I am deathly afraid of becoming Roy Tarpley.
I say this not out of fear that of succumbing to substance abuse – thankfully that’s never been an issue – but out of fear that I will take the “next next chance” for granted until I’ve exhausted my supply. Be it career, friendship, relationship with significant other, alcohol, drugs, whatever, there is probably a facet of life in which your shit’s never really been together. Thanks to your potential for excellence, however, combined with someone’s ability and willingness to invest in this potential, you’ve been allowed to continue hacking away. To borrow an analogy from baseball, it’s the equivalent of facing a two-strike count in the ninth inning, and just managing to stay alive by fouling off pitch, after pitch, after pitch…
I am scared shitless of Strike Three.
If you are fortunate, at some point those with the power to do something about it will catch a glimpse of you at the peak of your respective powers and, if sufficiently intoxicated, allow you every opportunity to reach your potential, sometimes (all too often?) in spite of yourself. Until one day, when…
What’s all this nonsense got to do with Roy Tarpley? Well, for about a minute a quarter century ago, Tarpley was better at playing basketball than you are at any endeavor that you have undertaken. Whatever the skill, our gifts may be rare, but Tarpley’s were truly singular.
Three times in the last 27 NBA seasons a player has turned in a performance of at least 20 points, 25 rebounds, and three each of steals and blocked shots. The first occurred on March 30, 1986, when a 23 year-old Charles Barkley made 12 of 15 shots en route to 32 points, grabbed 25 rebounds, blocked three shots and added four swipes in a one-point 76ers win (in front of just 9,194 fans – fan up Philly!) over the Dallas Mavericks. A spectacular showing to be sure, but it’s worth noting that Chuck’s turnover tally (9!) added a modicum of difficulty to what should have been an easier victory.
Almost four years later in Houston, Hakeem Olajuwon put in some work, with a 32 and 25 of his own, to which he added three steals and a silly 10 blocked shots. The greatest center since Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and an all-around statistical wonder seldom seen at the position, Hakeem’s performance will forever be deserving of a place in the NBA (and retroactively, fantasy) pantheon, though it’s worth noting that it came against an Orlando Magic team playing its 23rd game ever, and trotting out a starting 4-5 combo of Sidney Green and Mark Acres, with Otis Smith (who had an admirable 19 and 10) coming off the bench.
The third was turned in later that season, fittingly on April Fools’ Day… by Roy Tarpley. The most devastating player that never was, he scored 24 points on 12-of-25 (that he managed to not attempt a single free throw is as impressive as anything else he did that night), grabbed 25 rebounds (12 offensive!), blocked three shots and nabbed five steals, while committing just one turnover and no personal fouls, as the Mavericks downed the short-handed (sans leading scorer Ricky Pierce and defensive ace Alvin Robertson) Milwaukee Bucks, 86-72.
Takeaways? From where I sit, there are three: No matter how dominant the performance, some asshole will try to spot a wart, be it turnovers or subpar competition (the aforementioned Magic frontcourt, or the Bucks’ Murderer’s Row of Larry Krystkowiak, Fred Roberts, an aging Jack Sikma and Brad Lohaus off the bench). Given this, Charles Oakley deserves a lot more love for hanging 26 and 35 on Brad Daugherty, Larry Nance and Hot Rod Williams. And finally, Roy Tarpley.
That’s all. Roy freaking Tarpley.
Growing up in L.A.during Showtime, and in an era without a relevant local NCAA team, I took only a passing interest in college hoops, and thus didn’t see great deal of Len Bias’ work at Maryland. Outside of the occasional SportsCenter highlight or nationally televised game (and, at age seven, I’d not yet matured into the maestro of the TV Guide that I later became), my real-time experience with Bias was limited.
In the quarter century since his untimely passing, Bias has become something of a mythical figure, a symbol of unfathomable greatness and the theft of otherworldly talent by chemical temptation. A slender-but-powerful 6’8”- 210 lbs, Bias was a physical freak, soaring above crowds of would-be defenders and rebounders, the mold from which the likes of Blake Griffin have since been cast – with a more complete game at a younger age. That he’d have achieved greatness as a pro is undeniable, but hypothesizing about the form his NBA dominance would have taken is tragically nothing more than idle speculation.
However, Tarpley – about whom there are no documentaries – 6’11”-230, a solid defender and beast on the boards, with range to about 17 feet and promising post game, selected five picks after Bias in the ill-fated draft 1986… we saw him.
I am hard pressed to produce, from anywhere in the annals of sport, another career spanning just three-and-a-half seasons, only two of them full, that more comprehensively runs the emotional spectrum. In the all-too-brief time we had in which to soak in his immense talent, Tarpley mocked any questions regarding future greatness and immediately etched his name – in ink – in Mavs’ history.
In the 2,715-game history (regular and postseason) of the Mavericks, no one has grabbed 15 rebounds in a game on more occasions than Dirk Nowitzki, who’s done so 67 times in 1,143 outings, or 5.9% of the time. Next on the list is James Donaldson, the Mavs’ massive (7’2”, 275) but offensively limited center from 1986-92, with 60 in 517 games (11.6%). And then we have Tarpley, who suited up in all of 304 games, and managed the feat 49 times, or 16.1% of the time.
111 times a Dallas Maverick has scored 20 points and grabbed 15 rebounds in a game. Not surprisingly (but quite impressively) more than half (56) belong to Nowitzki. Next is Tarpley, with 17. No one else has more than seven. Flip the figures and look at 15-point, 20-rebound games, and Tarpley (9) trumps Dirk (8).
19 times has a Maverick posted a 20-20 stat line – seven are courtesy of Dirk. Six are from Tarpley.
Under bright lights, however is where Tarpley stood tallest. In the spring of 1988, following his best (and final) full season –13.5 points and 11.8 rebounds in 28.5 minutes per game, a 19.5 PER, 27.8 DRB% and league-highs in ORB% (17.3) and TRB% (22.6) and the NBA’s Sixth Man of the Year award – Tarpley was a major catalyst in the Mavs’ first deep postseason run. In the conference semifinals, trailing the Nuggets two games to one (he’d scored 27 in the first win), Tarpley dominated, averaging 21 and 16 in Games 4, 5 and 6, all Mavs’ wins, to set up a date with the NBA’s defending champions.
Against the Lakers, Tarpley was a terror, slapping Magic & Co. with an 18-20 in Game 1 and, with the Mavericks facing an 0-2 deficit, averaging 19.5 and 16.5 (including 21-20 in Game 3) in consecutive, series-evening home wins. With his phenomenal showing throughout that postseason (17.9- 12.9, 51.9% FG, 23.1 PER and a postseason-best 17.5 ORB%), the 23 year-old manchild for whom Pat Riley claimed to have “no answer” was a virtual lock to become not only the face of the Mavericks, but one of the NBA’s signature superstars.
From Day One (or thereabouts), the Mavericks knew they were walking a tightrope with Tarpley. The constant hope was the transcendence of his talent would trump the destruction wrought by his demons.
In the spring of 1987, Tarpley, then 22, was named to the NBA's All-Rookie First Team. Immediately thereafter, he entered the NBA's substance abuse program for the first time. The following summer, after his Sixth Man of the Year award and playoff breakout, for the second time in roughly a year, he returned to rehab, this time earning a suspension as well.
That fall Tarpley returned to the Mavericks, presumably sober and ready to join the NBA’s elite. All went according to plan for 19 games, as he averaged 17.3 points (on 54.1% FG), 11.5 rebounds and posted a 22.2 PER. Now mandated to pass regular drug tests, however, he hit his first significant on-court snag. Unable to keep his nose clean, he earned another suspension, this one indefinite, on January 5, 1989. Off the floor for three months, he rejoined the Mavericks for six games in April, averaging 22.7 and 13.3, helping Dallas to four wins, though they finished a game out of the West’s final playoff spot.
Two strikes now in the book, Tarpley rejoined the team for the 1989-90 season, but was unable to shake his off-court woes. Just days into the season, he was arrested for driving while intoxicated (not an isolated incident) and resisting arrest. He was suspended again, this time for what ended up being two months. It was around this time that he began to battle knee injuries that would ultimately cost him some time. He returned in January and, as he always did and seemingly always would, began to ball. Between January and April 1990, Tarpley took part in 39 games, scoring 20+ 12 times, grabbing 10+ rebounds 28 times and turning in nine 15-15 games, including the off-the-charts performance above. Though he was limited to just 64 games over these two seasons, Tarpley’s on-court effectiveness did not wane. Banged up, boozy and coked out, his talent endured, as he posted combined averages of 17 and 12.5, with a PER near 19 and continued to board at an elite rate.
Stop me if you’ve heard this before. Tarpley entered the 1990-91 season, still shy of his 26th birthday, healthy, presumably sober and recommitted to his career. He raced out of the gate again, averaging 20 and 11 and helping the Mavs to a 4-1 start, before disaster struck, this time in the form of a devastating knee injury that cost him the season’s remaining 77 games. Unable to play, unable to work out and with nothing but time on his hands, his substance abuse escalated, culminating in a positive cocaine test the following preseason, which resulted in his then-permanent ouster from the NBA.
Tarpley was absent from basketball’s top flight for the next three seasons, bouncing from the CBA to the USBL (where he was named MVP) before setting sail for Greece. Following a fairly successful two-year stint overseas, he was reinstated by the NBA ahead of the 1994-95 season. Despite rumors of continued substance abuse, he again signed (Boy, did he!) for 6 years and $22 million with the Mavericks, thanks to then-owner Donald Carter’s belief in Tarpley’s talent and affinity for, and desire to save him. In 55 games, Tarpley, now 30, managed a respectable 12.6- 8.2 in 25 minutes per, but his triumphant return proved to be anything but, as some untimely boozing (in violation of a court-imposed after-care program) made his last game of the 1994-95 season – a two-point, four-rebound effort against the Clippers – the last he’d ever play in the NBA. Roy Tarpley was permanently banned from the NBA in December 1995, the remainder of his megabucks contract voided.
In need of gainful employment and officially persona non grata on basketball’s biggest stage, Tarpley again cast his eyes overseas. He returned to Greece, where he plied his trade for four years, before moving on to Russia and China. He returned to the United States in 2001, where he applied once more for reinstatement into the NBA.
In terms of stability, off the court, Roy Tarpley the man was doing his best to make Roy Tarpley the player look like John Stockton. At this point nothing more than an aging almost-was, no longer flush with NBA dollars and nowhere near sober, the mid-90s held for Tarpley (despite Mark Aguirre’s best efforts; a jarring must-read) a pair of abusive relationships, a divorce that cost him much of what money he had left, numerous arrests (though no jail time) and multiple return trips to rehab.
In 2003, his reinstatement application denied by the NBA, Tarpley, now 38, continued trying, in vain, to revive a career that never truly began, with brief tours in the CBA and USBL, before one last run in Michigan (where he’d played his college ball) in 2005-06, at age 41, with the Michigan Mayhem. Later, in July 2006 Tarpley filed a discrimination charge against the Mavericks and the NBA with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) for the league’s refusal to reinstate him in 2003. A year later, citing four years of successful drug tests, the EEOC ruled in Tarpley’s favor, ruling that the team and the league had violated the disabilities act by failing to reinstate him. The suit was settled out of court in March 2009.
Now, I have not written this in an attempt to drum up empathy for Roy Tarpley. The fact is that Tarpley, or at least the man he devolved into, was bad dude. Countless people with the same issues have made real, concerted efforts to salvage their prime years in ways that Tarpley did not. I stand before you not to ask that you shed a tear for a man that made less of more opportunity than many of us will ever be afforded, but that you learn from his journey.
Get your shit together before you’re 41 and chasing ghosts with the Michigan Mayhem.