10 NBA Players Who Lost Their Careers to Substance Abuse

Many talented athletes end their careers with substance abuse, whether for performance or recreational reasons. The NBA has also lost its fair share of talented players who fell prey to substance abuse over the years and gave away their careers.

That being said, let’s examine 10 NBA players whose substance abuse led them to make a string of bad mistakes that ultimately cost them their careers.

#10. Chris Herren

Chris Herren’s professional basketball career was marred by a lifelong battle against drug addiction, right from the very beginning. Despite failed drug tests and college expulsions, Herren’s undeniable talent caught the attention of the Denver Nuggets who selected him in the second round of the 1999 NBA Draft.

Chris Herren
via SBNation

He participated in 70 NBA games, averaging only 3 points, 2.4 assists, and 1 rebound per game. Unfortunately, he didn’t give himself many chances to showcase his true potential as an addiction to Oxycontin, which took hold during his time in the NBA, ultimately curtailed his tenure in the league.

He lost track of his first game with the Celtics due to drug use, and he once even skipped pregame warmups to meet his supplier. In 2004, the Celtics waived him after a string of failed drug tests and unproductive performances on the court. His basketball career lasted only two years, but his addiction lasted for 14 years.

Now Chris Herren travels the country, candidly sharing his story with the hope that it will inspire others to overcome their own addictions.

#9. Marvin Barnes

It’s possible that Marvin Barnes’ turbulent past in high school and college anticipated the difficulties he had in the NBA. Barnes spent only two seasons with the Spirits of St. Louis, despite being drafted second overall by the 76ers in 1974.

Marvin’s exceptional talent on the basketball court was undeniable, consistently averaging an impressive 16 points, 9 rebounds, and 2.1 assists before his addiction overshadowed his career.

Unfortunately, his time in the NBA was abruptly cut short during his stint with the Celtics from 1976–1980 due to his notorious admission of cocaine use while on the bench, leading to legal complications.

Marvin once expressed disbelief at the thought of reaching the age of 30, yet defying his own prediction, he surpassed it and ultimately passed away at the age of 62.

#8. Chris Washburn

Chris Washburn, a highly sought-after basketball prospect, emerged from high school in 1984 with great hoop potential. However, his off-court trials and struggles overshadowed his on-court brilliance.

Following a chaotic stint at North Carolina State University, Washburn defied the odds by securing the third spot in the 1986 NBA draft, where he was chosen by the Warriors.

Chris Washburn
via Dubs archives

He averaged 12.4 points, 7.8 rebounds, and 1.8 assists per game throughout his NBA career. It’s worth noting, however, that he came across tremendous challenges early on when he attended cocaine addiction treatment during his freshman year.

The Golden State Warriors traded him to the Atlanta Hawks in 1987, but Washburn continued to battle substance abuse related issues, leading to a decline in his playing time and overall effectiveness.

In 1989, Washburn faced a lifetime ban from the NBA for violating the league’s substance abuse policies, marking a tragic end to what could have been a promising career.

#7. Roy Tarpley

Roy Tarpley entered the NBA in 1986 after being selected by the Dallas Mavericks as the seventh overall pick in the first round. His early years in the league were promising, earning him the NBA Sixth Man of the Year award in the 1987-1988 season.

He averaged an impressive 12.6 points, 10.0 rebounds, and 1.0 assist during his time in the NBA. However, his career was marred by a five-game suspension due to a driving under the influence arrest, while resisting arrest made matters worse. It took a dark turn as he continuously struggled with substance abuse issues, particularly alcohol and drugs.

Roy Tarpley
via Getty

Tarpley’s battles with addiction led to multiple suspensions, disrupting his time with the Mavericks and diminishing his on-court contributions.

His troubles escalated with multiple DWI arrests and NBA sanctions from 1991 through 1994 due to violations of the league’s drug policy. Tarpley faced a lifetime ban from the NBA in December 1995 for failing to comply with a court-ordered personal aftercare program.

#6. Len Bias

Len Bias was a promising basketball player who passed away before even making it to the NBA. Bias died in his dorm room shortly after being selected second overall by the Boston Celtics in the 1986 NBA Draft which remains one of the most tragic NBA scandals of all-time. His early death was due to shooting too much cocaine into his system.

During his time at Maryland, like many emerging players, Bias was often compared to Michael Jordan as he played for the Terrapins’ basketball team. His remarkable vertical leap, playmaking abilities, and overall court elegance captivated coaches, teammates, and spectators alike.

Len was a phenomenal player with tremendous potential. Unfortunately, his promising career was cut short just before it could take off, all due to his addiction. This left fan wondering how far he could have gone if he hadn’t fallen victim of drug abuse.

#5. Ty Lawson

Ty Lawson established himself as a formidable player during his collegiate career by clinching the NCAA championship and the renowned Bob Cousy Award. The Denver Nuggets drafted him in 2009, recognizing his abilities.

Lawson began as a valuable bench player, but it wasn’t until Chauncey Billups left the Nuggets that he truly excelled. Lawson shattered records in the final game, nailing an incredible 10 consecutive 3-pointers.

Ty Lawson
via CBSSports

Throughout his illustrious NBA career, Lawson consistently demonstrated his prowess, averaging 12.7 points, 6.0 assists, and 2.7 rebounds per game.

However, because of repeated DUI arrests, his career prospects have dimmed and he is no longer competing in the top tier of pro basketball. He was suspended for five games by the league for driving under influence of alcohol, and soon had to make way out of the NBA.

Lawson played briefly for the Indiana Pacers and the Sacramento Kings before joining the Shandong Golden Stars of the Chinese Basketball Association. He now plays overseas in the Venezuelan Basketball League

#4. O.J. Mayo

O.J. Mayo was chosen third overall in the 2008 NBA draft, ahead of such well-known athletes as Russell Westbrook and Kevin Love. In his rookie year, he averaged 18.5 points per game.

Unfortunately, the very next year Mayo was suspended for failing a drug test due to positive results for the steroid DHEA and other concerns.

OJ Mayo
via Getty

After a relatively successful tenure with the Mavericks, Mayo’s career took a huge fall again. In 2016, he faced a drug suspension from the NBA due to consecutive failed drug tests.

Mayo may have a drug history, but he is still able to play in the NBA. The only thing is, no team would sign him.

#3. Shawn Kemp

Shawn Kemp, famously known as “The Reign Man,” was a fan-favorite for his electrifying dunks and rousing celebrations that followed each slam. His on-court chemistry, particularly in alley-oops with Gary Payton, reached legendary status.

Kemp’s impressive performance, where he averaged 19.6 points and 11.4 rebounds per game, propelled the Seattle Supersonics to the NBA Finals in the 1995–96 season. However, Kemp faced challenges, notably struggling to maintain weight after his trade to the Cleveland Cavaliers in 1997.

Kemp’s drug problems became public knowledge when he was traded to the Portland Trail Blazers, which resulted in a drop in output and a stay in treatment. His once-impressive career trajectory was overshadowed by the impact of substance abuse.

Shawn Kemp certainly wasn’t renowned as the record-holder dunker, but his incredible dunking skill was. His career remains one of the biggest what-ifs in the NBA.

#2. Lamar Odom

The LA Clippers selected Lamar Odom in the 1999 draft. Despite averaging 16.6 points, 7.8 rebounds, and 4.2 assists in his debut impactful season, Odom had a rough start in life because of suspensions for marijuana use.

Reports of substance abuse and a tumultuous marriage to reality TV star Khloé Kardashian drew public attention. Eventually he prevailed with the other Los Angeles-based team and won two NBA championships with the Lakers during his career.

Lamar Odom
via Lakers daily

Odom’s life and career crumbled as a result of personal tragedies and off-court challenges. His NBA career came to an end in 2013, following a series of suspensions owing to substance abuse. His poor performance on the court persisted and even after concluding his professional career, Odom could not escape his demons. In 2015, Lamar Odom faced a near-fatal overdose at a Nevada brothel, where he was found lying almost dead and was extensively in coma before recovering.

#1. David Thompson

Both the Atlanta Hawks and the Virginia Squires showed interest in signing David Thompson during the NBA’s talent shortage in 1975. He eventually chose to join the ABA’s Denver Nuggets.

This choice had a long-term impact on the NBA, and Michael Jordan was a huge fan of Thompson. Needless to say, the league would never be the same again. Thompson shares the NBA record for scoring 70 points in a game with six other players.

During his NBA career, he averaged 22.1 points, 3.8 rebounds, and 3.2 assists per game while playing for the Nuggets and the Supersonics. He competed in the Slam-Dunk Competition against Julius Erving in the inaugural 1976 ABA All-Star Game. His excellent leaping ability made him one of the greatest dunkers of all time, earning him the nickname ‘Skywalker’ in the process.

According to Thompson, “I had the potential to become one of the greatest basketball players in history, but I squandered it.”

Substance abuse led him down a dark path that ended his prolific career. In 1981, Thompson was banned from the NBA for violating the league’s drug policy, cutting short what could have been an even more illustrious career.

While under the influence, he fell down the steps at Studio 54, badly injuring his knee and effectively ending his professional career. His struggles with substance abuse impacted his playing days and post-NBA life.

Over the years, substance abuse has ruined the careers of countless NBA players. Many even lost the chance of showing off their skills on the game, either because they were drawn to fame and money or because they were having personal problems. However, their stories paint a picture, reminding how important it is to get help and put health ahead of short-term pleasures.

Sami Haider

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Sami Haider is an NBA writer at SportsKnot. His foray into basketball scriptwriting started in 2020, when he was enthralled by the Los Angeles Lakers' NBA championship victory. His previous experience was limited to dribbling and dunking as a neighborhood kid. His insightful writings show how much he loves the sport. His writing goes beyond numbers and scores, giving readers a unique viewpoint on the players, teams, and events that define the basketball scene. Whether you're a die-hard fan or a casual observer, Sami's work is essential for anybody trying to expand their knowledge and love of the NBA.


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