NBA games are some of the most popular sporting events of the year. Millions of basketball lovers buy tickets to watch live matches, and front-row seats are occupied by the rich and famous. The courts are home to an atmosphere of fierce competition, enthusiasm, and passion.
One thing you might not associate with an NBA game is death. And yet, since the conception of the NBA, three players have tragically lost their lives while playing the game they loved. Friends, family, and fans forever mourn these young men that lost their lives.
Hometown: Baltimore, Maryland
Age at death: 27
Position: Shooting guard
Playing career: 1987-1993
The first NBA player to die courtside was Reginald "Reggie" Lewis. He was a towering 6'7" Boston Celtic player with a promising career. The Celtics drafted the promising young athlete in 1987, and he continued to play there until he died in 1993.
While practicing for the 1993-1994 season, Lewis had a heart attack and collapsed at Brandeis University's basketball court in Waltham, near Boston.
A Brandeis University police officer on patrol discovered Lewis unconscious on the court. Subsequently, the officer performed mouth-to-mouth resuscitation on Lewis, but to no avail. Doctors officially pronounced Lewis dead a few hours later.
Months before, while playing against the Charlotte's Hornets, Lewis had suffered a frightening collapse mid-game, staying down for several seconds. Onlookers initially thought that the player had stumbled and hurt himself. In the end, however, Lewis came off the court to return to the stands.
In the next quarter, Lewis tried rejoining but had to leave the pitch again after showing more signs of dizziness and disorientation.
After this incident, Lewis consulted with a team of heart doctors at the New England Baptist Hospital. Lewis was diagnosed with focal cardiomyopathy after several tests, and it was a career-ending diagnosis. As such, Lewis sought a second opinion as he was unhappy with the first.
Dr. Gilbert Mudge of Brigham and Women's Hospital diagnosed Lewis with a less threatening, non-fatal neurocardiogenic syncope condition. After receiving this second diagnosis, Lewis began to practice for the upcoming season.
In the meantime, Lewis also sought a third diagnosis from a team of Los Angeles specialists before his death. The team confirmed Dr. Mudge's diagnosis but was still concerned that the condition could worsen.
The news of Lewis' death was severely devastating for both the Celtics and the basketball community. It was also a hard-hitting tragedy for the people of Baltimore, where Lewis grew up.
Cause of Death
Drama shrouded Lewis's death. In the weeks leading up to his collapse, Lewis had admitted to using cocaine. However, he claimed he had since steered clear of the drug and was no longer using it. Nonetheless, despite no evidence of drugs in his system, his untimely death sparked rumors of an overdose.
Eventually, the official autopsy results put these rumors to bed. According to his death certificate, Lewis died of hypertrophic cardiomyopathy, the leading cause of sudden death in American athletes.
Hometown: New York City, New York
Age at death: 29
Position: Power forward/Center
Playing career: 1993-2000
Despite being drafted by the Washington Bullets in 1993 as a second-round pick, Conrad Bastien McRae never played an official game for the NBA. Additionally, in 1999 he signed a contract with the Denver Nuggets, but the team terminated it after he fainted before a game.
McRae collapsed and blacked out while running sideline-to-sideline sprints with his teammates. Although McRae came around almost immediately after fainting, he immediately sought medical attention the following day.
While at the doctors' office, McRae began to blackout again during a stress test on a treadmill. A ventricular tachycardia diagnosis was made, and McRae was advised to retire. Thus, the Nuggets chose to terminate his contract.
Instead, McRae played college basketball at Syracuse University before becoming an all-star in leagues in Europe. He played for clubs in Turkey, Italy, and other European countries.
Although he was 29 when he died, McRae never gave up hope of playing in the NBA. In 2000 he came back to the US to play summer ball with Orlando Magic.
Peers reported McRae to have been in top shape in the weeks leading up to the season. However, McRae collapsed during league practice at the University of California in Irvine. He had been running wind sprints on the court. All efforts to revive him were futile. Sadly, McRae was declared dead just minutes later.
Cause of Death
The autopsy failed to determine a definitive cause of death. However, the report did reveal that McRae had an unusually large heart. We don't know if his enlarged heart had any role in his death.
Jim Gillen, the trainer for the Denver Nuggets' at the time, was aware of McRae's ventricular tachycardia diagnosis. He spoke out to the basketball community reeling with the news of his death in both the US and Europe.
He said medical professionals had strongly advised McRae to retire after his diagnosis but that the player was adamant he wasn't ready to quit just yet. His passion for the game was, tragically, his undoing.
Zena Ray "Zeke" Upshaw
Hometown: Chicago, Illinois
Age at death: 26
Position: Small forward
Playing career: 2014-2018
Zena Ray Upshaw, more commonly known as Zeke Upshaw, was already a star player in high school. His talent first came to light when he played for the U-High Maroons in Chicago.
The 6'6" basketball player's college career began at Illinois State University with the Illinois State Redbirds. Afterward, he went on to play for Hofstra Pride for a year after transferring to Hofstra University in New York.
After being undrafted by the NBA in 2014, he turned down an invitation to the NBA Development League (now known as the G-League) to play professionally in Europe. He played for teams in Luxembourg and Slovenia.
In 2016, Upshaw returned from Europe to finally take up the offer to play in the NBA Development League. The Grand Rapids Drive swooped him up in the fourth round.
During the final game of the 2017-18 regular season with the Drive, Upshaw collapsed. The player went down in the game's final minutes against the Long Island Nets at the DeltaPlex Arena, and paramedics took him off the court in a stretcher.
Doctors were able to get Upshaw's heartbeat back at the hospital. Unfortunately, they were not able to save his life. Zeke Upshaw's heart stopped beating two days later, and basketball fans worldwide lost another NBA star too young.
That year, the G League decided to suspend the first round of playoffs out of respect for Upshaw.
Cause of Death
An autopsy revealed that the cause of death was a heart attack. The autopsy also showed that Upshaw had certain cardiac anomalies that his parents were unaware of.
Rumors that Upshaw fainted a year prior due to a fatal diagnosis circulated after his death. The widespread belief is that hypertrophic cardiomyopathy was responsible for his early demise.
While these players had their careers cut short on the court, they managed to make a tremendous impact on the people in their lives and in the game of basketball. Their memory lives on in the hearts and minds of NBA fans.
The Boston Celtics retired Lewis' number 35 jersey. It is now on display in his honor at the Celtics' original home court in Boston, Massachusetts.
In addition, Reggie Lewis is remembered each year around Thanksgiving at Northwestern University with the Reggie Lewis Turkey Give-away. The event for charity is organized in honor of Reggie's contributions to his community.
The Conrad McRae Youth League in New York was established in 2000 in his honor. The tournament still runs to date and is open to basketball players as young as six years old.
Furthermore, the Detroit Pistons gave Zeke Upshaw an honorary call up for their game against the Washington Wizards three days after his death.
Conclusion: Death of NBA Players On-Court
The drive and determination of professional athletes are what allow them to excel in their preferred sport. They have no choice but to give it their all, whether in training or on the court. Tragically, sometimes they give too much.
Basketball will forever remember these young souls. Their passion for basketball led them to push their bodies to the limits. These on-court deaths were shocking tragedies that rocked the NBA community.
Sadly, these prime athletes were never given the opportunity to showcase their full potential, and that is something we will always have to wonder about.