Saturday, January 10, 2015

Roy Tarpley Is Dead

Man Could Fly
Roy Tarpley died today at the age of 50, and on some level, it's amazing that he made it that far. He passed in a Dallas area hospital, with some unconfirmed reports putting the cause of death as liver failure, but honestly, it really doesn't matter what took him out. There was only one person that ever hurt Roy Tarpley, and that was, well, Roy Tarpley.

There is, of course, a very real chance that many people who are reading this have no idea who he was. Tarp was the NBA's Sixth Man of the Year in 1987-88, when his freakish for the era power forward skills gave a good not great Dallas Mavericks team just enough spice to make life far too interesting for the powers in the West. He could finish from far away, handle and pass like a guard for outlet work, cover ground like a raptor, and his hands -- always a critical part of any rebounder -- were among the best in the league. He could just tip boards to a place where only he could get the ball, and make defenders have to cover him all over the floor. Hell of a finisher, too; you'll see some of that in the clip at the end of this post.

With Rolando Blackman, Derek Harper, Mark Aguirre, Sam Perkins and a young Detlef Schrempf, the Mavs filled arenas and had any number of clever low post options. Tarp was the rebounding monster of his era, pulling down one nearly every two minutes, with active hands for blocks and steals, and top-end defensive numbers. He just knew where the ball was going before it went there, even as a young player, and while he was never his team's top option on offense, he was always able to score in the high teens, mostly off misses. Combine that with his 6'-11" wingspan and prototype athleticism, and he was just all kinds of great to watch.

He was also my first piece of fantasy sports poison. Every nerd better has a guy like this; the tease that you can't get away from, the guy you keep re-drafting or protecting even after he burns you, maybe over and over again. The guy you own out of the league, just because you can't stand the idea of someone else taking your payoff after you finally declare the cost to be well and truly sunk. Basically, the fantasy sports equivalent of the old woman at the slot machine, staring death at anyone who comes to "her" machine, even after she's spent all of her money on it. That was Tarp for me, as well as for the Mavs. And on some level, he still is.

Tarpley's problem was drugs. Lots and lots and lots of drugs, three strikes worth of drugs, DUIs and knee injuries and alcohol and an ever-decreasing rate of return... and still, at every step down the ladder, production. In '90-'91, probably high and definitely physically compromised, it was 20.4 / 11.0 in five games, before the whistle blew. In '94-'95, after four years away from the league and gimping around as a broken down bench guy, it was 12.6 / 8.2. He went from 67% at the line as a rook to 89% in his fifth year, and 83.6% in his final. There was always such an awareness on the court, and such a ridiculous lack of it, well, off.

I never was even able to be mad at him for his failings. I just kept hoping he'd somehow turn it around. Well, no. Sometimes, the demons win.

The final point about Tarpley that I'll make is this. It's a little bit roundabout, but so it goes.

Several centuries ago, it was socially acceptable to chastise sailors for, well, being sailors. They were clearly sinners and of weak moral fiber, and as they wasted away with various debilitating diseases and poor hygiene, it became a vicious cycle of damnation. Swear like a sailor, filthy sailors, never let your daughter near one, etc. Just look at them: they are clearly wanton, licentious, drunken, etc., etc.

And well, many were. But that wasn't why they were in such poor shape.

What was really happening, of course, was scurvy, a horrific medical problem that happens when a human body is deprived of even trace elements of Vitamin C for significant periods of time. The people at the time had no idea that scurvy could be so easily avoided, or that the afflicted were blameless in the matter. It's easy to look at those who would blame people who had scurvy as, well, cruel and heartless and ignorant, because, well, they were.

Now, consider the modern treatment of people with chronic emotional issues, like depression, social anxities, addiction. And how, perhaps, future generations may see those who judge the afflicted.

Roy Tarpley only played in 304 NBA games in his career, 177 in his first two years. Had he managed to avoid his demons and the injuries, he could have been a Hall of Fame player; even marginal improvement over where he was at age 23 would have made him a perennial All-Pro.

Instead, he's a mostly forgotten tragic figure from over two decades ago, a cautionary tale that might have been avoided with modern ideas about rehab, both chemical and surgical.

But he deserves to be remembered for more than wasted potential. He was also one hell of a player. Rest well, Tarp. Rest well.

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