30 Athletes Who Refused to Play for the Team That Drafted Them
We've all seen the smiling faces of newly drafted athletes. They're fresh out of college or high school and ready to make big bucks as a pro, playing a sport they love. While most would jump at the chance to work with any team that drafted them right out of the gate, some of them choose another option.
Sometimes, those draft picks don't work out. Perhaps a player gets injured or gets in trouble off the field (and we all know that can take a while to resolve). Money is always an issue on one side or the other. Athletes get traded. In other words? Things happen. But sometimes, an athlete just flat refuses to play for that team. They usually have their reasons, and whether they sound logical to the rest of us is another story. But it's sometimes fun to watch the drama.
With that in mind, we've put together a list of 30 athletes who refused to play for the NFL, NBA, MLB, or NHL teams that drafted them.
We all know John Elway as the superstar quarterback who led the Denver Broncos to two Super Bowl wins and was selected to nine Pro Bowls throughout his career, but what you may not know is that he was initially drafted by the Baltimore Colts. Elway, who had been a standout quarterback at Stanford as well as a great baseball player, didn't want to go to Baltimore.
His father and agent, Jack Elway, supported him. The team wasn't great at the time, and their coach was known for being a bit of a jerk. Elway threatened to play baseball instead until the Colts traded him to the Broncos, and the rest, as they say, is history.
Eli Manning is an NFL legacy. The son of Archie Manning and the brother of Peyton Manning, the former University of Mississippi quarterback was slated to be the number one draft pick in 2004. Before the draft even got started, Manning and his father promised he would not play for the San Diego Chargers who were slated to make the first pick. Manning later stated that he'd consulted with many people who told him that the Chargers' organization was a mess at the time, and he didn't want any part of it.
The Chargers drafted him anyway and, if you were around then, you probably remember the image of him and his parents frowning as he held up a jersey. Luckily for him, they traded him to the New York Giants where Manning spent his career and won two Super Bowls.
The names Kobe Bryant and Los Angeles Lakers go hand-in-hand. The NBA superstar spent two decades with the team and led them to five NBA Championships. But many fans don't realize that it wasn't the Lakers who drafted him. He was initially meant to be a Charlotte Hornet.
Bryant swore he would not play in Charlotte, and his agent backed him up. What he didn't know was that the Hornets and Lakers had worked out a trade before the draft even took place. Days after the draft, he was a Laker, and he would go on to become one of the greatest basketball players of all time.
Bo Jackson was an amazing athlete in college at Auburn University, excelling at both baseball and football. He'd go on to play both sports in the pros as well, but how he got there was a bit of a strange ride. First, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers met with Jackson via private jet, which violated NCAA rules.
The superstar athlete got into trouble and was so mad at the Bucs that he promised he would not play for them if they drafted him. They did, so he opted to play baseball instead. Eventually, the Bucs gave up on Jackson, and he was able to sign with the Los Angeles Raiders. He would go on to play both sports professionally until the early 1990s.
In some cases, an athlete refuses to play for a certain team, moves on, and comes back. That was the case for quarterback Jim Kelly who refused to play for the Buffalo Bills but ended up becoming a Bills legend, leading the team to four straight Super Bowls. Kelly attended college at the University of Miami in Florida and must have become fond of the warm weather because he told his agent he didn't want to play for a team in a cold climate, like Buffalo, Green Bay, or Minnesota.
The Bills drafted him anyway, and Kelly turned them down to play for the United States Football League (USFL) for two years instead as a member of the Houston Gamblers. Eventually, the USFL folded, and Kelly reluctantly agreed to play for the Bills after all.
Dominique Wilkins may have been born in Paris, France, and grew up all over the world, but ask any basketball fan in Georgia, and they'll tell you he's a native son. Wilkins was one of the best athletes to ever play basketball at the University of Georgia, and he remains the all-time scoring leader for the Atlanta Hawks, but that almost didn't happen.
Wilkins was initially drafted by the Utah Jazz, but he did not want to sign his contract because of rumors that the organization wasn't doing too well. As it turns out, the Jazz couldn't afford to sign him anyway, and they traded him to the Hawks where he spent 12 years.
In many of these stories, the player who refused to play for the team that drafted them wins in the end, but in the case of Billy Owens, it was the team who got the better end of the deal. Owens had been a star at Syracuse University, and when the Sacramento Kings picked him first in the 1991 NBA draft, he wasn't amused.
The Kings were coming off a terrible year. Eventually, the team traded Owens, who refused to play even after the season started, to the Golden State Warriors for Mitch Redmond and Les Jepsen. Redmond ended up becoming a star player for the Kings.
It's safe to say that former NHL star Eric Lindros is not a fan of "French character." Nor is he a fan of isolation or bad marketing. These were all on his list of reasons for not wanting to play for the Quebec Nordiques when they drafted him back in 1991.
A year passed by, and Lindros continued to refuse to play hockey for the team. So, they worked on a trade. The problem is that they made trades with two different teams. We don't know how that happened, but we do know that a third party had to come in and decide that Lindros would be traded to the Philadelphia Flyers.
At the University of Delaware, Rich Gannon was a standout quarterback, and he expected to become one in the NFL. But when the 1987 draft came around and the New England Patriots came around, the team told him he wouldn't be playing quarterback — they wanted to make him a running back or wide receiver.
Gannon was upset and didn't want to play for the Patriots. Luckily for him, they traded him to the Minnesota Vikings and years later, he would go to the Raiders. Throughout his career, Gannon earned numerous awards and accolades — as a quarterback.
Steve Francis had a million and one reasons why he didn't want to play for the Vancouver Grizzlies when they drafted him in the 1999 NBA Draft. He wasn't shy about sharing them. The second overall pick, Francis said the team was too far from home.
He claimed he wouldn't get any endorsements and he didn't want to pay Canadian taxes. He even claimed God didn't want him to play in Vancouver. He was eventually traded to the Houston Rockets in what has been called the biggest trade in NBA history.
Playing for a fresh new team can be exciting, but former NBA superstar Kiki Vandeweghe didn't think so. The UCLA standout was drafted by the Dallas Mavericks in 1980 in the first round. The problem is that the Mavericks had never played a single game, and Vandeweghe didn't want to take any chances.
He refused to play and sat out for a month into the season. After that month, the team then traded him to Denver, where he played for the Denver Nuggets for 13 years. Ironically enough, he went on to become an assistant coach in Dallas upon retirement.
Bryan Berard was a fresh-faced 18-year-old hockey star when the Ottawa Senators drafted him in 1995, and initially, he was just excited to be in the NHL. But the organization, which was only a few years old itself, sent Berard to the junior hockey program, which didn't sit right with him.
Berard refused to play and was eventually traded to the New York Islanders where he began a pretty decent career until an eye injury had him retiring in 2000. He underwent several operations and played 619 games in his NHL career despite the seriousness of the injury.
Ernie Davis's story is so remarkable that it was made into a movie. It's also pretty tragic. By the 1962 NFL draft, the league had fully integrated except for one team: The Washington Redskins. The team's owner was against integration, but the federal government threatened him, forcing him to draft an African American player.
The Redskins chose Davis, a Syracuse standout who was also the first African American Heisman Trophy winner. But Davis wasn't on board. He said he would not play for that "SOB," so the Redskins traded him to the Cleveland Browns. Sadly, Davis got sick and died before he would ever play in the NFL.
At Penn State University, Bruce Clark was a star defensive end, and that's the position he wanted to play in the NFL. But Bart Starr and the Green Bay Packers wanted a nose tackle, and they drafted Clark with intentions to make him one.
Clark refused to play for the team. Instead, he signed with the Canadian Football League where he played for a couple of years. Eventually, he came back to the United States and signed with the New Orleans Saints where he played from 1982-1988.
Like Eli Manning, Jon Barry is the son of a legend. Jon Barry and his three brothers, all sons of basketball star Rick Barry, all played in the NBA at one time or another. So, we're going to assume that had something to do with why the former Georgia Tech University basketball star refused to play for the Boston Celtics.
When the team drafted him in 1992, not only did he refuse to play, but he also sat out an entire season before he was traded to the Milwaukee Bucks. From there, he hopped from team to team — a total of 9 teams — in 15 years.
When the Florida Panthers drafted Zach Hyman out of high school, he wasn't exactly thrilled to join an NHL team that never seemed to make the playoffs. Instead, he decided to go to college at the University of Michigan where he studied history, played hockey, and made quite a name for himself at the school.
Upon graduation, the Panthers still technically owned Hyman, and they tried to get him to sign with them, but he refused once again. In 2015, the team eventually traded him to the Toronto Maple Leafs. During his rookie season, he set a new Maple Leafs record for most short-handed goals scored by a rookie in a season.
You have to respect basketball player Royce White's reasons for deciding not to play in the NBA. A 16th overall draft pick by the Houston Rockets in 2012, White politely refused to play for the team because of his mental health. He claims he suffers from generalized anxiety disorder.
That anxiety is often triggered by flying, and he didn't feel like the NBA had the resources to accommodate him. White did play a few games with the Rockets but refused to continue just after the season started. After lots of back and forth, the Rockets and White eventually parted ways.
Arizona Cardinals quarterback Kyler Murray's decision not to play for a team that drafted him wasn't because he didn't like the team — it's because he preferred another sport. Like Bo Jackson, Murray was a star baseball and football player at the University of Oklahoma.
During his college career, the Oakland A's opted to draft him to play baseball for them, and Murray initially agreed under one exception: he would be allowed to play one more year at Oklahoma. After a great year, Murray decided to stick with football, and he was the first overall draft pick by the Cardinals, leaving the A's to find someone else.
Shaquille O'Neal is a former NBA superstar whose name will go down in history, but it almost didn't happen. So, here's the thing: Shaq was a standout when he played college ball at Louisiana State University, and everyone knew he would be the first-overall draft pick. Everyone knew the Minnesota Timberwolves would get the number one draft pick. But Shaq didn't want to play for Minnesota.
So much so that he and his agent sent the team a letter, swearing he would not play in the NBA if the Timberwolves drafted him. Well, luckily for Shaq, there was some debate over who the first team would be to make a draft pick and — long story short — a coin toss determined that it would be the Orlando Magic. So, while he wasn't drafted by a team he hated, he came so very close.
Eric Decker didn't just turn down one team who drafted him; he turned down two of them. In college, Decker was a baseball and football star, which led to the Milwaukee Brewers drafting him in 2008 and the Minnesota Twins drafting him in 2009.
But football seemed to win. In 2010, the wide receiver was drafted by the Broncos and spent the next eight years in the NFL. He also played for the New York Jets, the Tennessee Titans, and the New England Patriots (but only in the offseason/practice squad member).
Ricky Rubio was a pro basketball player in Spain in 2009 when the Minnesota Timberwolves opted to draft him into the NBA. At the age of 19, he became the first player drafted into the NBA who was born in the 1990s. The Timberwolves promised to buy out his contract with his Spanish team, DKV Joventut.
But after it was settled, Rubio backed out of the deal, refusing to move to the U.S. Instead, DKV Joventut traded him to FC Barcelona. Ironically, Rubio eventually did move to the NBA, and guess where he began his career? With the Timberwolves, of course.
Baseball superstar Fred McGriff was initially drafted by the New York Yankees and planned to play with them, but something happened between draft day and the start of the season. McGriff was traded to the Toronto Blue Jays in what is often cited as one of the worst trades ever made in MLB history.
Basically, the Blue Jays got a sweet deal for next to nothing, which was quite uncharacteristic for the Yankees. Either way, McGriff went on to have a phenomenal career with multiple teams, hitting 493 home runs and becoming a five-time MLB All-Star.
To say Philip Rivers refused to play for the team that drafted him, the New York Giants, is a bit of a stretch. The North Carolina State star is famous for being a part of the 2004 NFL Draft along with other guys who would go on to have lengthy careers like Ben Roethlisberger and Eli Manning.
That's right — when Manning refused to play for the Chargers, the Giants, who had drafted Rivers, traded him to where he ended up spending most of his career. Ironically, everyone thought Rivers would end up with the Steelers, but we all know by now that they drafted Big Ben. The 2004 NFL Draft was more like a game of musical chairs than football.
Tom Cousineau was a superstar linebacker at Ohio State, and he expected to be one in the NFL as well. In 1979, the Bills chose him as the first overall draft pick, but the Bills couldn't pay up. Cousineau opted out and chose to play for the CFL's Montreal Alouettes instead.
He signed a contract that paid twice what the Bills offered. By 1982, after recovering from an elbow injury, Cousineau was back in the NFL as a Cleveland Brown and was selected as part of the PFWA All-Rookie Team. He spent five years with the Browns and San Francisco 49ers.
In 1987, Kelly Stouffer, a star quarterback from Colorado State University, was the sixth overall draft pick for the NFL. He was selected by the St. Louis Cardinals, but it seems as though Stouffer and the Cardinals didn't exactly see eye-to-eye financially.
He wanted to earn $3.2 million over the course of the four years, which seems like chump change these days. The Cardinals wanted to pay him less money for more time. Stouffer said no thanks, sat out his rookie year, and eventually signed with the Seattle Seahawks.
Dimitrius Underwood's story is another sad one. While he didn't necessarily refuse to play for the team that drafted him, his mental health sort of stood in the way of his success. Underwood, who played college ball at Michigan State University, was a first-round draft pick in 1999, selected by the Minnesota Vikings.
A few days after signing a contract, he left training camp and refused to return, claiming he couldn't decide between football and becoming a minister. In 1999, Underwood was claimed by the Miami Dolphins, but only played in one preseason game before injuring his shoulder and showing a lack of focus on football. Underwood was eventually diagnosed with bipolar disorder.
Love him or hate him, almost every baseball fan has an opinion about Barry Bonds. To some, he's the all-time home run king and one of the greatest baseball players of all time. To others, he's a cheater who used steroids to achieve his astronomical baseball statistics and his numbers should be obliterated from the record books. His career also had a tumultuous beginning. He was drafted by the San Francisco Giants in the second round of the 1982 MLB draft following his senior year of high school.
The Giants were the same team for which his father, Barry, played for several years and his godfather, Willie Mays, was a hometown legend. However, the Bonds family felt slighted by the Giants' monetary offer and Barry attended Arizona State University instead, where he starred for three years. He was drafted as the sixth overall choice by the Pittsburgh Pirates in the 1985 MLB draft, where he played for seven seasons before he ended up playing with — the Giants.
Brian Shaw's journey into the NBA was different than most. While he didn't exactly refuse to play for the team who drafted him, he chose to play for a few years and then leave the country. In 1988, Shaw was the 24th overall pick and was drafted by the Boston Celtics.
As mentioned, he played for them for a year, then decided to move to Italy to play for the Il Messaggero Roma. He wanted to see if anyone else had anything to offer for his talents before coming back to the U.S. but ended up back with the Celtics one year later.
Like Dominique Wilkins, you'd never known John Smoltz wasn't born and raised in Georgia. He was one of the most beloved Atlanta Braves players for nearly two decades, and he's become a notable member of the community off the field. But Smoltz almost wasn't a Brave at all. The former MLB pitcher grew up in Michigan and was initially drafted by the Detroit Tigers, but he never played for the team in the big leagues.
Instead, Smoltz was traded to the Braves for Doyle Alexander, who was in his late 30s and only pitched another two seasons after the trade. While we can't say Smoltz refused to play for Detroit, he's probably grateful that he landed on a team that fully appreciated his talents.
Jay Berwanger was a star halfback at the University of Chicago and he even won the first-ever Heisman Trophy in 1935. But none of this translated into an NFL career, perhaps due to some poor decision-making on Berwanger's part. In 1936, he became the first player ever drafted into the league. The Philadelphia Eagles selected him, but they decided they couldn't afford to pay him and traded him to the Chicago Bears.
Berwanger decided not to sign a contract with the Bears because he wanted to be part of the 1936 Olympic Games decathlon. When he didn't make the Olympic team, Berwanger went back to the Bears and demanded a $15,000 annual salary. The Bears countered with $13,500, so Berwanger went to work at a rubber company, throwing away his football career.