Perhaps no one in the Big Blue Nation is more thankful this holiday weekend than Rex Chapman.
Fourteen months ago, Kentucky basketball’s former “King Rex” pleaded guilty to four felony counts of theft. He had used the self-checkout at an Apple Store in Scottsdale, Ariz., to steal merchandise and then sell the items for cash. He was addicted to painkillers. He subsequently entered a 28-day substance-abuse treatment program.
Today, he is back in the loving embrace of Kentucky basketball. He sits at courtside as a co-host of the pregame radio show. He interacts with players, coaches, fans and media. He looks fit enough to play. He is happy. He is grateful.
But he is not prepared to declare himself a former addict.
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“I’m just cautious to say, ‘Yeah, it’s all behind me,’” he said before a recent game. “I hope it is. I think it is. I feel like today, I know it is.
“Next time I have to have an ankle surgery, then what?”
Of the arrest, conviction and admission of an addiction, Chapman said, “I didn’t want this to be my story. That was hard for me to wrap my head around. It’s no longer Mr. Basketball in Kentucky. It’s this whole other thing I never saw coming.”
With the reflection that comes with rehabilitation, Chapman believes he’s always had an addictive personality.
“Drugs and alcohol were never part of my life growing up,” he said. “But looking back now, I was definitely an addict. I was addicted to basketball from the time I was little. I’d wake up in the middle of the night, at midnight, and sit straight up in my bed in Owensboro. Ten years old and be worried that someone on the West Coast, it’s two or three hours (earlier) there, somebody is outworking me right now. It used to eat at me.”
Of course, Chapman turned pro after playing two seasons for UK. In a sense, he was a one-and-done player — OK, two-and-done — before it was cool. But he suggested that single-minded journey to basketball fame came at a price.
“It took me a long time to kind of realize basketball is just what I did,” he said. “It wasn’t who I am. And I still struggle with that. I started getting recognized at age 15, and in some ways I definitely had some arrested development. I’m still trying to grow up.”
Chapman, 49, will be the featured speaker at a March fundraiser for The Healing Place, a Louisville-based recovery center that tries to get addicts back to leading productive lives. (More information on the fundraiser is available at thehealingplace.org/cfd)
Laci Comer, a spokeswoman for The Healing Place, said Chapman serves as a reminder of two important truths about addiction.
For one, the face of addiction is changing, Comer said. The stereotype of an addict living in a high-crime neighborhood can be false. The fastest-growing segment of society battling addiction is the 18-25 age group living in affluent areas.
“We can look at somebody and not realize they’re battling addiction,” Comer said. “I think Rex is proof of that.”
Speakers at The Healing Place’s previous Celebrate Freedom Dinner include 2006 Miss USA Tara Conner and television anchor Laurie Dhue. Former UK player Derek Anderson, whose family battled addiction, also spoke at the fundraiser. He helped arrange for Chapman to speak.
The other truth about addiction that Chapman personifies is that a person is not doomed to remain an addict.
Of Chapman having a visible role as a co-host on UK’s pregame shows, Comer said, “It provides a shot of hope for those who may be struggling with addiction to see that your addiction does not define you. Recovery is possible, and you can go on and lead a productive and sober life and be successful.”
There are critics who question Chapman’s return to a public role with UK basketball. Paul Archey, the president of University of Kentucky Sports and Campus Marketing for JMI (the holder of broadcast rights for UK football and basketball), said Chapman’s addiction was addressed “on the front end” of the hiring process.
UK’s athletics department approved the hire, said Archey, who declined to specify that Athletics Director Mitch Barnhart and/or UK Coach John Calipari approved the hire.
Chapman assumes Calipari supported the hire. “Look, I think he signs off on about everything around here,” Chapman said.
Through associate coach Kenny Payne, Calipari offered encouragement when Chapman was in drug rehabilitation. Louisville Coach Rick Pitino visited him.
Pete Schilling, a UK fan who works in Cincinnati, emailed to the Herald-Leader his objection to Chapman’s hiring. He said he no longer listens to the show nor buys products or services from sponsors.
When asked what he’d say to those who object to Chapman being the face of the pregame show, Archey said, “I would say give him a chance. Everybody deserves a second chance.”
That there are people who object to his return to Kentucky basketball does not surprise Chapman. He’s read disapproving posts on message boards.
“What I love is people have been great,” he said. “Every now and then, I’ll get the one: ‘Hey, been to the Apple Store lately?’ That’s it.
“And, really, it’s hilarious if it wasn’t me.”
Candor has its limits
Paul Archey, the man who hired Rex Chapman to serve as co-host of the UK basketball pregame show, said he likes how the ex-Cat engages fans. He also liked Chapman’s obvious credibility as a basketball analyst.
“One of the things that made Rex a good choice is that he is opinionated,” Archey said.
But as a player can over-pass or over-shoot, a radio host can over-opinionate. There’s a limit to candor.
“He also understands he is on the UK Sports Network … ,” Archey said. “There’s honesty, but there’s a Kentucky lens. … You’re getting calls from Kentucky fans who want you to be honest. But again, it’s a pregame show for the basketball game.”
Comparing point guards
With De’Aaron Fox the topic of the day at UK’s media availability Tuesday, Derek Willis shied from an extended comparison of the point guards he’s played with. He did say Fox was “one of the fastest” guards he’d played with.
Willis called Tyler Ulis “one of the most efficient players I’ve ever played with.”
Ulis’ efficiency will be difficult, if not impossible, to surpass, Willis said.
SEC steps forward
Last week saw South Carolina post a victory to remember … and forget?
South Carolina beat No. 25 Michigan 61-46 on Wednesday. That marked the Gamecocks’ first victory over a ranked non-conference opponent since Jan. 3, 2015 (a 64-60 victory over No. 9 Iowa State).
The victory was especially sweet after last season, when South Carolina tied a program record with 25 victories and was the nation’s last unbeaten team in Division I. The Gamecocks tied for third in the SEC race at 11-7, yet did not get a bid to the NCAA Tournament because of the lack of an eye-catching non-conference victory.
“That’s the kind of win you tuck in your back pocket and say, ‘I hope that helps us at the end of the year,’” South Carolina Coach Frank Martin said after the Michigan game.
Sindarius Thornwell, who scored 21 points and grabbed 10 rebounds, was looking ahead rather than behind.
“We don’t play a game, we play a season,” Thornwell said. “We have a long way to go.”
SEC steps backward
SEC hopes to bolster its basketball image nationally took a blow when Mississippi State sophomore guard Quinndary Weatherspoon hurt his left wrist, ending his season.
The injury, which will require surgery, happened late in a 78-74 victory over Boise State on Nov. 18.
“I can’t even begin to tell you how bad I feel for Q,” State Coach Ben Howland said in a news release. “He’s worked so hard to get where he’s at, but he knows he has the support of everyone on this team, and I expect him to fully recover and be back with us full strength next year.”
Weatherspoon had scored a career-high 25 points against Boise State. He was State’s leading scorer (18.8 ppg).
To UK associate coach Kenny Payne. He turned 50 on Friday. … To Steve Lochmueller. He turned 64 on Friday. … To Larry Johnson. He turns 62 on Monday. … To Julius Randle. He turns 22 on Tuesday. … To Jamal Mashburn. He turns 44 on Tuesday. … To former UK Coach Joe B. Hall. He turns 88 on Wednesday. … To former UK director of media relations Brooks Downing. He turns 53 on Wednesday.