Thirty years before Malik Monk shot down North Carolina, another dazzling performance by another freshman led Kentucky to another sweet victory over another rival.
Rex Chapman’s a-star-is-born moment came in his seventh college game. King Rex assumed his throne in 1986 by scoring 26 points in an 85-51 humiliation of Louisville.
“It’s hard to believe,” Chapman said of this moment already being three decades in the past. “Life is short.”
For Chapman, the most memorable part of that day in Freedom Hall came after the game. He was returning to the locker room from the postgame news conference.
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“A guy grabbed me and said, ‘Hey, champ wants to meet you,’” Chapman said. “I said, ‘What?’
“And I walk around the corner and there was Muhammad Ali wanting to meet me.”
A trace of disbelief was in Chapman’s voice Monday as he recalled the moment.
“I was like a 5-year-old,” he said. “I don’t remember anything that happened. I don’t remember, really, anything he said. I just remember being in complete awe. That’s the main thing I remember from that day.”
Of course, the UK-U of L rivalry can be ripe with potential for history making. This season’s players take that stage on Wednesday.
Denny Crum’s memory is fuzzy about the game, but not about Chapman’s performance.
“He just had his way with us,” said Crum, a Hall of Fame coach for Louisville. “He was a great player, and he had a great game. I mean, everything he threw up there went in.”
Chapman made 10 of 20 shots, including five three-pointers.
Chapman had only one dunk that day, and he keeps it alive to this day. He has a picture of himself soaring above Kenny Payne, who seems shrinking below — literally — the rising star.
“He sends me the picture when he dunked on me,” Payne said in a light-hearted tone of voice. “And he shows it to everybody. Our players. Anybody he can show it to.”
Payne, now UK’s associate coach, takes no offense. The two enjoy a long-lasting friendship that dates back to being a host on Chapman’s recruiting visit to U of L.
Yes, Chapman said, he sends Payne the photo.
“Couple times a year,” Chapman said, “just to remind him. Now, all the players that come (to UK), I make sure I get it to them as well. The last five or six years they come on campus knowing Kenny got dunked on by this guy they don’t know.”
He sends me the picture when he dunked on me. And he shows it to everybody. Our players. Anybody he can show it to.
Kenny Payne, on Rex Chapman’s dunk in the 1986 Cats-Cards game
To ask about a game played 30 years ago is to come to believe how fickle fate can be. It could easily have not happened. Or Chapman could have been playing for Louisville and soaring over some poor Kentucky defender.
“We recruited Rex really hard,” Crum said. “We thought we had a good chance at getting him.”
Louisville began the recruitment when Chapman was a high school sophomore.
“I’d already intimated I’d come,” Chapman said. “I was all but coming to Louisville.”
Of course, Kentucky can wield considerable influence. UK got Chapman to change his mind.
Chapman remembered how gracious Crum was. Not only did Chapman choose Kentucky rather than Louisville, he then led UK to a lopsided victory.
That next summer, Crum coached the U.S. team in the Pan Am Games. He started Chapman at guard.
“He’s just fantastic,” Chapman said of Crum.
Even with Chapman signed with Kentucky and playing (averaging 16.3 points in six games leading up to UK-U of L), he almost didn’t take the court against the Cardinals. It’s a story Chapman has often told.
“I got in trouble two nights before,” he said, “because I had a young lady in my room.”
Assistant coaches Dwane Casey and James Dickey assumed Chapman would be suspended for a game against Louisville, and told him so.
“Of course, I’m just beside myself,” Chapman said. “Like, ‘Oh, no.’”
At practice the next morning, then-UK coach Eddie Sutton told Chapman of his disappointment and offered him a choice of punishment: sit out the game against Louisville or do the 6 a.m. “bike workout” for a month.
“That was a no-brainer,” Chapman said, “because, one, I know he wants me to play in the game. And, two, I’m going to play in the game and hope they forget all about that (young lady in the room).
“And that’s exactly what happened. It was never brought up again.”
Moral of the story: Not everything associated with a Kentucky-Louisville game is ever-lasting.
No. 6 Kentucky at No. 10 Louisville
7 p.m. Wednesday (ESPN)