November 24, 2017

NBA players that died young, prematurely or from heart problems (<60 years old)

2017/09/09 3:53 pm 3:53 pm3:53 pm0 2 comments

The deaths of no fewer than 25 NBA players (and other famous basketball pros) in 2015 set off alarms and made it an infamous year with the most deaths of former players.

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That fateful year saw the deaths of Moses Malone, Dolph Schayes, Daryl Dawkins, Rod “Hot Rod” Hundley, Earl Lloyd, Roy Tarpley, Anthony Mason, Jerome Kersey, Harry Gallatin, Mel Daniels, Christian Welp, John “Hot Rod” Williams and the two most-well known Harlem Globetrotters Meadowlark Lemon and Marques Haynes. That’s not to mention the deaths of Hall of Fame coaches Dean Smith and Flip Saunders.

And it wasn’t just deaths due to natural causes, many of the deaths that year shined a spotlight on the potential physical problems that former professional basketball players, particularly front court players, faced after their careers came to a close. In 2015, retired players Malone, Dawkins, Mason, Kersey, Welp and Jack Haley all died early from heart attacks, heart-related disease or problems. What’s worse was that Mason, Haley and Welp all died within three weeks.

NBA Players that Died Early

As reported in a 2011 survey, the average lifespan of an American male was 76 years old while the average lifespan of an African-American male, whom make up the majority of NBA players, was 71.8 years according to another survey. All of the NBA players that passed away before the age of 70 are considered to have died prematurely. With the focus on the premature deaths of NBA players after their careers ended, we wanted to look at a list of NBA players that died “early” or for the purpose of this post, before the age of 60.

NBA Players That Died Early (Ages 21-30)

We’ll start out by looking at the NBA players that died really young; specifically those that passed between the ages of 21-30. In this age range, the majority of players died from an external factor such as a car accident. Still, three players, Fab Melo, Reggie Lewis and Jason Collier, died from heart conditions. As we move through this piece, you’ll see how heart problems as the cause of death becomes more problematic as players age.

NBA Players That Died Early (Ages 21-30)
Player Age Status Cause of Death Year of Death
Len Bias 22 Drafted by Boston Celtics overdose 1986
Bryce Dejean-Jones 23 New Orleans Pelicans gunshot 2016
Nick Vanos 24 Phoenix Suns plane crash 1987
Ricky Berry 24 Sacramento Kings suicide (gunshot) 1989
Terry Furlow 25 Utah Jazz car accident 1980
Eddie Griffin 25 Minnesota Timberwolves car accident 2007
Fab Melo 26 Playing Overseas heart attack 2017
Reggie Lewis 27 Boston Celtics heart attack 1993
Jason Collier 28 Atlanta Hawks heart condition 2005
Dražen Petrović 28 New Jersey Nets car accident 1993
Bill Robinzine 29 Utah Jazz suicide (asphyxiation) 1982
Bobby Phills 30 Charlotte Hornets car accident 2000
Malik Sealy 30 Minnesota Timberwolves car accident 2000

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Former NBA Players That Died Early(Ages 31-40)

It’s not a huge sample size, but nearly half of the 11 players in this age range died of a heart attack while Bison Dele and Lorenzen Wright passed away from mysterious circumstances.

NBA Players That Died Early (Ages 31-40)
Player Age Status Cause of Death Year of Death
Yinka Dare 31 retired heart attack 2004
Alphonso Ford 32 Euroleague cancer (leukemia) 2004
Bison Dele 33 retired unknown 2002
Lorenzen Wright 34 retired unknown 2010
Derek Smith 34 retired heart attack 1996
Robert Traylor 34 Playing Overseas heart attack 2011
Jackson Vroman 34 Playing Overseas drowned 2015
Michael Wright 35 Playing Overseas homocide 2015
Maurice Stokes 38 retired heart attack 1970
Anthony Frederick 38 retired heart attack 2003
Robert Hawkins 39 retired gunshot 1993
Pete Maravich 40 retired heart attack 1988

NBA Players That Died Prematurely (Ages 41-50)

From ages 41-50, the following list is made up entirely of retired or inactive players. As professional athletes begin their lives after their athletic careers, their metabolisms slow due to more-leisurely lifestyles. Waistlines and bellies grow. Players that used to be physical specimens begin to really age in this decade of life. As a result, deaths are more health-related than freak accidents. In this group of players, approximately 3/4ths of the players passed from cancer, heart attacks and other diseases.

NBA Players That Died Early (Ages 41-50)
Player Age Status Cause of Death Year of Death
Nate Bowman 41 retired cardiac arrest 1984
Devin Gray 41 retired heart attack 2013
Dwayne Schintzius 43 retired cancer 2012
Wayman Tisdale 44 retired cancer 2009
Super John Williamson 44 retired kidney failure 1996
Kevin Duckworth 44 retired congestive heart failure 2008
Brooks Thompson 45 retired organ failure 2016
Sean Rooks 46 retired heart disease 2016
Lorenzo Charles 47 retired car accident 2011
Armen Gilliam 47 retired heart attack 2011
Manute Bol 47 retired kidney failure 2010
Anthony Mason 48 retired heart attack 2015
Mel Turpin 49 retired suicide (gunshot) 2010
Quintin Dailey 49 retired cardiovascular disease 2010
Roy Tarpley 50 retired unknown 2015
Phil Smith 50 retired cancer (myeloma) 2002
Charles Shackleford 50 retired unknown 2017

Retired Players That Died From 51-60 Years Old

In the 51-60 age group, former players health complications are dominated by cancer and heart-related complications. On this list of players, 70% of the players passed away due to one of these two causes.

NBA Players That Died Early (Ages 51-60)
Player Age Status Cause of Death Year of Death
Jack Haley 51 retired heart attack 2015
Christian Welp 51 retired heart attack 2015
Jerome Kersey 52 retired heart attack 2015
Dennis Johnson 52 retired heart attack 2007
Rob Johnson 52 retired congestive heart failure 2014
Dwayne Washington 52 retired cancer 2016
Orlando Woolridge 52 retired heart failure 2012
John "Hot Rod" Williams 53 retired cancer 2015
Jerome Anderson 55 retired unknown 2009
Pat Cummings 55 retired heart attack 2012
Marvin Webster 56 retired coronary artery disease 2009
Jerome Whitehead 56 retired chronic alcohol abuse 2012
Darryl Dawkins 58 retired heart attack 2015
Ray Williams 58 retired cancer 2013
Maurice Lucas 58 retired cancer 2010
Dan Roundfield 59 retired drowned 2012
Joe C. Meriweather 59 retired heart attack 2013
Randy Smith 60 retired heart attack 2009
Moses Malone 60 retired heart attack 2015

Heart Disease is Killing NBA Players

According to a report cited in a story by the Philadelphia-based news website Billy Penn, at least 53 retired NBA players have died from heart disease since 2000, including 33 less that were younger than 70 years old. And what really put focus on this problem were the deaths of three retired NBA players in 2015. The deaths of Anthony Mason, Christian Welp and Jack Haley in three weeks were not only alarming, but what made it more problematic were their ages. Mason was only 48, while Welp and Haley were just 51.

The fact that older NBA players are dying from heart disease and cancer isn’t different from the general population. According to the CDC, heart disease and cancer are, by far, the leading causes of American deaths.

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That said, the high rate of heart complications among professional basketball players may be related to the size of NBA players and premature deaths that cannot be overlooked. It’s a pattern of mortality that most NBA players are well-aware of, as Larry Bird matter-of-factly stated in an ESPN article from a few years ago:

“I tell my wife all the time, ‘You don’t see many 7-footers walking around at the age of 75,'” says Bird, who’s 6-foot-9. “She hates it when I say that. I know there are a few of us who live a long time, but most of us big guys don’t seem to last too long. I’m not lying awake at night thinking about it. If it goes, it goes.”

NBA Players That Died From Heart Complications
Player Age Height Status Cause of Death Year
Fab Melo 26 7'0 Playing Overseas heart attack 2017
Reggie Lewis 27 6'7 Active heart attack 1993
Jason Collier 28 7'0 Active heart condition 2005
Conrad McRae 29 6'11 Playing Overseas heart attack 2000
Yinka Dare 31 7'1 retired heart attack 2004
Derek Smith 34 6'6 retired heart attack 1996
Robert Traylor 34 6'9 Playing Overseas heart attack 2011
Maurice Stokes 38 6'7 retired heart attack 1970
Anthony Frederick 38 6'7 retired heart attack 2003
Pete Maravich 40 6'5 retired heart attack 1988
Devin Gray 41 6'7 retired heart attack 2013
Kevin Duckworth 44 7'0 retired congestive heart failure 2008
Sean Rooks 46 6'10 retired heart disease 2016
Armen Gilliam 47 6'9 retired heart attack 2011
Anthony Mason 48 6'7 retired heart attack 2015
Jack Haley 51 6'10 retired heart attack 2015
Christian Welp 51 7'0 retired heart attack 2015
Jerome Kersey 52 6'7 retired heart attack 2015
Dennis Johnson 52 6'4 retired heart attack 2007
Orlando Woolridge 52 6'9 retired heart failure 2012
Pat Cummings 55 6'9 retired heart attack 2012
Darryl Dawkins 58 6'11 retired heart attack 2015
Joe C. Meriweather 59 6'10 retired heart attack 2013
Randy Smith 60 6'3 retired heart attack 2009
Moses Malone 60 6'10 retired heart attack 2015
Wilt Chamberlain 64 7'1 retired heart attack 1999
Caldwell Jones 64 6'11 retired heart attack 2014

The Zipper Brothers

The list could be much longer, but the growing awareness of heart issues among basketball players may have saved the lives of other NBA players with irregularities. Players like Jeff Green, Fred Hoiberg, Channing Frye, Chris Wilcox, Etan Thomas, and Ronny Turiaf have all been diagnosed with issues related to their heart and forced to take time off.  Together they’re part of a rare (and “lucky”) group of NBA players that were able to detect the abnormalities early on.

Hoiberg calls them the “Zipper Brothers” — a small and tight-knit group of players who have overcome serious heart ailments to continue playing at the highest level of a game that tests an athlete’s heart as much as any does. Hoiberg cut his NBA career short after having open-heart surgery — and getting the zipper-like scar on his chest that birthed the nickname — to address an enlarged aortic root in 2005. Thomas and Chris Wilcox were able to play after their own surgeries and Turiaf, Green and Phoenix Suns forward Channing Frye all missed a year while recovering but are still playing to this day. Chuck Hayes never needed surgery, but a heart abnormality found during a routine screening in 2011 did require significant testing before he was cleared to continue playing with Toronto.

If we’re looking outside of the NBA, there’s an unfortunately long list of players that passed away tragically playing basketball in their twenties and thirties. All it takes is some searching to see a list of other professional players, college and high school player collapsing during practice or games. It’s not limited to the professional ranks.

With more focus, research and understanding of the risks that professional basketball players face, they, their family, friends, and the league can help prevent premature deaths due to complications with their hearts.

“To us, it’s noticeable,” says Scott Rochelle, vice president and general counsel of the NBA Retired Players Association. “It’s noticeable enough for us to make this a priority.”

Back in 2015, the league’s players and retired players associations wanted to increase efforts to offer more screenings for heart complications as well as raising awareness among retired NBA players. The league had promised to will provide much more comprehensive health screenings for former players, including for heart issues.

That’s good news and a big step because by last count, the league has already lost more than fifty NBA players to heart-related deaths. Let’s not let their passing be in vein.

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