Careers cut short, part 2 (cont.)
Posted: Thursday January 3, 2008 3:27PM; Updated: Thursday January 3, 2008 3:36PM
An interesting thing about Tomjanovich's famous injury: Eight weeks before that notorious punch, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar had decked Milwaukee's Kent Benson, slugging the Bucks' rookie in the eye after Benson elbowed Abdul-Jabbar in the gut. Abdul-Jabbar broke his right hand, was fined $5,000 and missed 20 games, but was back in time to grapple with Houston's Kevin Kunnert, wrapping him up in a rebound skirmish that made him a target for Washington's first punch of the night. That was what Tomjanovich saw before he raced over toward the Lakers' strong man. As for Benson, a dominant college player at Indiana and the No. 1 pick in 1977, he never was more than a journeyman as a pro and some -- like Joel Dalangin of Riverside, Calif. -- claim the Kareem punch took some of his aggressiveness.
Through his first three NBA seasons, Kansas City guard Phil Ford averaged 16.5 points and 8.2 assists. Over his final four seasons, those numbers dropped to 7.3 and 4.8, respectively. In between? Will Bradbury of Eastport, Maine, remembered an injury to Ford's left eye -- World B. Free accidentally stuck his thumb in the player's eye, shattering a bone behind the eyeball that required a piece from one of Ford's left ribs for reconstruction. Alcohol abuse also played a role in Ford's curtailed career.
Terry Cummings' production before and after 1992-93, when he suffered a serious knee injury, is night-and-day stuff; he went from a player who, seven times in his first 10 seasons, averaged more than 20 points to a role player getting by on smarts and scoring in single digits over his seven final seasons. That's why reader A.S. of Oneida County, N.Y., nominated him for the list. Probably more dramatic, though, was Cummings' ability to overcome a heart condition discovered during his rookie season in 1982-83, an abnormal rhythm that required daily medication for the rest of his career. He scored 19,460 points in his 18 seasons.
In the first list, we mentioned our attempt to stay away from players who had a hand in their own shortened careers, primarily through drug use or other bad behavior. That thinned the herd considerably, omitting from discussion the likes of Chris Washburn, William Bedford, Lloyd Daniels, Richard Dumas, J.R. Rider and even Vin Baker. But just as Len Bias merited a mention as a shooting star, so does David Thompson, the Skywalker from N.C. State who strung together six 20-point seasons for Denver, once scored 73 points in a game and was one of pro basketball's all-time aerialists. Drug abuse grounded him, though, and a fall down a stairwell sealed his deal, blocking what could have been a place among the NBA's Top 50 in 1997. Raymond Capra of Glen Ridge, N.J., was one of several to mention Thompson.
Arvydas Sabonis was sort of a Lithuanian Roy Hobbs when he finally got to the NBA in 1995 -- joining the Portland Trail Blazers nine years after they drafted him. Those who saw him in his prime contend that Sabonis was one of the best centers ever, but he was lumbering and thick-bodied from assorted knee and tendon surgeries by the time he arrived in Portland as a 30-year-old. Then again, he still was 7-foot-3, a presence in the paint and a deft passer, never shy about threading a bounce pass through traffic or finding cutters blindly behind his back. Though his best days were spent on European courts, as Travis W. of Salem, Ore., and Julian-Aquil Booker of Pasadena, Calif., recalled, Sabonis averaged 16 points and 10 boards for the Blazers in 1997-98, and stayed with them until heading back overseas in 2003.
Reader Edwin from Hong Kong mentioned several other big men who were cut down by injuries or, in the late Jason Collier's case, worse (heart attack). Among them: Sharone Wright and Eric Montross.
Three knee surgeries and an inability to adapt his 7-foot-4 frame to a court-bound, low-post game did in Ralph Sampson. Chris Ray of Houston remembered Sampson helping the Rockets to the Finals in 1986, but he was essentially done by the time of his stints with Golden State, Sacramento and Washington from 1987 to 1992.
There are several players -- too many, even if there's only one -- whose careers were cut short before they even really began. Such as Seton Hall's Ramon Ramos, Stanford's Todd Lichti and Cincinnati's DerMarr Johnson, all victims of damaging automobile accidents. And Wendell Ladner's five-year stay in the ABA was spotty, if colorful, before the 6-foot-5 forward died at age 26 in a plane crash.
Surely there are more who would qualify for the list no one ever wants to make. But frankly, that's enough for now.
Steve Aschburner covered the Minnesota Timberwolves and the NBA for 13 seasons for the Minneapolis Star Tribune. He has served as president or vice president of the Professional Basketball Writers Association since 2005.
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