Written by: Prospect-Central
In 1891, the Canadian-American Dr. James Naismith invented the game of basketball at a YMCA training school in Springfield, Massachusetts. Given the cold Massachusetts winters, Naismith needed to find a recreational activity that could be played indoors. He preferred a sport that would develop skill as opposed to relying only on strength and thus the game we've all grown to love was created.
|Dr. James Naismith (1861-1939)|
On June 6th, 1946, the Basketball Association of America was founded. The BAA was an 11-team league that consisted of the Boston Celtics, New York Knicks, Philadelphia Warriors, and others. Three years later in 1949, the BAA and the NBL merged into the greatest basketball league in the world, the NBA.
Many leagues have formed since then, both nationally and abroad, but the best baller's in the world come to the NBA to play. There's been a number of exceptional players to put on NBA jerseys over the years, but this is the story about those that had the potential to play at the highest level, but for one reason or another never did.
|The First Basketball Court (Springfield, MA)|
In order for a player to be selected there were two pieces of criteria needed to be met. If a player was balling before the NBA's inception in 1949, they were ineligible for a selection. The same thing went for a player that currently has a chance to play in the NBA today.
With so many great players from the past, there were obviously some that didn't make the cut. Of all the names left off the list, former Harlem Globetrotter Medowlark Lemon has to be the biggest snub. When Wilt Chamberlain says your the greatest basketball player he's ever seen, there's no question your name should be among the very best to have never played in the NBA. Medowlark Lemon was inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame in 2003, so he's probably better than a number of players that made the cut, but I wanted to tell the stories of some lesser known names. With that being said, here's Prospect-Central's Top 25 Baller's NEVER to Play in the NBA. * Prospect-Central's #10 - #06 baller's never to play in the NBA.
(10) Lenny Cooke sg/sf / 6'6'' 210 / High School
If there was ever such a thing as a parallel universe, then every person, place, and thing would have an exact opposite. Up would be down, left would be right, good would be bad, and so on. If this was the case, then the inverse of Lenny Cooke would be none other than the king himself, LeBron James. Although a year older then LeBron, Cooke was the only HS recruit ever ranked ahead of James, and for a time destined for NBA greatness as well. All this would change in the summer of 2001, when the two squared off against each other at the highly acclaimed ABCD Camp. After this fateful day, the paths of Lenny Cooke & LeBron James would head in two entirely different directions. Prior to their meeting, Cooke was the MVP of the 2000 ABCD Camp as a rising junior, and considered by many the #1 player in the country regardless of class. He was even ranked ahead future NBA teammates Carmelo Anthony & Amare Stoudemire. Cooke actually played against Carmelo at the 2001 ABCD Camp, and the winner of their match up would meet LeBron in the finals. It was an up-and-down battle, but Cooke eventually prevailed, defeating Melo in overtime while scoring a game high 20 points. The highly anticipated duel between Cooke & James was now in the makings, and ready to change the lives of both players, for better and for worse. As if there wasn't enough hype for the game, Cooke was playing high school ball in New Jersey at the time, and the ABCD Camp was being held at Fairleigh Dickinson University in Teaneck, New Jersey. Since Lenny was local, all the media outlets and newspapers were ready to document the historic battle. While the game was close, LeBron dominated Cooke, outscoring the #1 player in the country 24-9. James saved his best for last though. With his team trailing by 2 and time running off the clock, LeBron hit the game winning 3-pointer right in Lenny Cooke's face. In retrospect, that shot symbolized the beginning of King James and the downfall of Lenny Cooke. What's even more remarkable, four-years before this legendary game Cooke had never even played organized basketball. He started balling on the AAU circuit with the Long Island Panthers when he was fifteen, and quickly became one of the most dominant players in the nation. Chicago Bulls star Joakim Noah was actually on the Panthers at the time, and the 5-foot-9 thirteen-year old was in awe of Cooke like everyone else.
Lenny Cooke was named freshman of the year at Franklin K. Lane High School (Brooklyn, NY) in 1999, but eventually transferred to La Salle Academy in Manhattan for his sophomore year. Cooke dominated at La Salle, averaging 31 ppg & 15 rpg, but needed to get his grades right. He transferred to Old Tappan in New Jersey and proceeded to average 25 ppg & 10 rpg as a junior. Before his debacle against LeBron that summer, Cooke actually threw up a 38 point triple-double against Amare Stoudemire. During his senior year at Old Tappan, Cooke only played eight games due to eligibility issues, but still averaged 31.5 ppg. After his high school career was over, he was still considered one of the top players in the Class of 2002, and was even ranked as the #1 fifth-year senior in the class as well. Cooke had ideas of attending college, but in March of 2002 moved to Flint, Michigan to prepare for the upcoming NBA Draft. Prior to the draft, Cooke played in the EA Sports Roundball Classic, scoring 21 points while leading his team to a victory. Cooke was projected as a first round pick for the 2002 NBA Draft, but a right toe injury sidelined him during pre-draft workouts and teams never got a chance to watch him play. The draft came and went, but Lenny Cooke's name was never called. He signed as a free-agent with the Seattle Supersonics, but never made the team. Cooke then tried to play in the D-League, but was too immature for the daily grind of a professional ballplayer. The following year Cooke was playing with the Brooklyn Kings of the U.S.B.L. and averaged 30 ppg. He also had a 47 point outburst with the Kings that caught the attention of some NBA scouts. The performance earned Cooke a spot with the Boston Celtics summer league team, but he was eventually cut despite having a couple decent games. Cooke headed overseas to play, but was back in the States the following year. In December of 2004, a horrible car accident left Cooke in a coma and eventually a wheelchair. Unable to workout, he ballooned to over 300-pounds and slowly began to lose his skills. He's played in various leagues since then, but the ride is definitely over for Lenny Cooke. There were ultimately a number of reasons he never played in the NBA, but in my opinion he made the leap from high school to the pros way too soon. Cooke would've benefited tremendously from a few years of college ball, but unfortunately bought into his own hype and rushed the process. Whatever the case may be, Lenny Cooke's story should be a constant reminder that patience is truly a virtue.
(9) Richard "Pee Wee" Kirkland pg / 6'1'' 180 / Streetball
There have been a number of basketball players throughout time to live the dual life of gangster-slash-baller, but no player pulled it off quite like Richard "Pee Wee" Kirkland. He was basically Al Capone with a crossover. Growing up in poverty on 116th Street in New York City, Kirkland started hustling when he was 13, and quickly became known as the "Bank of Harlem." He was pushing a Rolls Royce before he even had a drivers license, and would regularly pass out hundred-dollar bills to struggling people in his community. While Frank Lucas & Nicky Barnes may have been the true kingpins of the Harlem drug trade, Kirkland had one thing they didn't, basketball skills for days!!! If you ever crossed somebody over, then gave them a 360 spin down the lane, you have one person to thank for that move, Richard "Pee Wee" Kirkland. An All-City guard at Manhattan's Charles Evans Hughes High School, Kirkland's still considered one of the best point guards to ever come out of The Big Apple. In the late 60's, Kirkland earned a scholarship to Kittrell College in North Carolina and averaged 41 ppg. He then attended Norfolk State University, and made some deep runs in the NCAA Division II tournament. Even though he played for historically black colleges & universities, a number of NBA players have taken that route as well, and Pee Wee Kirkland still ranks in the Top 10 of HBCU Players of All-Time. Kirkland was selected by the Chicago Bulls in the 1969 NBA Draft, but ultimately turned down the offer to play professionally. At the time he was making way too much money selling drugs to even consider the NBA.
Kirkland returned to New York in 1970, and proceeded to dominate the blacktops, most notably Rucker Park. He would actually arrive to games in tricked-out Ferrari's, right before he tore up the competition. Boston Celtics legend Nate "Tiny" Archibald was Kirkland's biggest adversary, and called Pee Wee the toughest opponent he ever faced. With a mansion on Long Island and a fleet of automobiles, Kirkland was living the good life. Unfortunately for Pee Wee, the ride was about to come to an end. In 1971, drug charges landed Kirkland in a Federal Penitentiary in Lewisburg, Pennsylvania. While incarcerated, Kirkland was playing in the Anthracite Basketball League, a semi-pro league in central PA that included prison teams. He obviously dominated, scoring over 100 points on a few occasions. He was released from prison in 1975 and moved out West. Kirkland played in some Los Angeles Lakers charity games while on the West Coast, but in 1981 went back to prison on tax evasion charges. In 1988, he was released from the joint and appears to be a rehabilitated man. Kirkland now travels the country speaking to youths about decision-making and pathways to success. Never shy for words, Kirkland's been there and done that, and has no problem keeping it real. While his playing days are over, the basketball bloodlines of Pee Wee Kirkland live on however. His grandson, Elijah Kirkland-Cuffee, is currently playing high school ball in California, but has a long ways to go before he can be compared to his grandfather. Kirkland could have been one of the greatest NBA baller's of all-time, but instead of serving cat's on the NBA hardwood, he was serving dope in the streets. Rapper's French Montana & Jadakiss even payed homage to Kirkland in the video "New York Minute." While he's a different man today than he once was, Richard "Pee Wee" Kirkland will forever be known as basketball's version of the New Jack Hustler.
(8) Roger Brown sg/sf / 6'5'' 205 / ABA
Never has a player so good been seen by so few people, but this was certainly the case with ABA legend Roger Brown. One person who knew Brown's game inside-and-out is current NBA TV analyst Peter Vecsey. He was around Brown nearly his entire career and had much praise for the former ABA star. Vecsey said, "He was a combination of Jerry West, Oscar Roberston, Sam Jones, and Elgin Baylor if you could believe it. Had he played his entire career in the NBA instead of the ABA, we would be talking about a top 50 talent of all-time. He definitely deserves to be in the Hall of Fame." The legend of Roger Brown starts where the myths of so many other talented basketball players come from, the blacktops of Brooklyn, New York. Born May 22, 1942, Roger Brown was a true master of his craft and possibly the greatest one-on-one player of his era. Not only does he share a striking resemblance to one of the greatest entertainer's of all-time, Sammy Davis, Jr., but his skills on the court were just as exciting as Davis' performances on the stage. Nicknamed the "Man of a Thousand Moves", Brown could find angles to the basket with knee-buckling drives, stop on a dime for his patented fade-away jumper, or just leave you in the dust with an array of charismatic moves. He was a star at Wingate High School (Brooklyn, NY) in the 60's and regularly dominated the best players the City had to offer. Brown's most memorable high school game was in the semifinals of the New York City Public School League, when he put up a 37 point drubbing on NBA legend Connie Hawkins. At this point he was considered a basketball prodigy and headed to the University of Dayton with hopes of one day playing in the NBA. Unfortunately for Brown, his dreams would never come to fruition.
As a freshman Brown lived up to the hype, but along with Hawkins, fell into the trap of befriending Jack Molinas, a former University of Columbia All-American who was involved with illegal point shaving. While Brown was never accused of point shaving, and his only crime was associating with Molinas, he was still banned from the game he loved. With the NCAA and NBA ban in place, he continued to play basketball in the Dayton amateur leagues, and in 1967 signed with the Indiana Pacers of the ABA. Brown was actually the first player ever signed by the Pacers and eventually became one of the franchise's all-time greats. He also played with the Memphis Stars and Utah Suns, but definitely had his best years with the Pacers. Brown played in the ABA from 1967-1975, and during those eight-years was considered one of the games most exciting players. Bob Netolicky, who's ranked #17 on Prospect-Central's Top 25 Baller's Never to Play in the NBA, was teammates with Brown on the Pacers, and felt Roger was right up there with some of the best players in the world. Netolicky said, " Had Roger not gotten involved in that scandal, he would've been in the same class as Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant, he was that good. As far as talent-wise is concerned, Roger Brown was one of the top five that ever played the game. Nobody could guard him, I mean NOBODY could guard him!" Brown was a 3-time ABA champion with the Pacers, and in 1970 was named Finals MVP. He was also a 4-time ABA All-Star, 3-time All-ABA selection, and was one of seven players unanimously chosen for the ABA All-Time Team in 1997. Brown finished his career 10th all-time among ABA scoring leaders with 10,498 points, and he ranks 4th all-time among Indiana Pacers. He made such an impact for the Pacers, they finally retired his jersey (#35) in 1985. Roger Brown passed away from liver cancer in 1997, and even though he never fulfilled his boyhood dream of playing in the NBA, he should still be recognized as one of the best players the game has ever seen.
(7) Ronnie Fields sg / 6'3'' 200 / High School
YouTube has truly revolutionized the way basketball junkies can get their fix. With so many exciting past, present, and future baller's in the world, YouTube's become an instrumental tool for helping players showcase their talent. Now a lot of mixtapes are sub-par to say the least, but there are a few that truly take your breath away. Case in point, Shaquille Johnson!!! While some of these videos have reached millions of views, I can only imagine how popular a Ronnie Fields mixtape would have been back in the day. With his incredible scoring instincts and a 51-inch vertical leap, Ronnie Fields was a highlight reel waiting to happen, and in my opinion one of high school basketball's top 10 dunkers of all-time. Born February 28, 1977 in Chicago, Illinois, Ronnie Fields is one of the rare high school basketball players who was ranked at the top of his class his entire prep school career. Playing for the historic Farragut Career Academy during the mid 90's, Fields was named Freshman of the Year in 1993, and by the time he graduated high school was still consider a top 10 recruit in the Class of 1996. He was also selected to the 1996 McDonald's All-American game and was named a 3-time Parade All-American as well. Some other impressive accolades for Fields include, being the first sophomore to ever play in the "Best of the Best" all-star game at the Nike All-American Camp in 1993, and he's one of the 40 most influential players selected to the prestigious Chicago Proviso West Holiday Tournament All-Time Team. During the 1994-95 season, Kevin Garnett joined Fields at Farragut Career Academy, and the two became one of the most explosive duo's in the history of high school basketball. After Garnett declared for the 1995 NBA Draft, Fields continued to dominate at Farragut, putting up some ridiculous numbers to say the least.
Ronnie Fields finished his senior year averaging 32 ppg, 12 rpg, 4 apg, 4 spg, 4 bpg, and he left high school as the third all-time leading scorer in Chicago Public League history with 2,619 points. During the last week of the season however, Ronnie Fields life would change forever. On February 26, 1996, two-days before his 19th birthday, a horrific car accident left Fields with a broken neck and his future in peril. After undergoing surgery, Fields had to wear a protective halo while recovering, but still signed a letter of intent to play ball at DePaul University. He was later ruled academically ineligible, and a few months later he pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor charge of sexual assault as well. With his dreams of playing in the NBA slowly unraveling, Fields declared for the 1996 CBA Draft, where he was selected in the 7th round by the LaCrosse Bobcats. Some other notable names in that draft; Ben Wallace, Chucky Atkins, Darvin Ham, Malik Rose, Keith Closs, Travis Knight, and Chris Collins. Georgetown's dominating center at the time, Othella Harington was actually drafted right after Fields as well. The following year Ronnie declared for the 1997 NBA Draft, but later withdrew his name. He was automatically eligible for the 1998 NBA Drat, but was never selected. Even though he never played in the NBA, Fields still had a pretty successful pro career. He played overseas for a couple years, but definitely had his most success in the CBA. Fields spent eight-years in the CBA and was a 3-time All-Star, 2-time All-CBA First Team selection, and 2-time scoring champion. In his last full season on the court, he averaged 21.4 ppg, 4.9 apg, and a league-leading 2.7 spg. Fields ended his career in the CBA scoring over 6,000 points and he ranks sixth all-time in career points as well. While he ultimately fell short of high expectations, he still persevered through a difficult situation and continued to play the game he loved. If it wasn't for his life-threatening car accident in 1996, Ronnie Fields would've probably played in the NBA. Unfortunately for Ronnie, his aspirations of making the league was nothing more than a Field of Dreams.
Of all the players featured on Prospect-Central's Top 25 Baller's Never to Play in the NBA, Raymond Lewis' story might be the most confusing. Even to this day, there really isn't a concrete explanation as to why Raymond Lewis never played in the NBA. Born September 3, 1952 in Los Angeles, California, Lewis is still considered by many as the greatest baller to ever come out of the City of Angels. Growing up in the tough Southeast Los Angeles neighborhood of Watts, Raymond Lewis started his epic career by dominating California high school basketball. Through 1969-71, Lewis led the Verbum Dei Eagles to three consecutive state championships and an astonishing 84-4 record. He was also named California's Interscholastic Federation Player of the Year in 1970 & 1971 as well. While he was still in high school, Lewis started playing in Los Angeles Pro League games which featured Lakers rookies, UCLA alumni, USC alumni, and other tough competition. In his first game against the Lakers rookies, Lewis dropped 52 points and led his team to a victory. With his name quickly circulating around the country, Lewis was offered more than 250 scholarships, including an offer from John Wooden and the UCLA Bruins. Of all the schools vying for his services however, it was Jerry Tarkanian and Long Beach State who seemed to be the favorite in landing the star recruit. In a 2005 autobiography, Tarkanian went on to explain what made Lewis such an extraordinary player. Tarkanian said, "He was as fast as Allen Iverson, only taller, bigger, and stronger. I never saw anyone guard him one-on-one. I never saw anyone contain him. I never saw anyone stop his dribble penetration. Raymond Lewis was not only the greatest player I ever recruited, he was the greatest player I ever saw." Considering Jerry Tarkanian's impressive track record, especially at UNLV when he recruited the likes of former #1 NBA Draft pick Larry Johnson, that's some high praise to say the least. Unfortunately for Mr. Tarkanian, Lewis would never enroll at Long Beach State. Nearby Cal State Los Angeles was interested in Lewis as well, and after supposedly being offered a brand new corvette by the program, Raymond Lewis signed on the dotted line. In 1972, first-year players weren't eligible to play varsity, so Lewis joined the freshman team at Cal State L.A. and more than lived up to the hype.
Raymond Lewis had a number of memorable performances that year, including dropping 40 points on UCLA's freshman team, which was made up of players that eventually won the NCAA Championship in 1975. He also scored 73 points against UC Santa Barbara, making a ridiculous 30 of his 40 shots taken. Lewis went on to lead the nation in scoring for first-year players, averaging 38.9 ppg while shooting a blistering 59% from the field. North Carolina State's future NBA Hall of Famer David Thompson was actually second in scoring that year. As a sophomore, Lewis would continue his dominance. Ironically his most memorable performance that year came against Jerry Tarkanian and Long Beach State. Against the #3 team in the nation, Lewis led Cal State L.A. to a stunning upset victory, dropping 53 points in the process. He finished the season second in the nation in scoring with 32.9 ppg, and proved he was definitely one of the best players in the country. You should note that Raymond Lewis was playing before the inception of the 3-point line, so one can only imagine how many more points he would have scored. The following year, Raymond Lewis was selected by the Philadelphia 76ers with the 18th pick of the 1973 NBA Draft. He was actually the youngest player ever drafted by the NBA at the time. The 76ers also selected Doug Collins with the #1 overall pick that year, and once the players engaged in battle during the 76ers rookie camp, the legend of Raymond Lewis was created. By all indications, Lewis had a phenomenal rookie camp, regularly getting the best of Collins, including one game when he dropped 60 points on the #1 pick, in the first-half!!! A contract dispute between Lewis and the 76ers would follow, and supposedly he just walked out on the team. Lewis claimed he was told by the organization to sit out a year and "mature", but what ever the case may be, he never played one minute in the NBA. In 1974, Lewis tried to play with the Utah Stars of the ABA, but Philadelphia threatened to sue the Stars if they signed Lewis. Many people, including Lewis, felt he had been blackballed by the NBA. He would eventually take his frustrations out on the playgrounds of California. In 1981, he was playing in the highly-regarded Los Angeles Summer Pro League, which featured many NBA baller's. He averaged 54 ppg and was easily the most dominant player in the league. In a 1983 summer league game, against former NBA Defensive Player of the Year Michael Cooper, Lewis dropped 56 points in only three-quarters of action. On one fateful day, Lewis even played the top 30 streetballer's in L.A., and won every game. Lewis showed flashes of his brilliance into his early 40's, stroking one sweet jumper after another, but in February of 2001 he passed away due to complications from a leg infection. It will forever remain a mystery as to why Raymond Lewis never played in the NBA, but one thing is clear, it wasn't due to a lack of talent.
PC's Top 25 Baller's Never to Play in NBA