The basketball community faced profound losses in 2023 as several prominent figures from the sport bid farewell. These individuals, who left indelible marks on the court and sidelines, shared a common love for the game. From accomplished players to revered coaches and influential personalities, their legacies transcend the final buzzer.
This article pays tribute to the NBA players who died in 2023, highlighting their achievements, contributions, and the impact they had on the world of basketball. As we delve into their stories, we remember the resilience, excellence, and dedication that defined their journeys in the realm of this beloved sport.
Christopher Joseph Ford was an athlete born on 11 January, 1949. He was a known and accomplished American professional basketball player and NBA head coach, nicknamed “the Mad Bomber.” Ford’s career began at Holy Spirit High School in Absecon, New Jersey, where he set scoring records. Playing at Villanova University, he led the team to three consecutive NCAA appearances.
In the NBA, Ford was a defensive force with the Detroit Pistons before concluding his playing career with the Boston Celtics. He notably made the first official NBA three-point shot in 1979. Ford won an NBA championship with the Celtics in 1981. Transitioning to coaching, he achieved success with Boston and later led the Milwaukee Bucks, Los Angeles Clippers, and Philadelphia 76ers.
On January 17, 2023, Ford passed away at the age of 74 in Philadelphia, succumbing to complications from a heart attack earlier in the month. His legacy spans both the court and coaching sidelines.
Billy Packer, born Anthony William Paczkowski on February 25, 1940, in Wellsville, New York, was an American college basketball player, sportscaster, and author. His parents later changed the family’s Polish surname from Paczkowski to Packer. Raised in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, he graduated from Liberty High School and went on to attend Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, from 1958 to 1962. At Wake Forest, Packer played guard on the basketball team, leading them to two Atlantic Coast Conference titles and the 1962 Final Four.
He received a Sports Emmy Award in 1993 and the Marvin Francis Award in 2005. Packer, criticized for his announcing style, was described as “overbearing, arrogant, condescending, dismissive, and petulant.” He faced controversy for comments about Allen Iverson and apologized for allegedly sexist remarks at Duke University in 2000. Packer also stirred debate with his opinions on mid-major teams in the NCAA tournament.
He died on January 26, 2023, at the age of 82, succumbing to kidney failure. Packer is survived by his wife Barbara and three children, with two of them, Brandt and Mark, working in sports media.
Simone Ann-Marie Edwards, OD, a towering Jamaican-American basketball luminary, left an indelible mark on the WNBA. Standing at 6’4″ and dubbed the “Jamaican Hurricane,” Edwards defied convention, catching the eye of an American college coach at a Jamaican track meet. Her junior college stint at Seminole State College marked historic achievements, including becoming the First Kodak All-American in the school’s history.
Joining the New York Liberty in 1997 and later becoming a cornerstone for the Seattle Storm, Edwards played a pivotal role in the Storm’s 2004 championship. Retiring in 2006, she remained the Storm’s all-time leader in key statistics. Post-WNBA, Edwards coached the Jamaican women’s national team, securing victory at the 2014 Caribbean Championship. Recognized as the National Spokesperson for Caribbean American Heritage Month, Edwards received the Officer of the Order of Distinction from the Jamaican government in 2017.
Tragically, Simone Edwards succumbed to ovarian cancer on February 16, 2023, at the age of 49, leaving behind a legacy of resilience and excellence in the world of basketball.
Felton LaFrance Spencer was a renowned American NBA center born on 5 January 1968. He was popular for notably playing for teams like the Minnesota Timberwolves, Utah Jazz, Orlando Magic, and New York Knicks from 1990 to 2002. Born in Middletown, Kentucky, Spencer showcased basketball prowess early, earning all-state honors at Eastern High School before becoming a standout player for the University of Louisville.
Drafted by the Timberwolves in 1990, Spencer excelled in the league, notably with the Utah Jazz alongside John Stockton and Karl Malone. Despite a ruptured Achilles tendon in 1994–95 interrupting a promising season, Spencer continued his impactful career with the Orlando Magic, Golden State Warriors, and the New York Knicks, retiring after the 2001–02 season.
Post-retirement, Spencer transitioned into coaching, contributing as an assistant at Spalding University and Bellarmine University in Louisville, Kentucky. Sadly, Felton Spencer passed away on March 12, 2023, at the University of Louisville Hospital at the age of 55.
Willis Reed Jr., born on June 25, 1942, in Hico, Louisiana, was an iconic figure in American basketball. His illustrious ten-year career with the New York Knicks (1964–1974) saw him earn seven NBA All-Star selections, five All-NBA honors, and the 1970 NBA Most Valuable Player award. Reed played a pivotal role in securing two NBA championships for the Knicks in 1970 and 1973.
Following his playing days, Reed transitioned into coaching and management, notably with the New Jersey Nets, helping guide them to the NBA Finals in 2002 and 2003. Inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame in 1982, Reed’s legacy extended beyond the court, embodying resilience and leadership.
Willis Reed passed away from heart failure in Houston, Texas, on March 21, 2023, at the age of 80.
Greg Francis, a distinguished Canadian Olympic basketball player and coach, left an enduring legacy. Serving as Sport Development Director at Ontario Basketball and in key roles at Canada Basketball, he demonstrated unparalleled commitment. Francis notably coached the UOIT Ridgebacks, University of Waterloo Warriors, and the University of Alberta Golden Bears. His influence extended to the Canadian junior and senior men’s national teams.
A standout at Fairfield University, he closed his career with 1,570 points and a three-pointers record. His notable performance in the 1997 NCAA Division I tournament earned acclaim, especially against the North Carolina Tar Heels.
Transitioning to the British Basketball League, Francis played for teams like Worthing Bears and Chester Jets. Tragically, on April 2, 2023, just before his 49th birthday, Greg Francis passed away, leaving a void in Canadian basketball that echoes his profound impact and dedication to the sport.
Lance Blanks, born on September 9, 1966, in Del Rio, Texas, had a multifaceted career in basketball as a player, executive, and ESPN analyst. A standout at the University of Texas, he earned induction into Texas Athletics’ Longhorn Hall of Honor in 2007. Blanks, selected by the Detroit Pistons in the 1990 NBA draft, played in the NBA for the Pistons and Timberwolves before continuing his career in Europe. Transitioning to the front office, he served as the general manager of the Phoenix Suns from 2010 to 2013.
Blanks, a dedicated analyst for the Texas Longhorns on Longhorn Network since 2020, also hosted a symposium on concussive injuries in 2019. Tragically, Lance Blanks died by suicide in Dallas, Texas, on May 3, 2023, at the age of 56.
Denny Crum, born on March 2, 1937, was a legendary American college basketball coach known for his remarkable tenure at the University of Louisville from 1971 to 2001. Achieving a record of 675–295, he led the Cardinals to two NCAA championships and six Final Fours. Honored in the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame, Crum earned the nickname “Mr. March” for his postseason success.
Crum played college basketball at UCLA under the renowned John Wooden, contributing to three national championships as an assistant coach. As Louisville’s head coach, he pioneered scheduling tough non-conference matchups to prepare for the NCAA tournament. Crum’s strategic prowess and calm demeanor earned him the moniker “Cool Hand Luke.”
Denny Crum passed away at the age of 86 on May 9, 2023, at his home. His legacy includes coaching 13 NBA draft first-round picks and numerous accolades, and he was a key figure in Kentucky sports history.
Reginal Dennis Benjamin Moore, a prominent American-born Angolan basketball player, passed away in Luanda on June 12, 2023, at the age of 42. Moore, a 6 ft 6 in power forward, graduated from Oral Roberts University in 2003 and played professionally in Norway, the US Basketball League (USBL), Germany, and Portugal. Acquiring Angolan citizenship in 2012, he became only the second U.S. citizen to do so, subsequently making significant contributions to Angolan basketball.
Moore’s achievements include winning championships, being the top 3-point shooter, and securing accolades for scoring in various leagues. His impact on the Angolan national team, notably winning the 2013 FIBA AfroBasket, is hailed as invaluable. Moore played for prominent Angolan clubs, and his dedication earned him the admiration of fans and teammates. Despite the mourning in the basketball community, the cause of Moore’s death is yet to be confirmed. The Angolan Basketball Federation praised Moore’s commitment, acknowledging him as a proud Angolan citizen who represented the nation with honor.
Nikki Kesangane McCray-Penson (December 17, 1971 – July 7, 2023) was a distinguished American basketball player and coach. Standing at 5 feet 11 inches, she excelled in the American Basketball League, earning MVP for the 1996–97 season. McCray, a gold medalist at the 1996 and 2000 Olympics, played eight WNBA seasons, notably with the Washington Mystics and Indiana Fever. Transitioning to coaching, she joined the South Carolina Gamecocks in 2008 and later coached the Mississippi State Bulldogs.
Inducted into the Women’s Basketball Hall of Fame in 2012, McCray-Penson made significant contributions to the sport. Sadly, she battled and overcame breast cancer in 2013 while coaching at South Carolina. Tragically, on July 7, 2023, McCray-Penson passed away at 51 while serving as an assistant coach for Rutgers. Her legacy extends beyond the court, leaving an indelible mark on women’s basketball.
Reginald C. Lewis, born on November 21, 1965, was an esteemed American professional basketball player renowned for his tenure with the NBA’s Boston Celtics from 1987 to 1993. His career was tragically cut short when, at the age of 27, Lewis succumbed to sudden cardiac death during an off-season practice at Brandeis University on July 27, 1993. Despite attempts to revive him, including mouth-to-mouth resuscitation by Brandeis University police officers, Lewis could not be saved.
Lewis faced posthumous retirement of his number 35 jersey by the Celtics, becoming one of only two players in the team’s history to have a retired number without winning a championship with the franchise. His death was attributed to hypertrophic cardiomyopathy, a structural heart defect that is a common cause of mortality in young athletes.
Following his passing, questions arose regarding possible cocaine use, with conflicting reports and legal actions adding complexity to the narrative surrounding his untimely demise. The Reggie Lewis Track and Athletic Center in Boston stands as a tribute to his legacy.
Dennis Arvid Kramer, a German-American basketball player, left an enduring legacy in the sport before meeting an untimely end in a car accident near Barterode on August 27, 2023, at the age of 31. Born on January 10, 1992, Kramer began his professional basketball career in Germany after studying in the United States, accumulating 188 games in the Basketball Bundesliga. Notably, he represented Germany in international competitions, achieving fifth place at the 2011 U20 European Championships.
A La Costa Canyon High School graduate and University of San Diego alumnus, Kramer left his mark on the Toreros’ all-time list in blocked shots. His professional journey included stints with Bundesliga clubs such as Brose Bamberg, TBB Trier, EWE Baskets Oldenburg, and BG Göttingen. In 2022, he joined the regional league team ASC 46 Göttingen. The basketball community mourns the loss of this talented athlete, whose life was tragically cut short in a car accident.
Born on November 24, 1980, Brandon Hunter was an accomplished American professional basketball player known for his college success with the Ohio Bobcats and his NBA career. Despite being drafted by the Boston Celtics in 2003, his NBA journey included stints with the Orlando Magic and the Charlotte Bobcats. Transitioning to international play, Hunter showcased his skills in various leagues, notably joining Panathinaikos in Greece, Carpisa Napoli in Italy, and Hapoel Jerusalem in Israel.
Post-playing career, Hunter ventured into coaching and worked as a real estate broker. In June 2021, he founded Hunter Athlete Management, a full-service sports management company. Tragically, on September 12, 2023, at the age of 42, Hunter passed away while performing hot yoga at an Orlando, Florida yoga studio. His death marked the end of a notable basketball career, marking himself among the best NBA basketball players who died recently.
Maude Jacques, a remarkable Canadian Paralympic wheelchair basketball player, was born on April 21, 1992, in Sherbrooke, Quebec. Introduced to the sport in 2001, she quickly excelled, winning a gold medal at the 2011 Canada Games with Team Quebec. Her journey continued as she represented Canada in various championships, including the 2012 Summer Paralympic Games in London, where the team secured a sixth-place finish. Jacques played a pivotal role in the University of Alabama wheelchair basketball team’s success, contributing to their fourth national championship in 2015.
In July 2014, she achieved a significant milestone by winning a gold medal at the 2014 Women’s World Wheelchair Basketball Championship in Toronto. Despite being omitted from the 2016 Paralympic Games team, Jacques continued to showcase her versatility, winning the Birmingham National Championships in wheelchair tennis in 2015. Tragically, on October 8, 2023, at the age of 31, Maude Jacques succumbed to a bacterial infection, enlisting himself in the famous basketball players who died this year.
Born on October 25, 1940, Robert Montgomery Knight, known as Bobby Knight, was a towering figure in American men’s college basketball coaching. As “the General,” he achieved unparalleled success, winning 902 NCAA Division I men’s basketball games and securing three NCAA championships with the Indiana Hoosiers. Knight’s coaching legacy extended to the Texas Tech Red Raiders and Army Black Knights, earning him induction into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in 1991.
Notable for his innovative motion offense and contributions to the U.S. men’s Olympic team, Knight’s impact on the sport was monumental. Despite controversies, including his outspoken nature and volatile behavior, he became a coaching icon. On November 1, 2023, Knight passed away in Bloomington, Indiana, at the age of 83, marking the end of an era in college basketball.
Walter Pearl Davis, born on September 9, 1954, in Pineville, North Carolina, was an esteemed American basketball player known for his remarkable 15-year career in the National Basketball Association (NBA), primarily with the Phoenix Suns. Growing up as the youngest of 13 children, Davis achieved high school success at South Mecklenburg High School in Charlotte, winning three state titles. Afterward, he continued to excel, earning a spot on the USA men’s basketball team that secured a gold medal at the 1976 Summer Olympics, under the coaching of UNC’s Dean Smith.
Selected by the Suns in the 1977 NBA draft, Davis quickly became a prominent figure, winning the 1978 Rookie of the Year Award and making six NBA All-Star appearances. Notably, he set an NBA record by scoring his first 34 points in a game. Affectionately known as “The Greyhound,” Davis became the Suns’ all-time leading scorer with 15,666 points. Despite facing challenges like back problems and a drug scandal, Davis left an indelible mark on the franchise. Following his retirement, he contributed to the NBA as a broadcaster and scout. On November 2, 2023, Davis passed away in Charlotte, North Carolina, at the age of 69.
In closing, the basketball community mourns the profound losses of these iconic figures in 2023. Their indomitable spirits, extraordinary skills, and lasting contributions to the sport will forever resonate on and off the court. As we remember Chris Ford’s pioneering three-point shot, Simone Edwards’ trailblazing career, and the strategic brilliance of coaches like Denny Crum and Bobby Knight, we reflect on the indelible legacy they leave behind. In the game they loved, these legends may have taken their final bow, but their impact on basketball will endure, inspiring generations to come.