Basketball’s shattered dreams
Glenwood Springs, Colorado CO
Call them the forgotten ones.
Legendary players that never made it to the professional ranks, although they were immeasurably gifted.
Folklore that, for one reason or another, never seized the opportunity to run the hardwood, play above the rim, or sink the game-winning shot, like everyone thought they would.
Most of their stories are full of mistakes, greed and, sometimes, improbable endings.
Several of them come from the inner city basketball playgrounds; where players like Demetrius “Hook” Mitchell is still widely considered the best “street baller” to never reach the NBA.
Mitchell grew up on the mean streets of west Oakland and played against former and current NBA stars Gary Payton and Jason Kidd, and both irrefutably agree that Hook was the best player to ever come out of the Bay Area.
The problem is that he never made it out of the Bay Area.
As is the case far too often, a life of drugs and crime derailed Mitchell’s NBA career and he spent several years playing for the prison basketball team instead. At 5-foot-9, the former wunderkind with the 50-inch vertical leap started using drugs at the age of 10 while both of his parents were incarcerated.
A sad tale of opportunity missed, but you’d have to think the deck was stacked against him from an early age.
Down in Los Angeles, another street baller, Raymond Lewis, used to draw the same aptitude comparisons, but his plight was all about greed. Lewis was drafted eighth overall by the 76ers in 1973, but he made the enormous blunder of choosing to represent himself instead of hiring an agent.
Big mistake for a young kid.
When he arrived at camp and discovered that some of his teammates were making more money than he was, he left, and threw away his career in the process. Former UNLV coach Jerry Tarkanian once said about Lewis: “He was the greatest basketball player I’ve ever seen.”
High praise from the “Shark,” who has seen his fair share of players over the years.
Lewis did attempt a comeback a few years later, but never played in an NBA game. He became a mere shadow of the player that wowed the Los Angeles basketball scene back in the early ’70s.
Current stars like Kobe Bryant of the Lakers still mention Lewis and his Los Angeles legacy, as do others, unfortunately, in a somber tone.
Most people are well aware of the Len Bias tragedy, perhaps the most shocking story of all. Few understand the “rest of the story,” as Paul Harvey used to say.
Bias, the second overall draft pick of the 1986 draft, died from cocaine intoxication two days after the defending champion Boston Celtics selected him. Many people close to Bias, including his coach at Maryland, believed that Bias had never used drugs until the day he died.
Possible? Maybe, but probably not.
Ironically, three of the five players drafted after Bias – Chris Washburn, William Bedford and Roy Tarpley – all played stints in the NBA and each of them had their careers destroyed by drug use.
Bias’ passing shocked the nation. He was supposed to be the new Michael Jordan. Former Celtic president Red Auerbach proclaimed at his funeral that the city of Boston had not been so shaken since the assassination of John F. Kennedy.
There were some positive ramifications following Bias’ surprising death: improved drug testing in college sports, stricter anti-drug laws passed by Congress and increased awareness about cocaine not being the recreational drug many thought it was at the time.
There are no happy endings here, just harsh lessons learned from the players that never lived their dreams.
And all by their own doing.
Jeff Sauer is a longtime western Colorado resident and a former Roaring Fork Valley resident. He can be reached at email@example.com.
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