NBA players who died on the court: Ballers who passed away doing what they love

NBA players who died on the court: Ballers who passed away doing what they love

Ciku Njuguna
updated at April 12, 2023 at 8:13 PM

Has a basketball player ever died on the court? Although the active lifestyles of athletes may represent health, numerous sports personalities are no more. The NBA has seen its share of players who have tragically passed too soon. Some of them passed from natural causes, off the court, for reasons which could have been prevented.

NBA players who died on the court
Photo: (modified by author)
Source: UGC

Over the years, several famous active basketball players in the NBA have passed away, marking an unfortunate end to their young careers. Researchers and physicians blame disorders such as Sudden Cardiac Death, Marfans disease, and hypertrophic cardiomyopathy as the reason behind NBA players who died on the court. Here is a list of some of the NBA ballers who passed away.

Reggie Lewis

When was Reggie Lewis' last game?
Boston Celtics' Reggie Lewis makes a slam dunk during the NBA game against the Chicago Bulls in the United Center in December 1993 in Chicago, Illinois. Photo by Jonathan Daniel.
Source: Getty Images

Reggie was drafted into the NBA in 1987. He was the 22nd pick for the Boston Celtics during round 1 of the draft. He is one of the greatest NBA players of all time who died on the court.

The talented Celtics defender fiercely guarded the hoop giving the opposing team no chance. During a match with Chicago Bulls, the Celtics star swatted away four of Michael Jordan's shots, leaving him with only 12 successful shots of 36 field attempts.

“Oh, I remember it well. He was a tough matchup, and he had those long arms that really bothered me. I was trying to be aggressive with him. I was trying to take advantage of his passive demeanor, but he didn’t back down. He never relinquished his own aggressiveness. He shocked me a little bit.”

What happened to NBA legend Reggie Lewis?

In April 1993, Lewis collapsed during a game against the Charlotte Hornets. After a few minutes on the bench, he returned to the game but struggled to stay in the game.

Doctors later diagnosed the shooting guard with focal cardiomyopathy, a fatal heart condition that could end his career. Later, the diagnosis was changed to a non-fatal heart condition that causes fainting spells, Neurocardiogenic syncope. Then in July, the Northeastern Hall of Famer collapsed and died during off-season practice at the Brandeis University basketball court.

Conrad McRae

What was the cause of death of Conrad McRae?
Syracuse Orange's Conrad McRae takes a foul shot during a college basketball game against the Georgetown Hoyas in January 1993 at Capital Centre in Landover, Maryland. Photo by Mitchell Layton.
Source: Getty Images

In addition to the American basketball scene, McRae dominated European basketball after successful stints in Turkey, Greece, Italy, and France. He also played for the famous Denver Nuggets and the University of Syracuse's basketball team.

Although the Wahington Bullets' power forward was drafted into the NBA, he never played in the League. According to Basketball-reference, his college basketball stats stood at 0.548% field goal percentage, 0.167% 3-point field goal percentage, 0.598% free throw percentage, and 778 overall points in 104 games.

McRae had his first fainting episode just before a game with the Nuggets and a second one during a stress test at the hospital. The Nuggets rookie was later diagnosed with ventricular tachycardia by the team's cardiologist.

Although he was strongly advised to quit basketball, McRae left the Nuggets to play for Italy's Pallacanestro Trieste and later entered the Southern California Summer Pro League. Unfortunately, he met his demise after collapsing while running sprints during practice for the Pro League game.

“Zeke” Upshaw

What happen to NBA's Zeke Upshaw?
Anton Gill of the Louisville Cardinals shoots the ball while defended by Zeke Upshaw of the Hofstra Pride at KFC YUM! Center in November 2013 in Louisville, Kentucky. Photo by Andy Lyons.
Source: Getty Images

The NBA-G league player who died on the court in 2018 was popular Grand Rapids Drive's point guard, “Zeke” Upshaw. Zena Ray "Zeke" Upshaw played for the Detroit Pistons G-League affiliate, the Grand Rapids Drive. Before joining the Drive, Zeke played for European basketball teams in Slovenia and Luxembourg, as well as the Illinois State and Hofstra college basketball teams.

Although he averaged 17.3 points per game (PPG) at Hofstra, he was not drafted into the NBA, which prompted his move to Europe. He later came back and entered the 2014 NBA Development League draft, where the Rapids picked him up in the fourth round.

Upshaw collapsed during the last 50 seconds of a game against the Long Island Nets but was revived by paramedics. However, two days later, he passed away while undergoing treatment in the hospital. An autopsy revealed the cause of Zeke Upshaw's death as Hypertrophic cardiomyopathy.

Pistol Pete Maravich

What caused Pete Maravich's death?
Utah Jazz's Pete Maravich takes a jump shot against the New York Knicks at the Madison Square Garden in 1979 in New York, New York. Photo by Focus on Sport.
Source: Getty Images

Although NBA legend Pistol Pete had retired, he kept an active lifestyle playing basketball with friends. Then, in 1988, the five-time NBA All-Star met his untimely death after he suffered a heart attack during a three-on-three pickup game at the Pasadena First Church of the Nazarene gym.

Non-NBA players that died on the court



Cause of death

Hank Gathers

Loyola Marymount University

Hypertrophic cardiomyopathy

Tauras Stumbrys


Coronary heart disease

Michael Ojo

Red Star Belgrade

Heart attack

Gilbert Bulawan

Blackwater Elite

Cardiac arrest

O'jaryn Reese

Georgia Suns AAU


Marvin Stone

Ittihad Jeddah

Heart attack

Stevan Jelovac

AEK Athens

Hemorrhagic stroke

NBA players who almost died on the court
Maurice Stokes of the Rochester Royals blocks a shot during a game against the Zollner Pistons at the War Memorial Coliseum in Fort Wayne, Indiana. Photo by: Diamond Images.
Source: Getty Images

Maurice Stokes

Stone became the first African American basketball player to be named to an ALL NBA Team. He was the second pick for the Rochester Royals during the 1955 NBA draft.

In 1958, Stokes had a traumatic fall that knocked him unconscious during a game between the Royals and the Lakers. Although he was quickly revived at the game, he later fell into a three-week coma that left him almost completely immobilised.

Player safety measures today have helped to reduce the past incidences of NBA players who died on the court. In addition, the increased care and awareness of heart disorders affecting African American basketball players will go a long way in saving the players' lives.

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Ciku Njuguna photo
Ciku Njuguna
Ciku Njuguna is a journalist with 3 year’s experience in content creation based in Kenya. She currently covers sports personnel as well as team biographies.