two days after the draft, on June 19, 1986 Bias spent part of the night using cocaine with friends, suffered a seizure and died. He was only 22 years old at the time.
|Cause of Death
Nick Vanos was a 7’1” center who played college ball for the University of Santa Clara. He was chosen by the Phoenix Suns in the second round of the 1985 NBA Draft.
Vanos played in 11 games his rookie season and 57 games his second season. He averaged only 11 minutes per game in year two and scored 3 points per game.
On August 16, 1987, Vanos died in a well-known plane crash. He and his fiancee Carolyn Cohen had gone to Detroit to visit her family. They were on Northwest Airlines flight 255 returning to the Phoenix area.
The plane crashed shortly after taking off from Detroit. The NTSB later determined the cause of the accident was pilot error. 148 of the 149 people on board died along with two people on the ground.
The sole survivor was a four-year-old who suffered serious injuries.
|Cause of Death
Ricky Berry grew up in California the son of a coach. He starred in high school and went to Oregon State for one season.
Berry left Oregon State and transferred to San Jose State where his father, Bill Berry, was the head coach. At San Jose State he became a star, increasing his scoring average from 17 in his first season all the way to 24 points per game his senior year.
Berry was a shooter. He shot 47% from three-point land in college. He caught the attention of NBA scouts and was chosen 18th overall by the Sacramento Kings in the 1988 NBA Draft.
Sadly, Berry would only play one season for the Kings. He had a good rookie year, averaging 11 points per game and shooting 41% from 3 on 2.5 attempts per game.
Basketball-wise, all signs pointed up for Berry. He looked to be poised for a solid, if not outstanding, NBA career.
But in the summer after his rookie season, Berry died by suicide. He took his life at the age of 24.
Reports after the suicide indicated that Berry had not shown signs of depression, but he did leave a note pointing towards difficulties in his marriage. Berry’s death was a complete shock to nearly everyone in his life.
|Cause of Death
|New Jersey Nets
Petrović was a dominant international player who played first for the Yugoslav and then the Croatian national teams. He won three Olympic medals and two World Cup medals including Gold in the 1990 World Championships.
Petrović began playing professionally in Europe but came to the NBA in 1989. After coming to the U.S, Petrović’s career started slowly.
He came off the bench for Portland and was not a star. Petrović did not like the way the Blazers were using him nor his lack of playing time in a crowded Portland backcourt. He sought, and was given, a trade in the ‘90-’91 NBA season, his second year in the league.
Everything changed with the trade to the New Jersey Nets. In his first season with the Nets, Petrović averaged 12 points per game for the ½ season he played in New Jersey.
The next two years Petrović averaged over twenty points per game. In both seasons he shot 45% from three. In 1993, he made the All NBA 3rd Team.
Petrović was headed for true NBA stardom when tragedy struck. On June 7, 1993, he was killed in a car accident in Germany.
Petrović was a sleeping passenger in a car that was suddenly cut off by a semi-truck.
Petrović was ejected from the car and died from his injuries. He was 28 years old.
Petrović was inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame, due in large part to his dominant play in international competitions and European leagues. His two great seasons with the Nets also contributed to his selection.
|Cause of Death
Like Len Bias’ death seven years prior, most sports fans are familiar with the passing of Reggie Lewis. Lewis is likely the player on this tragic list who accomplished the most in the NBA.
That is not to say Lewis is the best player on this list – the nature of the list makes it so we will never know. But Lewis was a budding NBA star when he died and had already fulfilled much of his immense potential.
Lewis grew up in Baltimore and was a member of an insanely talented Dunbar High team that featured fellow NBA first round picks Muggsy Bogues and Reggie Williams as well as college star, and 2nd round pick, David Wingate.
Lewis attended Northeastern University in Boston where he led the Huskies to the NCAA tournament all four years. He was drafted 22nd overall by the Boston Celtics the year after the team had picked Len Bias.
Lewis stayed at that level in his second through sixth seasons, making the NBA All Star game in 1992.
In the 1993 playoffs, Lewis collapsed on the court. He was initially diagnosed with a career-ending heart ailment, but sought a second opinion.
He was given a second opinion that he had a less-serious heart condition and began to work out in preparation for rejoining the Celtics the following season.
On July 27th, 1993 Lewis collapsed while practicing at Brandeis University in Waltham, Massachusetts. Attempts to revive him were unsuccessful and Lewis died at the age of 27.
The official cause of death was listed as a structural heart defect.
|Cause of Death
Bobby Phills was a 6’5” shooting guard known for his physical defense and outside shooting. He grew up in Louisiana and attended Southern University.
After leading college basketball in three-point field goals per game as a senior, Phills was a second round pick in the 1991 NBA Draft.
Phills did not stick around with Milwaukee, the team that drafted him, but made it back to the NBA quickly after a brief stop in the CBA.
He signed with Cleveland and remained in the league for nine seasons. Phills got his shot in the NBA mostly because of his defense, quickly establishing himself as a physical force on that end of the floor.
Eventually, Phills became a better scorer in the NBA as well who got his points mostly from outside shooting. He averaged 14 points per game in his sixth season for the Cavs.
After leaving Cleveland, Phills signed with the Hornets. He scored 14 points per game in his second season with Charlotte and ended his career averaging 11 points per game.
On January 12, 2000 Phills was killed in a car accident in Charlotte. Phills was reported to be driving behind teammate David Wesley at more than 100 mph.
His Porsche crossed the center line and crashed into oncoming traffic. The drivers of the two cars Phills crashed into survived. Phills was pronounced dead at the scene of the accident. He was thirty years old.
Wesley was cleared of a possible racing charge but was convicted of reckless driving.
|Cause of Death
|Car Accident – vehicular manslaughter
Malik Sealy won a New York state title his senior year of high school playing for Tolentine High School in the Bronx.
He continued to play in New York City in college, starring for St. John’s. Sealy ended his St. John’s career as the second leading scorer in the history of the school.
Sealy was drafted 14th overall by the Indiana Pacers in the 1992 NBA Draft. He was a 6’8” small forward known for his slashing, athletic style.
While he kicked around the league a bit, Sealy was a solid NBA backup player. He averaged 24 minutes per game and scored 10 points per game for his career.
In his eight NBA seasons, Sealy played for the Pacers, Clippers, Pistons and Timberwolves. It was in Minnesota where he became close to NBA Hall of Famer Kevin Garnett.
The Big Ticket and Sealy were reported to be best friends. Sealy was driving home from a birthday party for KG on May 20, 2000 when his car was hit by a truck driving the wrong way on the highway.
Sealy was killed instantly. He was 30 years old.
The driver of that truck, Souksangouane Phengsene, survived and was later convicted of vehicular manslaughter because he was legally drunk at the time of the crash. He served four years in prison.
Garnett honored Sealy’s memory with a tattoo and later by choosing Sealy’s number 2 as his number when he joined the Boston Celtics. The Timberwolves retired Sealy’s number 2 as well.
|Cause of Death
Jason Collier, a seven-foot center, was a high school basketball star in Ohio. He won Ohio’s Mr. Basketball in 1996 when he took his Springfield High School team to the state title.
Collier spent one full season, and part of a second, at the University of Indiana before deciding to transfer to Georgia Tech. At Georgia Tech, he found success averaging 17 points and 8 rebounds per game over two seasons for the Yellow Jackets.
Collier was the 15th overall pick in the 2000 NBA Draft by the Milwaukee Bucks who immediately traded him to the Houston Rockets.
He played three seasons in Houston without huge success – his highest scoring average was his second season when he averaged 4 points per game while getting 15 minutes a night.
Collier moved on to the Atlanta Hawks for his fourth season and got more time in the 20 games he played that season, averaging 11 points per game.
But in his fifth, and last, NBA season he was back to a reserve role playing 15 minutes a night and scoring six points per game.
That offseason, on October 15, 2005, Collier experienced shortness of breath and then lost consciousness. He died on the way to the hospital. He was 28 years old.
The state’s chief medical examiner announced later that Collier had an abnormally enlarged heart, even for someone of his size.
|Cause of Death
Eddie Griffin was an athletic 6’10” high school star in Philadelphia. He led his team to Catholic League Championships in his junior and senior seasons and was named a McDonald’s All-American and Parade National Player of the Year as a senior.
He chose to attend Seton Hall University in nearby New Jersey and did not miss a beat on the basketball court.
Griffin averaged 18 points, 11 rebounds and 4 blocks per game as a freshman. He was named national Freshman of the Year by the Sporting News in his lone season for the Pirates.
Griffin declared for the 2001 NBA Draft. His draft stock was hurt somewhat by the fact that he had to finish high school by correspondence course because of a fight and then left Seton Hall under difficult circumstances because of another fight – this time with teammate Ty Shine.
Even with some behavioral red flags, Griffin’s talent made him the 7th pick in the draft. The Nets chose Griffin but immediately traded him to Houston for three players.
Griffin played two seasons in Houston and averaged 25 minutes and 9 points per game. He was released by the Rockets before his third season because of another fight with a teammate.
Griffin signed with the Nets but missed his third NBA season because he was in rehab for alcoholism.
Before the next season, Griffin signed with the Minnesota Timberwolves. He posted similar numbers as his first two years in Houston, but was still signed to a three-year deal in Minnesota.
The next season, 2005-2006, saw his numbers tank as he averaged fewer than five points per game.
In March of 2007, his third year in Minnesota, Griffin was released by the Timberwolves.
On August 17, 2007 Griffin ignored a railroad crossing sign and drove through a barrier. His car was hit by a moving train. He was killed from his injuries. He died at the age of 25.
Griffin’s car was burned badly and authorities had to use dental records to identify him. He was found to have a blood alcohol level three times the legal limit for Texas.
|Cause of Death
|New Orleans Pelicans
Bryce Dejean-Jones played high school basketball in Los Angeles before embarking on a college career that would involve several stops.
Dejean-Jones chose to play for his hometown USC Trojans and posted decent numbers for a freshman, but he transferred after one season.
After redshirting a year, Dejean-Jones played for UNLV. He played two seasons for the Runnin’ Rebels, averaging 10 points his first year and nearly 14 per game in his second.
After two years in Las Vegas, Dejean-Jones transferred again, this time to Iowa State. He averaged 11 points and 5 rebounds per game for the Cyclones.
Dejean-Jones, a versatile and athletic wing, went undrafted in the 2015 NBA Draft. He signed with the New Orleans Pelicans and played well in summer league.
After being cut in training camp, Dejean-Jones returned to the Pelicans in January on a ten-day contract. He played well and even started some games for the team.
He signed a three-year deal in February of 2016 with the Pelicans. Dejean-Jones was almost immediately put on injured reserve for the rest of the season after signing his deal because he broke his wrist.
On May 28th, 2016, Dejean-Jones got into an argument with his girlfriend in her Dallas apartment. He went for a walk only to return a while later.
Dejean-Jones kicked in what he believed was the girlfriend’s apartment door, but he was on the wrong floor of the building.
The person in the apartment Dejean-Jones was breaking into was awakened by the noise and got his gun. When Dejean-Jones tried to kick in the bedroom door where the man had been sleeping, the resident fired through the door hitting Dejean-Jones.
Bryce Dejean-Jones was pronounced dead at a Dallas hospital later that night. He was only 23 years old.
Summary: NBA Players Who Died
There have been 12 NBA players who died while still actively competing in the league. Most of those who died were killed in car crashes or had heart conditions. The biggest names among those who died are Reggie Lewis, Len Bias and Dražen Petrović.
I have been a Boston sports fan for more than forty years. I write about games, players and seasons from the past.