Roy Tarpley and the 1986 NBA Draft

Late Monday night, a former MLB pitcher by the name of Tommy Hanson died. He was only 29, and there is no official word on just how it is that someone his age could suffer a “catastrophic organ failure” and slip into a coma. Early speculation is that Hanson’s death was the product of an overdose, and after a brief foray into the online jungle that is Reddit, I came away with multiple “sources” claiming the former top prospect had been dealing with a cocaine addiction for some time. This information could be entirely false, but the truth is it doesn’t matter how he died. Twenty-nine is a tragic age when it marks the end of a life regardless of the circumstances, but the fact that it may have been drug-related got me thinking.

It’s easy to slip into a tangled web of nostalgia and half-forgotten memories when someone close to your own age dies, and I’m by no means the only person that finds it a little jarring whenever it happens. At 31, I’m actually a little older than Hanson, and I don’t need him to remind me that my time will come some day, a day that’s perfectly ordinary for the vast majority of the Earth’s population, but I don’t mind getting a little introspective at such times. I don’t think it’s egocentric; quite the opposite really, as it inevitably leads to thinking about other people who have died tragically young, some of whom you even knew personally.

If Hanson indeed had a drug problem that led to an early death, he’s in pretty good company. Look no further than the 1986 NBA draft, which saw the second overall pick drop dead due to a cocaine overdose two days after getting selected by the Celtics. Len Bias was an extreme example of what can go wrong when even dabbling in cocaine, and the fact that his future was so undeniably, blindingly bright made it that much more impacting, but it could have happened to several other players taken in that very same draft.

The pick right after Bias, Chris Washburn struggled with drugs as well, so much so that it completely derailed his career. He missed out on an NBA career but kept his life, and he eventually cleaned up. Sixth overall pick William Bedford also struggled with drug problems, problems that cut his time in the NBA down to just six disappointing seasons. He would later be sentenced to 10 years in prison for drug-related charges, although he too seems to be on a better path now. Washburn and Bedford have been lucky so far. One player who it didn’t work out quite as well for in the long term was Roy Tarpley, the player the Mavericks took right after Bedford.

Praised for his enviable blend of size and speed, Tarpley was a monster off the bench for the brief time period he managed to stay in the NBA. Finishing with averages of 17 points and 13.5 rebounds per 36 minutes, the 6-foot-11 Michigan product showed more than enough ability to become a memorable player in the league’s history. Repeated issues with alcohol and drugs eventually resulted in a permanent ban, however, and Tarpley’s career ended with just 280 games in parts of six seasons. As all Mavericks fans know, Tarpley died earlier this year at the relatively young age of 50, and although the official cause of death doesn’t seem to be public information, it’s hard to imagine the big man’s long-time vices didn’t play a crucial role.

What are we to make of these people, all these people who fight what is inevitably a losing battle with drugs? I was barely born when the 1986 NBA draft took place, and even I’m frustrated that Bias never got a chance to suit up for the Celtics. I’m frustrated Tarpley isn’t a happy part of Mavericks lore worthy of a tribute post rather than a memorial-minded one. I’m also frustrated that the team that would become my favorite within a decade had the ninth overall pick and wasted it on Brad Sellers.

If that last statement seemed a little disrespectful to the dead, forgive me, but it was necessary, because I’m about to get too dramatic for my own good. I couldn’t shake Hanson’s death easily, so I took a long and complicated path through the last few years and looked up some people who shouldn’t be dead, who have no right to be dead. Anthony Mason, Robert Traylor, Kevin Duckworth, Jerome Kersey, Jack Haley, and the list goes on. These are people who I sat and watched play basketball as a kid. I wasn’t a kid so long ago that athletes in the prime of their lives at that time should already be dying!

Somehow all this got me scrolling down a Facebook page set up to memorialize former students at my former high school who have died recently, and I was struck with that same feeling as I noted the years of graduation: 1991, 1988, 2007. All these years are in the recent past. None of these people should be dead. It’s not my own mortality I fear for, but the feelings it inevitably unearths within me. There was a guy in my graduating class who committed suicide a few years ago, and I thought of him when I looked through the list of dead Kickapoo High School graduates. I thought of him when I read about Tommy Hanson.

We weren’t close friends, and everyone knows someone who died too young, so I’m not trying to build this up to an emotional crescendo here, but I wonder how many more times I’m destined to think of him over the course of my life. We weren’t terribly close, he and I, but I can still see him cracking jokes in my English class as a freshman, hanging out at my post-high school apartment, and solving equations right beside me in a college math course. Each person like him leaves people like me behind, as well as people who are stuck with the honest-to-god kind of grieving that my emotions can’t even be compared to.

In so many ways, the 1986 NBA draft symbolizes those tragic occurrences, those people who the world never got to know quite the way it should have. They leave us with more questions than answers, teasing us with their potential. They shine brightly but briefly, quicker than Bias’s career, louder than a Tarpley dunk — and then they’re gone, never to be heard from again. The rest of us are doomed to stay here and remember them intermittently forever.

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