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Former Kentucky guard Rex Chapman looks to bounce back from adversity
0:48 | College Basketball
Former Kentucky guard Rex Chapman looks to bounce back from adversity
Tuesday July 28th, 2015

This story appears in the July 27, 2015, issue of SPORTS ILLUSTRATED. Subscribe to the magazine here.


He swears he doesn't remember, but the evidence is right there on video. The footage captured by security cameras shows Rex Chapman—onetime avatar of Kentucky basketball, 12-year NBA veteran, multimillionaire—looking over merchandise at an Apple store in Scottsdale, Ariz., putting several items into a bag, then briskly walking away. After Chapman did this for the ninth time without paying, an Apple employee finally recognized him as a former Suns shooting guard and was able to give the authorities his name.

On Sept. 19, 2014, Chapman was arrested outside his Scottsdale home and charged with nine counts of organized retail theft and five counts of trafficking in stolen property for selling goods worth $14,000 to a pawnshop for $5,460. (Chapman also says he has no recollection of pawning the merchandise.) Both crimes are felonies. The Maricopa County attorney's office has said it will decide soon how (or whether) to prosecute.

Chapman, 47, says he doesn't recall committing these alleged crimes because he was in a scrambled, foggy state of mind, which was largely the result of an addiction to prescription narcotics that stretches back more than 15 years. Ten days after his arrest Chapman checked himself into a treatment hospital in Louisville, his third stint in rehab since he retired as a player in 2000.

As he tries to rebuild his life, he says he is ready to face the truth, even if his story about the thefts sounds like a lie. As one fan put it to a Phoenix TV station when the story broke, "The public lifts these players way up, and they forget that they have a responsibility."

"I don't want to claim something I don't remember," Chapman shrugs. "I'm just being as open and honest as I can be. I remember very little about it, little to none."

Since February, Chapman has spent time in Scottsdale, where he and his ex-wife, Bridget, share custody of their four children (Zeke, 22; Caley, 20; Tatum, 16; and Tyson, 14), and Hermosa Beach, Calif., where he is staying in a buddy's house rent-free while he considers his next career move. The 6'4" Chapman has shed 40 pounds since he was arrested—he was up to 250—and his face bears a healthy, golden hue. He's the first to concede his future is shrouded in uncertainty. But for the first time in a long time, he believes he has one.

*****

The first trip to rehab came in the spring of 2001, when Chapman checked himself into Sierra Tucson hospital. At that point he says he was taking about 40 Vicodins and nine OxyContins a day. During that brutal first week of detoxification, as Chapman was vomiting into garbage cans and drifting in and out of consciousness, he overheard a nurse telling her colleague that his detox was similar to the kind typically experienced by heroin addicts. "I remember thinking, Heroin? Are you kidding me?" Chapman recalls. "I couldn't believe she was talking about me."

He had always been so clean-cut. At Apollo High in Owensboro, Ky., Chapman would go to parties with his friends, but while they were drinking beer and smoking weed, he was jumping over cars for money. He says he didn't even taste alcohol until he was 22. Chapman was determined not to let anything divert his path.

Besides being gifted, Chapman had developed a deep understanding of the game from being around his father, Wayne, a former ABA swingman who coached two Division II championship teams at Kentucky Wesleyan. Rex idolized his dad, but Wayne was distant and moody, and he was preoccupied with his job. Rex and his sister, Jenny, used to pray that Wayne's teams would win. If they didn't, the house would feel heavy for days.

Wayne missed most of Rex's high school games because his own teams often played at the same time. On one of the few occasions when he saw his son play, Rex recalls scoring more than 40 points and grabbing nearly 20 rebounds. He came home thinking his dad would have to say something good about him. Instead, when he asked Wayne what he thought, his father replied, "I want to know when you're gonna take a f------ charge."

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In those moments Rex's mother, Laura, would try to ease the tension, but most of the time her efforts were unsuccessful. "I just wanted smooth water, and there was hardly ever smooth water," she says. "I think Rex would have liked to have heard more praise from his dad, but that's just not Wayne's way."

During his freshman year at Kentucky, 1986-87, Chapman scored 26 points in a rout of Louisville and led the Cats in scoring with 16.0 points per game. Anytime Chapman went out, whether it was a visit to a mall or a walk across campus, he was besieged by fans and autograph seekers. That led him to spend a lot of nights in his room or in the practice gym.

"Rex was really well-liked by his teammates," says Paul Andrews, who played with Chapman in '86--87. "We had to push him to go out because he knew he was going to be in the spotlight. He wanted badly to blend in."

Chapman was also troubled by the backlash he endured for spending so much time with his high school girlfriend, an African-American woman who was enrolled at Kentucky. Chapman recalls coming back to his car after a game to find "n----- lover" keyed into his door. Even worse were the meetings Chapman says he had with members of the Kentucky coaching staff and athletic administration, who tried to dissuade him from interracial dating. "It wore on me," he says. "It was hateful." Eddie Sutton, the Wildcats' coach then, says, "I don't remember that happening. It was a long time ago, but I just don't remember that."

AP file

After averaging a team-high 19.0 points as a sophomore, Chapman decided to turn pro; the expansion Charlotte Hornets selected him with the eighth pick in the 1988 draft. He spent four years there and another eight in Washington, Miami and Phoenix. Chapman averaged 14.6 points for his career, but he suffered various injuries—ankle sprains, fractures in his wrist and back, a broken right leg, broken fingers. Fittingly, on the same day in 1994 that he was named to his first and only All-Star team, he shattered his right ankle and had to miss the game.

Even in the later stages of his career, Chapman retained the lively athleticism that made him so popular at Kentucky, and he was always one of the top long-range shooters in the league. Desperate to break through with a championship or All-Star-caliber season, he continued to play with abandon. "Rex was a great competitor. I worried about keeping him healthy," says Danny Ainge, who coached Chapman in Phoenix and became one of his closest friends. "He set a lot of screens on big guys and let guys run through him. But he was a very, very smart player. You could tell he was the son of a coach. If he came up with an idea to run a play or some kind of action, I would usually listen to him."

During his first season with the Suns, in '96-97, Chapman developed a painful nerve condition in his right foot. He agreed to take Vicodin. When the pain flared up, he would pop a couple of pills. The Vicodin habit persisted through his last three years in Phoenix, during which Chapman had seven surgeries. Then, following an emergency appendectomy in March 2000, a doctor gave him OxyContin. "Within a week, it had me," he says. The drug did more than ease Chapman's pain. It also melted away his social anxiety, which had been a problem since his time at Kentucky. "Oxy gave me a euphoria where every bad thought was really fleeting," he says. "It was something I could take that made me sociable. It made me feel more normal, or what I viewed as normal."

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He retired later that spring. Without the routine of practices and games, and with his tolerance to the opioids building, Chapman's habit intensified. He says he acquired some of the medicine through a prescription from his doctor, but he also drove to Tucson every few weeks to see a friend who restocked him illegally. Much of his free time during that period was spent betting on racehorses, a passion he had picked up from his father, who says his own excessive wagering eventually landed him in Gamblers Anonymous. Those vices, combined with Chapman's difficulty in filling his days without basketball, took a toll on his marriage. "His life was unraveling," says Ainge. "It's almost like Rex was addicted to addiction."

Ainge wrote Chapman a long letter that helped persuade him to enter Sierra Tucson. During his one-month stay there, he was diagnosed with depression and attention deficit disorder. The doctors put him on antidepressant medication. After he returned home, Chapman was troubled by a chronic pain in his abdomen. "I assumed it was because I was dope sick," he says. A few months later he underwent yet another surgery to remove a pin from his wrist. He was prescribed Vicodin, and as soon as he took it, the pain in his stomach went away. The familiar cycle unspooled: Chapman would take the prescribed dosage, but when his tolerance increased, he upped his intake, which led to another full-blown addiction. In early 2002 he enrolled himself in a two-week detox at a facility in Newport Beach, Calif.

But once clean, Chapman says his stomach pain returned. A doctor suggested he try Suboxone, a medication used for the treatment of opioid dependence. Twice each day, Chapman slid the medicine under his tongue. It tasted awful, but the discomfort went away.

Getty Images file

Chapman's descent into addiction may seem shocking to him, but it is all too common. Beginning in the early 1990s the American medical community increasingly turned to opioids as a means of easing postsurgical pain or alleviating chronic conditions like arthritis. The pharma industry, enabled by a permissive Food and Drug Administration, was happy to flood the market. OxyContin first became available in 1995, and during the two decades that followed, the FDA approved more than two dozen narcotics designed to treat long-term pain. While these drugs have undoubtedly made life more tolerable for many patients, they also spawned a new generation of addicts. Of the approximately 9.4 million Americans currently taking these opioids for chronic pain, the National Institutes of Health estimates that nearly a quarter have become dependent on them.

"These drugs have a place for some people, but they do not work for everybody," says Dr. Ron Spears, who treated Chapman at The Brook Hospitals in Louisville. "We've had a lot of people who abused them because they developed a tolerance and therefore needed more and more to get the same relief. It keeps going until some kind of crisis hits. That's what happened with Rex. He finally got to a point where he had to do something."

Over time, Chapman says, the Suboxone gradually sapped his energy and clouded his mind. After he completed his first stint in rehab, he tried to pursue a career as an NBA executive, but he did not stay at any job for too long. In 2002 the Suns hired him to be a scout and eventually promoted him to director of basketball operations. Two years later Chapman left to take a job with the Timberwolves as a scout; the following season he joined the Nuggets as vice president of player personnel. In 2010 he left Denver following a front-office shake-up and returned to Scottsdale, unsure of what to do or where to turn next.

By that point, Rex and Bridget were slogging their way toward a bitter divorce. Depressed and isolated, he stayed involved in his kids' lives, but he hardly saw his parents and sister for nearly 10 years. "He was just awful," Jenny says. "He would come to Kentucky and not even let us know he was here. My mom and I would talk about how we felt that he was already dead."

In 2012, Chapman moved into a three-bedroom condo in Scottsdale and plunged ever deeper into disorder. In July '14 he sent a long, panicky email to Jenny asking for help. She flew to Arizona and tried to help him get his life in order. "There were boxes and boxes of unopened mail. He always had a financial adviser so he didn't know how to pay a bill," she says. Rex told his sister about his Suboxone use, but insisted that he didn't have a problem.

Getty Images file

*****

Last September, when the cops took Chapman to the Scottsdale jail and booked him, they didn't tell him why he was being arrested. A few hours later he turned on his cellphone and saw a barrage of texts and tweets. Something about theft. By the time Zeke picked him up the next morning, the story of Chapman's arrest had made national news. The ride home was emotional but quiet. "I honestly have never seen him in that state," Zeke says. "He was so rattled and shaken." When Jenny arrived about five days later, she found her brother sitting in a chair by himself in a dark room. "He was catatonic," she says. "He couldn't look me in the eye. He kept saying, 'I don't know what just happened. What have I done?'"

Jenny arranged for Rex to fly to Louisville to enter The Brook, whose CEO, Paul Andrews, was Chapman's teammate at Kentucky. After another horrible week of detox, Chapman's body was again clear of opioids, but the pain in his abdomen returned. It got so bad that he had to be taken by ambulance to a hospital, where emergency-room doctors discovered an ulcer. Chapman was given some medicine, and within hours the pain was gone. "It makes me so angry that this whole time I've been thinking I've got this jones for pain medication, it was really just an ulcer," he says.

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Doctors at The Brook also switched Chapman's antidepressant to Zoloft. For the remainder of his 30-day stay, Chapman underwent extensive psychological counseling for the first time. It helped. "I realized I'd built up walls and carried grudges for years," Chapman says. "I had a lot of animosity, dating back to when I was growing up, toward people who told me that what I was doing datingwise was wrong. I was also mourning not playing. I had a good career, but I still feel like I should have done more. It wasn't through a lack of trying. I just couldn't stay healthy. And I hate to bring this up because I'm a 47-year-old man, but I think I was always wanting my dad's approval. We knew he loved us, but he was a different generation."

He confessed much of this during a meeting with Jenny and his therapist. "I was shocked. I never knew he had insecurities," Jenny says. During his stay, Chapman invited his parents to meet with him and his counselor as well. That was the first time he had ever told his father about the void he felt over the way his dad raised him. "I was dumbfounded," Wayne says. "It made me feel very incompetent to hear that from him. I think he resented me for not doing a better job of parenting, and looking back, he's completely correct. Being absent emotionally is no way to raise children."

After his month at The Brook, Chapman traveled to Houston to continue rehabbing at the John Lucas Athletes After Care Program. He stayed three months, working out with area players and meeting regularly with a counselor. The only time he left was to spend Christmas in Lexington with his parents, the first time he had done that in a long while.

Lucas says that in recent years, he is seeing a lot more athletes come to him fighting addictions to painkillers, although the problem is far more prevalent in football than basketball. As a recovering alcoholic and cocaine addict, Lucas was hardly surprised to see an athlete of Chapman's stature struggle with his demons. "Athletes have two deaths. They die of natural causes in real life, and they die as an athlete when they stop playing," Lucas says. "They try to chase [their fears] away with painkillers or marijuana or cocaine. But when they wake up the next morning, the problems are still there. We usually don't ever stop until we hit rock bottom."

In April, Chapman reemerged into public life, serving as an analyst for Turner's teamcast of Kentucky's Final Four loss to Wisconsin—though fans of the Wildcats are still upset with him for tweeting, in 2014, that John Calipari was leaving to coach the Lakers. Chapman earned more than $31 million during his playing career and another $6 million off the court. Most of that is gone, he says, but he has enough to live on for a while. Still, Chapman knows he needs to get back to work, not just to make money but also to reestablish a routine and reengage with the outside world. Whatever job he takes, he's pretty sure it will be something in basketball. "There's not much else I'm qualified to do," he says.

*****

Robert Beck for Sports Illustrated

Chapman isn't much of a beach guy. He doesn't like sand. His rental vehicle—a red Dodge pickup truck—is woefully out of place among the Priuses and Teslas of his new locale. Still, he is enjoying the leisurely pace that Southern California offers. He trains a few high school players and goes to their games. He hangs out with friends. He brings his children to visit. At the moment he is sitting on the upstairs patio, which offers a panoramic view of the Pacific. "It's hard to be in a bad mood when you're out here," he says.

As painful as his arrest was, Chapman now believes it was a blessing. He would never have cleaned up without it. Nor would he have reconnected with his friends, his parents and his sister. "I told Rex I'm more proud of him than anything he's ever done on the court," Jenny says. "His best years could still be ahead of him."

Chapman doesn't disagree. "Life is good right now. It really is," he says. "My kids are great. I'm off this medication. I'm not being held hostage to trying to refill my prescription or having to put that nasty-tasting stuff in my mouth twice a day. My body doesn't feel great, but I'm able to work out every day. I just feel really good physically, mentally and emotionally."

As Chapman speaks, two of his children, Zeke and Tatum, are inside the house. He can only hope that his kids have learned from his ordeal. "They need to know that there's some addiction that runs in their family," he says. "Having seen their parents divorce, I hope they understand that relationships are tough. They've got to be worked at every day." He smiles and adds, "They've got to know at this point that I'm not perfect. Hopefully, I haven't embarrassed them too badly."

For the time being, Chapman has survived his fall, but that was the easy part. As painful as the last year has been, he has achieved some clarity. Now he has to learn to like what he sees.

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