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The hard-nosed low-post player that NBA fans got to know and respect in a 12-year pro basketball career was nothing like the Dan Roundfield that his family and friends knew and loved.

A gentle family man, the former Atlanta Hawks great lost his life at the age of 59 while coming to the rescue of his wife one summer day in the waters off the Aruba shoreline. Perhaps the saddest aspect of his tragic death is that it happened even after he had taken heed of a warning just a month earlier.

A superb and underappreciated NBA player

The role of the big man in basketball has changed since the early 1980s as perimeter shooting has become the bigger part of the offense. There remains a place for stocky, physical players in the low post, but lean, agile centers and power forwards are now the complementary pieces to deadly outside shooters.

Dan Roundfield was old-style and old-school in his playing days, but his 205 pounds on a 6-foot-8 frame probably would have fit in perfectly with the modern NBA with the likes of LeBron James, Anthony Davis, and Kevin Durant.

Drafted by both pro leagues coming out of Central Michigan in 1975, he started his career with the Indiana Pacers and became a reliable double-double by his third season. But it was after joining the Atlanta Hawks in 1978 as a free agent that Roundfield really hit his stride.

Roundfield played six seasons with the Hawks and averaged 17.6 points and 10.7 rebounds a game. He shot 49% from the field, but his best work was on the defensive end of the floor, where drives into the paint were not advisable if Roundfield was on the court. He was a three-time All-Star and a three-time first-teamer on the NBA All-Defensive Team.

He retired in 1987 with career averages of 14.3 points and 9.2 rebounds, numbers worthy of $10 million a year or more by today’s standards.

Dan Roundfield was a family man

Dan Roundfield and his college sweetheart, Bernadine, married while they were still in school. They stayed together for 37 years, raised two sons who would go on to law school, and made lifelong friends at each stop along the way in Roundfield’s basketball career.

Even as an NBA star making decent money, Roundfield took jobs at banks or department stores in the offseason to pick up extra money. After retiring from the NBA, he turned his marketing degree into full-time work. That allowed the Roundfields to share more money with the sons and also to invest in a time-share in Aruba.

Bernadine recounted to The New York Times an eerie memory from a month before that final, tragic trip to the island. She recalled Dan coming home from work and being upset after reading about a couple that had been vacationing in the Caribbean. The wife had gotten in trouble out on the water and died despite her husband’s efforts to save her.

“I said, ‘How awful,’ never thinking for a minute that that could happen to us.”

– Bernadine Roundfield

Dan Roundfield died tragically while rescuing his wife

Bernadine Roundfield was on a float in calm water on Aug. 6, 2012, when she found herself caught in a current that was pulling her an unsafe distance from shore.

“Start paddling toward me,” Dan Roundfield called to her.

Paddling with her hands wasn’t working, and Bernadine Roundfield continued to drift. The water began to get choppy, and she started to panic. Dan was walking toward his wife in chest-high water when he suddenly disappeared.  

As Bernadine nervously scanned the water looking for her husband, a Texas woman in fins and a snorkeling mask heard the commotion. She worked her way out to Bernadine and pulled her back to shore.

Upon reaching the beach, Bernadine was still holding out hope that Dan Roundfield was OK; perhaps he had made it back to shore and was getting help.

Those hopes were dashed later that day when a search team found the retired basketball star’s body pinned under rocks. Noting a bruise on his head, the coroner speculated that a wave may have plowed him into rocks, knocking him unconscious.

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