Mark Story: 'King Rex' Chapman set to enter Kentucky Athletic Hall of Fame

'King Rex' mania swept state in '80s

Herald-Leader Sports ColumnistJune 7, 2011 

Even for Boy Kings, the march of time is relentless.

When Rex Chapman received notification that he had been selected for 2011 induction into the Kentucky Athletic Hall of Fame, the news felt bittersweet.

"It made me feel old," the 43-year-old said.

On Wednesday night in Louisville, King Rex will be among seven taking their place among our state's sports royalty.

In the rich history of hoops in our state, I'm not sure any home-grown player has ever electrified the commonwealth quite like the bundle of contradictions that was Rex Everett Chapman.

With his 39-inch vertical leap and flair for basketball dramatics, Chapman was an "out in the state" player (Owensboro's Apollo High School) whose game had an urban feel.

He was a lifelong University of Louisville fan who chose to play at Kentucky.

From the time he burst, seemingly out of nowhere, into a statewide hoops celebrity during his junior year of high school, Chapman was essentially a one-man boy band in the commonwealth.

Everywhere he played his senior year of high school, gyms filled to the brim. The most spectacular example of Rex-mania came right here in Lexington in the winter of 1986. In February, a game between Chapman's Apollo team and Henry Clay High School was hastily scheduled simply to provide a forum for fans to see Rex Chapman.

Almost 11,000 packed (the pre-renovation) Memorial Coliseum, and the game was broadcast live on TV throughout Eastern and Central Kentucky.

All Rex did was score 37 points, claim 12 rebounds and hit a 22-foot jumper in the final seconds to win the game.

"To me, that was the most amazing thing about what he did all that year," said Wayne Chapman, the national championship-winning former Kentucky Wesleyan coach and Rex's father. "People would come out to see this Chapman kid they'd heard so much about and, almost every time, he not only lived up to the hype, he exceeded it."

The recruiting battle between UK and U of L over Chapman the prior fall had transfixed the state. Rex had grown up idolizing Darrell Griffith and rooting for Denny Crum's Cards.

"But when I visited both schools, the facilities, the living arrangements, the (Joe B. Hall Wildcat) Lodge at Kentucky were so much better," Chapman recalls. "I don't know what it's like now, but Louisville, it felt like a commuter school. In the case of campus life, Kentucky seemed like more of a big-time program."

So in the first UK-U of L game of his college career, Chapman the life-long Cards fan was playing in Freedom Hall for the Cats.

In our state's basketball lore, the contest is remembered variously as the "Little Brother game," after then-UK Coach Eddie Sutton's pre-game put-down of U of L or simply as the "Rex Chapman game."

Kentucky's freshman guard rifled in 26 points, drained five of eight three-pointers, hit a spectacular falling-down 15-footer just before halftime and led Kentucky to an 85-51 obliteration of Louisville.

"I'm not going to lie, I felt bad after that game," Chapman said. "I'd known Coach Crum and those guys for years, and I felt a little bit like a turncoat. I got over it real quick."

In his two years in "Rex-ington," Chapman played with an élan that, other than John Wall, no Kentucky Wildcat in modern times has had.

"Rex was our Pete Maravich," said Winston Bennett, Chapman's former UK teammate and roommate. "He dunked it, and he could shoot the three, and he played with so much flair and pizzazz. "

Many thought Chapman's sophomore season at UK, 1987-88, would end with the Wildcats claiming the national title. Instead, a team that also had Bennett, standout guard Ed Davender and freshmen Eric Manuel and LeRon Ellis was upset by Villanova in the NCAA round of 16.

"For what we expected, it was very, very anticlimactic," Chapman said.

After that Villanova game (in which Rex scored 30 points, his college career high), the wheels came off UK basketball. The Los Angeles Daily News reported that an air-freight package sent from the Kentucky basketball office to the father of a prized recruit had "popped open," revealing $1,000 inside.

It led to an NCAA investigation and, eventually, a harsh probation for Kentucky basketball.

At the time, many believed Chapman's decision to turn pro following his sophomore year was tied to a desire to flee the storm engulfing UK basketball.

"It really wasn't," Chapman says now. "I figured anything from the NCAA would not happen right away. We were getting feedback from the NBA that if I came out, I could be a lottery pick. My decision to leave was just business; it made sense."

Chapman entered the NBA as the initial first-round pick (No. 8 overall in 1988) of the then-expansion Charlotte Hornets. Many predicted he would become an all-star.

It didn't happen. Rex did have his moments. He averaged 18.2 points and shot 49.8 percent from the floor in 1993-94 for Washington. He hit nine three-pointers and scored 42 points in a playoff game for Phoenix in 1997.

Yet in the play-for-pay, Chapman's body repeatedly let him down. Due to an array of injuries, he played more than 70 games in a season only twice in 12 years. (NBA teams play 82 regular-season contests.) For his career, he averaged 14.6 points and 2.7 assists.

"I have a lot of what-ifs," Chapman said. "I wish I had been more healthy. I had a lot of freaky, weird injuries."

After retiring as a player in 2000, Chapman has worked in NBA front offices and as a TV color commentator. He and wife Bridget have four children, three girls and a boy. The family lives in the Phoenix area.

"I never planned not to come back to Kentucky when my career ended," Chapman said. "But you know how that goes. You have kids. They make friends. You wind up, you can't leave."

On Wednesday night, some 26 years after Chapman first captivated the commonwealth as a high school junior, the no-longer-Boy King goes into our state's sports Hall of Fame.

"I can't believe I'm old enough to go into Halls of Fame," said Chapman.

For those of us who remember basketball in Kentucky in the 1980s, Rex Chapman will always seem forever young.

2011 inductees

Seven people will be inducted into the Kentucky Athletic Hall of Fame Wednesday night at 7:30 p.m. at The Crowne Plaza Louisville Hotel (the former Executive Inn West). Tickets are $75. Call (502) 637-7696. They are:

Rex Chapman: One of the most electrifying basketball players in the history of the commonwealth, the 6-foot-4 guard led Apollo High School to the 1985 Sweet Sixteen quarterfinals, scored 1,073 points in two years at the University of Kentucky and averaged 14.6 points and 2.7 assists over a 12-year NBA career.

Bunny Daugherty: Pioneer in high school girls' sports at Louisville's Sacred Heart Academy. Coached 40 seasons of basketball, 37 of field hockey and volleyball, 25 of track, golf and tennis, and 10 each of gymnastics and swimming. Won 13 state titles in basketball, golf, tennis and field hockey.

Artis Gilmore: Big man in the middle joined with Dan Issel and Louie Dampier to lead the Kentucky Colonels to the 1975 ABA Championship. In five years with the Colonels, the 7-foot-2 center averaged 22.3 points, 17.1 rebounds, 3.4 blocks and 3.0 assists.

Ed Kallay: Became the first television sports broadcaster in the state of Kentucky with Louisville's WAVE-TV in 1948. Over his career, Kallay did radio or TV play-by-play for Louisville Colonels baseball, University of Louisville football and basketball and Kentucky Colonels basketball.

Jerry May: Longtime University of Louisville athletics trainer was a pioneer in improving the care for both high school and college athletes in the commonwealth. Was among a group of professionals who pushed for a doctor to be on site at all high school football games in Kentucky.

Phil Roof: A defensive specialist, the Paducah product spent 15 years in major-league baseball as a catcher with eight teams. After retiring as a player in 1977, worked for more than 30 years as a major-league coach and minor-league manager.

George Tinsley: Louisville product played on three NCAA Division II national championship basketball teams (1966, '68, '69) at Kentucky Wesleyan College, earning All-America honors in 1968 and '69. The 6-foot-5 forward played four seasons in the ABA with five teams, including the Kentucky Colonels.

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