In the history of professional sports, few athletes have had the kind of up-and-down season that Washington Nationals pitching phenom Stephen Strasburg is having right now.
When Strasburg, the No. 1 pick in the ’09 MLB Draft, made his big-league debut in June, he exceeded the hype surrounding his arrival by striking out 14 batters in seven innings while picking up a win. Strasburg was the talk of baseball throughout summer, but earlier today, the Nationals announced he needs Tommy John surgery on his right elbow and will likely miss the next year.
Injuries are the cruelest — and yet most common — way in which rising superstar athletes suddenly fall off the map. From baseball (Kerry Wood) to football (Charles Rogers) everything else, the seemingly simple task of staying healthy is a hurdle too large for some fantastically talented athletes to overcome. Granted, Strasburg is by no means “done” and shouldn’t be written off, but obviously having a major surgery on such a major joint so early in one’s career isn’t a good sign.
The NBA is no different. Over the years we’ve seen more than a few future All-Stars and potential superstars derailed by injuries. Some have recovered to salvage decent careers, but some have never fully recovered. Here are the five most memorable examples:
Jay Williams — Before he got a chance to be the first legit post-Jordan face of the Chicago Bulls, Williams had his NBA career ended in a motorcycle accident following his rookie year. The All-American point guard at Duke was taken No. 2 overall in the ’02 Draft, and put up 9.5 points and 4.7 assists in his first and only pro season.
Grant Hill — On the court, he was something between the next Pippen and the next Jordan. Hill’s first six years in the NBA were fantastic: he put up LeBron-like numbers, including 25.8 points, 6.6 boards and 5.2 assists in the ’99-00 campaign. But beginning in the ’00 playoffs, a series of ankle and foot injuries cost Hill the better part of three to five years of his prime. He’s made a comeback and is still a solid starter in the League at 37 years old, but he was once on-track for a first-ballot Hall of Fame career.
Penny Hardaway — The first three years of Penny’ career had people comparing him to Magic Johnson. The 6-7 point guard was good for about 20 points, 7 assists, 4 rebounds and 2 steals per game. Then in his fourth season, Hardaway missed 23 games due to injuries, and the next year missed 63 games. Even with his problematic knees, Penny played 14 years in the NBA, but he never could recapture his early form, and by the end of his run he was a little-used role player on middling teams.
Bill Walton — Coming off one of the most accomplished NCAA careers in history, Walton was naturally the No. 1 pick in the ’74 Draft and expected to be an all-time great. And while he does have a spot in the Basketball Hall of Fame, his NBA career is still seen as something of a letdown. Walton could never stay healthy, having problems with his knees, feet and ankles; in his 10-year career, he played an average of just 46 games per season. He was very, very good, but could have been even better.
Danny Manning — You know the Clippers had to make an appearance (two if you count Walton’s time with the franchise). Manning was the NCAA Player of the Year and won a national title at Kansas in ’88, and the Clips made him the No. 1 pick in that year’s Draft. But he tore his ACL during his rookie year, and although he recovered to make two All-Star appearances in ’93 and ’94, the knee problems persisted and Manning wound up his career much like Penny; a decent role player occupying the body of a shoulda-been superstar.
Honorable mention — Greg Oden, Shaun Livingston, Larry Johnson, Ronnie Fields, Yao Ming, Randy Livingston