Yao Ming, Drazen Petrovic, and NBA Careers That Were Cut Short Way Too Soon

Jason HeimCorrespondent IJuly 9, 2011

Yao Ming, Drazen Petrovic, and NBA Careers That Were Cut Short Way Too Soon

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    Yao Ming's retirement announcement, necessitated by persistent foot injuries, got me down on Friday. Yao, the 7'6" Chinese tree is both a great person and basketball player, and has helped tremendously to revolutionize the NBA into the global brand that it's become.

    His retirement, after eight seasons, is no shock to anyone who follows the NBA closely. He struggled with foot problems throughout his career, missing so many games that he essentially played about six seasons worth of games.

    Because of an injury-shortened career, Yao missed out on winning the elusive NBA championship and is likely on the outside looking into the Hall of Fame despite career averages of 19 points, 9.2 points and 1.9 blocks on 52 percent shooting.

    His plight got me thinking about others who have suffered a similar fate. Whether by injury, self-destructive behaviors or otherwise, the following is a list of NBA players that never experienced a full and satisfying career or a completed legacy. Indeed, their legacies might be finished, just not with the conclusion they wished. 

    Let's take a look back at some NBA greats (or potential greats) whose careers were cut short.

Shaun Livingston

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    Yes, Charlotte Bobcat guard Shaun Livingston currently lives a pretty standard NBA life, but, by most accounts, his potential before 2006 was anything but ordinary.

    Now 25 and relegated to the bench, Livingston will never play a central role for an NBA team again.

    Lauded as one of the most promising prospects in recent memory previous to the 2004 draft, Livingston was slowly making progress with the Clippers, increasing his scoring average to 9.3 points to go with 5.1 assists and a steal in his ill-fated 2006-2007 season.

    Late in that season, in a home game against the Bobcats, Livingston poked into a passing lane, grabbed the ball and streaked toward the other end for a layup. He lifted off to finish the shot, twisted around a defender midair, then essentially broke the fall with his left leg...bent at a 90-degree angle under his body.

    Livingston, at 21, would never be the same on the court. He missed the entire next season and played just 48 games combined in the subsequent two seasons.

    Needless to say, the Clippers did not re-sign him after his injury. He caught on with the Miami Heat after being cleared to start the 2008 season, but played only four games before being traded to the Grizzlies, then waived on the same day.

    Over the next year, Livingston would sign with the Thunder and be waived, sign with the Wizards, sign with the Bobcats before 2010-2011, then be traded to the Milwaukee Bucks as a throw-in prior to the 2011 draft.

    The fourth pick in the 2004 draft was blessed with limitless potential, so long as he could avoid injuries. Seven years later, it's hard to imagine the winding road that Livingston has traveled as an NBA player, and even harder to fathom what his career could have been.

Magic Johnson

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    It's unfathomable that a consensus top five all-time player could have been even better.

    Perhaps no one fit more production into 12 seasons than did the legendary Magic Johnson did. He played in 11 All-Star games, won five titles, three MVP awards, was a nine-time NBA first-teamer and much more.

    What Magic did is pretty self-evident.

    Anyone over the age 20 has at least a faint idea of the impact that Magic had on the league, how integral he was to the Lakers-Celtics rivalry, and the league's overall health in the 1980s. His personal rivalry with Larry Bird is iconic, all the way from their battle in the 1979 NCAA Championship game through their haphazard landings on the NBA's two most storied franchises.

    Just on the downside of his career peak at age 31 in 1991, Magic took a routine physical in preparation for the upcoming season, the results of which revealed that he tested positive for HIV. Johnson retired immediately, throwing the sports world into a state of paralyzed shock.

    The most dynamic player in NBA history, at the pinnacle of his career, on one of the best teams of all-time, had contracted a debilitating condition that would threaten his life and end his career instantly. The magnitude of that moment in 1991 cannot be overstated.

    Magic retired at 31 years old and made one semi-successful, though short-lived, comeback in 1995-1996, averaging 14.6 points, 6.9 assists and 5.7 rebounds per game. Keep in mind that Magic put up those numbers after not playing basketball in four years, being 36 years old, suffering from an advancing life-threatening disease and ballooning to nearly 300 pounds. Wow.

    The fact that Johnson lives on among the handful of greatest basketball players after playing just three-quarters of a career is astounding. That's how good he was.   

Drazen Petrovic

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    Though he didn't join the NBA until he was 25, the Croatian sensation, Drazen Petrovic, made an impact that will forever ripple throughout the pond of the NBA.

    A third round pick in the 1986 draft by Portland, Petrovic didn't debut in the U.S. for four seasons after being drafted, playing with Cibona in Yugoslavia for three years, then Real Madrid for one.

    Petrovic was a pioneer for European success in the NBA. European greats played in highly competitive leagues for years before Petrovic moved across the Atlantic in 1989, but none had transitioned to the NBA with success before him.

    Petrovic struggled in his first year and voiced his discontent with his role, arrogantly citing a lack of playing time as the sole obstacle to his NBA success. After averaging 7.6 points and just 12.4 minutes in that first season, Petrovic overstayed his welcome in Portland and was traded to the New Jersey Nets just 26 games into the 1990-1991 season. This is when his career took off.

    His playing time jumped immediately to 20 minutes for the remainer of that season, then to 36.9 and 38 minutes the next two years. Petrovic's claim came to fruition that with sufficient playing time, he could become one of the greatest players of his day and a deadly scoring threat.

    He was a dead-eye shooter from the three-point line, hitting them at a 45 percent clip in his two golden seasons, in which he reached what would be his career high, 22.3 points per game. 

    After his career 1992-1993 season, the enigmatic Petrovic decided to leave the Nets and return to play in Europe. The contract he signed with blank salary terms adds to the impressive legend of his story. After a summer qualifying tournament for Eurobasket in Poland, Petrovic headed back to his native Croatia to enjoy his vacation. He decided to skip the connecting flight back to Zagreb and decided to drive from Poland to Croatia with his girlfriend instead. 

    That decision would turn out to be fatal for Petrovic. The car that was carrying a sleeping Petrovic was hit head-on by a truck that had barreled through a median on a German highway in a horrible rainstorm, killing the star player and gravely injuring the driving girlfriend.

    The 28 year old's life and career were cut short just as his playing legend was about to lift off. His two strong years in the NBA have had as strong an effect on basketball in the NBA, and internationally as any other player's since. 

Bill Walton

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    The top pick in the 1974 draft by Portland, Bill Walton certainly made an impact on the NBA and enjoyed a distinguished career. He won two NBA titles, won a regular season and Finals MVP, and was enshrined in the Hall of Fame immediately once eligible. 

    Still, it's easy to see that Walton's body went into full mutiny against him just a few years into his career. His feet were the culprit, and demanded almost continuous surgeries to fully heal, which they never did.

    The impact of his injuries is perhaps the most drastic of any player in NBA history.

    For starters, Walton played more than 67 games in only one season of his 10, and missed at least 15 games in each of his first eight seasons. He missed over half the season four times in his 10 years, and missed four complete seasons, which essentially means that he missed almost half of the games over his whole career.

    To be precise, Walton played in 468 out of a possible 820 games, or just 57 percent.

    His career averages of 13.3 points, 10.5 rebounds and 2.2 blocks went a long way in the 70s and 80s, and the consensus best-passing big man of all-time was an indispensable piece of his Blazer and Clipper teams. Without his cerebral play and consummate team attitude, the Blazers of 1977 and Celtics of 1986 might not have won their championships.

    Thankfully, Bill still works in the NBA, though in a place where his feet and ailing back can't limit him: the broadcast booth. 

DaJuan Wagner

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    Hailed as "DaJuan and only," DaJuan Wagner once garnered comparisons to Allen Iverson for his shooting and scoring ability. His 42.5 points per game as a high school senior are the stuff of legend.

    Wagner rode McDonald's All-American status to John Calipari at Memphis. After Wagner's freshman year, Calipari revoked his scholarship, forcing Wagner to enter the NBA draft, which Calipari thought was best for Wagner. Wagner was hyped and touted by many, and taken sixth in the 2002 draft by the Cavaliers.

    His rookie year showed that Wagner's ability was for real as he put up 13.4 points per game in only 29 minutes. Little did anyone know, that average would stand as Wagner's career high, and his NBA value would never be higher than it was at age 19.

    Wagner's career quickly spiraled downward in the 2003-2004 season, paralleling the quality of his health. He played poorly in that season and only appeared in 44 games. The next year, he was diagnosed and hospitalized with ulcerative colitis, a painful colon condition. He was limited to four games in '04-'05, and his career, and life, would never be the same.

    Wagner made one ill-fated comeback attempt in '06-'07 with Golden State, but appeared in one game and was bought out just three weeks into the season, ending the NBA career of one of the more promising guard prospects of the 21st century.

Yao Ming

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    Yao, the 7'6" celebrity from China, is the latest victim of the career-ending injury troop. He retired Friday, citing an inability to return healthy from persistent foot problems that prevent him from playing.

    His impact on the court over an eight-year career was profound. As explained in the intro slide, Yao's eight years were really more like six, when you actually consider his game count. The 30 year old averaged 19 points, 9.2 rebounds and 2.2 blocks for his career and led the Rockets to the playoffs four times. 

    Yao's impact off the court, however, is what will be remembered in the annals of basketball.

    As a No. 1 overall pick and successful NBA player, Yao was the biggest factor in the continuing explosion of basketball on the Pacific Rim. He was the face that connected billions of Chinese to the game they love in America.

    It is to Yao's credit that fans in China began wearing basketball jerseys and buying sneakers, and not just his own; Kobe Bryant, Tracy McGrady, and other NBA stars became icons and celebrities to idolizing Chinese kids and teenagers, whose biggest interest was now basketball. 

    Yao opened the door to the Far East for David Stern's globalization initiative, which aims to bring the NBA brand to all corners of the world. 

    Yao was a great player and person, and his name will live on in the NBA's history books forever, for a fantastic impact on and off the hardwood.

Len Bias

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    One of the things I did to help research the players featured in this slideshow was to scour their player page on basketball-reference.com. Sadly, there is one player whose NBA career isn't documented on the site; his page doesn't exist.

    That player is 1986 Boston Celtics' second overall draft pick, Len Bias.

    Bias was selected by the Celtics No. 2 on June 17's draft. Two days later, he was dead from a cardiac arrhythmia caused by a cocaine overdose at 22 years old.

    Bias, the dominant 6'8" power forward, dazzled scouts and fans with his leaping ability, size, and playmaking ability. By his senior year, he was considered the most complete player in the nation as he collected ACC Player of the Year honors for the second consecutive time.

    The Celtics, who traded Gerald Henderson and cash to the Seattle Sonics in 1984, lucked into the second pick in 1986 while coming fresh off an NBA title with what many consider the best team in NBA history. The rich, as they say, were about to get richer.

    Legendary Celtics' coach Red Auerbach said he had plans to draft Bias with the Sonics' pick for three years. When everything worked out for him to finally execute that pick in 1986, Auerbach could never have predicted that the story would end in the tragic fashion that it did.

    Len Bias never played a game in the NBA, but his cocaine use and fatality are emblematic of an era in the sport that was ridden with drug abuse among the player population. Untold damage was done to the league and the career potential of many great players during the 70s and 80s, and Bias stands as the poster child for how horribly damaging and dangerous that time and culture was.

    In 1988, the U.S. Congress passed a stricter revision to the Anti-Drug Act that is still known as the "Len Bias Law".  

Jay Williams

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    Along the lines of Petrovic, Wagner and Bias, former Duke star Jay Williams' budding career was tragically derailed at or near its onset.

    Throughout his high school and college years, the 6'2" Williams earned just about every basketball accolade possible. The path that he was on typically ends in multiple All-Star appearances in the NBA, if not more. Not only was Williams phenomenally ahead of his years on the court, he was a stand-up citizen and extremely hard worker, earning academic distinction at every stop.

    Williams left Duke as one of the program's most popular, successful and beloved players ever, which says a lot about a player from such a storied program as Duke's. He left with the 2001 National Championship, a National Freshman of the Year award, the Naismith and Wooden awards, a retired No. 22 jersey, and a degree in sociology in tow.

    He'd accomplished what most basketball players can only dream of, but he had only scratched the surface of his basketball potential, and he was going to discover how high he could go in the NBA.

    Or so everyone thought.

    After being selected second overall in 2002 by the Chicago Bulls after, ironically, Yao Ming, Williams oscillated between inconsistency and brilliance, starting most of the season at point guard. His 9.5 points and 4.7 assists per game were counted as progress by the Bulls' coaching staff as Williams exited his rookie season.

    The Bulls never got to see how much Williams could improve, though.

    On June 19, 2003, Williams crashed a motorcycle into a lightpole at a Chicago intersection, which resulted in a severed nerve in his left leg, a fractured pelvis and the complete shredding of his left knee. He was not wearing a helmet, nor was he licensed in Illinois to operate a motorcycle. He was also prohibited from riding a motorcycle in his contract, which the Bulls were permitted to void because of his violation of it.

    Williams underwent extensive and long-term therapy just to regain the use of his leg, and stated his intention to eventually return to the Bulls.

    Williams never made it back to the Bulls, but impressed scouts enough in 2006 to earn a non-guaranteed contract with the Nets. Unfortunately, he was waived a week before the season started, and he never attempted a return to the NBA again.

    Williams, just like Wagner, was a dynamic guard prospect who had limitless potential in the pros. They are two among the most popular prospects gone tragically bad of the last 15 years in the NBA draft.