Collier's death darkens the NBA's sad offseason

Updated: October 18, 2005, 12:14 PM ET
By Marc Stein | ESPN.com

In these times of ceaseless debate about the NBA's forthcoming dress code, there is at least one sartorial point without dispute.

On Opening Night, there won't be a more appropriate color than mourners' black.

Tim Legler on
death of Jason Collier
The death of Jason Collier is a great tragedy for his family, the Atlanta Hawks and the NBA family. My deepest sympathies are with the Collier family. I remember when I played for the Washington Wizards during the 1996-'97 season and the team took a cruise together in early August. On the way back our assistant coach Derek Smith died of a heart attack next to me on the ship. Derek was a former NBA player who played 10 years and was an exceptional NBA athlete. After his death the doctors diagnosed he had an enlarged heart and was lucky to have played those ten years.

His death will cast a pall over the team for the rest of the season. This is already a young team and Collier was a popular player who had worked his butt off to get to the NBA. Even though Coach Smith died in August and we had almost six weeks to our first game it was still extremely difficult to play and not think of the tragedy.

Losing Coach Smith was unbelievably hard to deal with because he was such a great man and friend. He left a wife and two young children who were on the cruise ship at the time of his death. I'll never forget having breakfast with his children the morning after his death. It was one of the most heartbreaking moments of my life.

On the team the people feeling the loss the most will be Collier's closest friends. Everyday they are going to have to look over at his locker and the memories are going to start hitting them. It takes a long while for players to get over the passing of a teammate because teammates are like brothers. These are guys who are around you everyday and who see you at your best and worst. They hear your bad jokes, make fun of you and most of the time have your back. The loss of Collier is going to damage these kids for a long while because they've lost their brother.

Tim Legler, NBA Insider

How else to react to the new season's unending stream of somber news dispatches? Just two weeks away from the first real games, it is natural to wonder when the sadness will stop.

A plague of heart ailments threatens to end two careers and leads to one of the most controversial trades in league history.

A horrific hurricane causes epic degrees of death and destruction, with the small side consequence of forcing the local basketball franchise to move away from home to a new state.

A quiet big man named Jason Collier goes to dinner with his wife Friday night and dies without warning in the early hours of Saturday morning.

"It's extremely sad," said Minnesota's Fred Hoiberg, who hopes to become the league's first-ever player with a pacemaker next season, after undergoing open-heart surgery in the summer. "It's been a rough season already."

It's been a tragic season already.

Hoiberg is the favorite of Kevin Garnett whose life-threatening heart condition came to light after he had been turned down for a series of life-insurance policies, leading to the more comprehensive checkup that probably saved his life.

Los Angeles Lakers second-round pick Ronny Turiaf was then found to suffer from the same condition as Hoiberg -- an enlarged aortic root -- before he even got a chance to prove himself as an NBA player.

Stories of the heart just won't go away. The Chicago Bulls finally traded Eddy Curry to New York in fear that he might have the same hypertrophic cardiomyopathy that killed Reggie Lewis and Hank Gathers.

It was also difficult last week, when LeBron James wound up in the hospital with chest pains that were ultimately diagnosed as a virus, not to fear the worst.

You have to forgive such a grim view after the past few months. As the residents of New Orleans and that region of the country know best -- with the Hornets far down on the list of victims in terms of what they lost -- it's tough to see the sunny side these days.

And it only got tougher over the weekend.

The response from the NBA community to Katrina's ruthlessness couldn't have been more admirable. Considerable monetary and material donations were made, a lucrative charity game was staged and numerous players pitched in to try to provide as much relief as any outsider can.

The shock of Collier's passing is still so fresh that you don't quite know how to respond yet. Mostly you just want to pray for the young family Collier has left behind, wife Katie and Ella, their 1-year-old daughter.

"Jason was in our training camp [before the 2003-04 season] and we rode together to practice every day," Hoiberg said. "What I remember most is how excited he was about becoming a father."

Pro basketball tragedies (as active players)
Player Died Age Cause
Malik Sealy 5/20/00 30 Auto accident
Bobby Phills 1/12/00 30 Auto accident
Reggie Lewis 7/27/93 27 Cardiac arrest
Drazen Petrovic 6/7/93 28 Auto accident
Ricky Berry 8/14/89 24 Suicide
Nick Vanos 8/16/87 24 Plane crash
Len Bias 6/19/86 22 Cocaine
Bill Robinzine 9/16/82 29 Suicide
Terry Furlow 5/23/80 25 Auto accident
Wendell Ladner 6/24/75 26 Plane crash
Les Powell 4/1969 22 Vietnam War

During his three seasons with the Rockets, Collier spoke often of the lake home he hoped to build someday in Georgia, where he had met Katie and played at Georgia Tech. When Collier wound up with the Hawks in March 2004, those who still knew him in Houston were ecstatic for the humble 7-footer, figuring no one in the world would have been more excited to sign with lowly Atlanta.

Collier, 28, was in the process of building that dream house on Lake Lanier, about an hour away from his job with the Hawks.

"He was a really nice kid, really fun to be around, and that's what makes it even more difficult," said Detroit coach Flip Saunders, who worked with Collier in that Minnesota camp in October 2003.

Saunders knows the challenges that Mike Woodson faces as he tries to nurse the young Hawks through the death of a teammate, which isn't in any coaching manual. Wolves swingman Malik Sealy was killed by a wrong-way driver in May 2000 on his way home from celebrating Garnett's 24th birthday. The Wolves, to this day, maintain a permanent locker for Sealy at home and set one up next to Garnett at every road game, too.

"It is hard to hold it together, but you almost end up being closer as a team," Saunders said. "You go through the whole mourning process and it's extremely difficult. What you try to do is remember the good times. With Malik, we kept his locker because we didn't want to hide the issue. We wanted to feel like he was still a part of us.

"To this day, even when I got to Detroit, I still talk to the guys about being careful when they drive late at night, even though Malik had no chance [to elude] a guy driving the wrong way on the highway. You're always going to make reference to it."

Once the regular season starts, you suspect a sense of normalcy will gradually return for most of the league, as it has in the NFL in the wake of the preseason passing of San Francisco's Thomas Herrion. Pro athletes live in a fast world that demands resiliency, and it conditions them to take stock and move on quickly.

It probably won't happen right away, though. After the NBA's flurry of offseason body blows, so many of them emphasizing the fragility of life, it's hard to see how that can happen in time to make it a joyous Opening Night.

That's especially true in Atlanta, where the Hawks are trying -- and failing -- to understand how Collier could be snatched from them overnight.

No matter how strict or lenient that off-court dress code turns out to be, mourners' black is going to be the Hawks' color all season.

Marc Stein is the senior NBA writer for ESPN.com. To e-mail him, click here.

Marc Stein | email

Senior Writer, ESPN.com
• Senior NBA writer for ESPN.com
• Began covering the NBA in 1993-94
• Also covered soccer, tennis and the Olympics