The date was November 28th, 1964. Lyndon Baines Johnson was still President, the Vietnam War was starting to spark mass protests and riots, and Bill Russell’s Boston Celtics were on their way to a seventh straight championship. And somewhere in the Big Apple – New York, New York – a young boy by the name of Roy James Tarpley was born.
Skip to 18 years later, at the University of Michigan, Roy Tarpley’s averaging just nine minutes a game. But after 13 games off the bench the next season, it was decided that he’d been doing well enough that he would be the starting center for Michigan from then on.
And they would not change their mind. He proved them right by averaging a solid 12 and eight his sophomore year, before increasing those numbers significantly to 19 and 10 for his junior season, being named Big Ten Player of the Year.
Despite being a consensus top-five pick and seeing lots of suggestions to leave early though, he stayed for his senior season, which… well, it wasn’t the right move.
His numbers went down and he fell down to pick #7, but that’s still a very high slot in the draft.
One thing that definitely was a shame from his time at Michigan though: they never made it past the second round of the NCAA Tournament, despite the fact that they spent one year as a one seed and one as a two seed.
As I said earlier, he went on to be picked seventh, by the Dallas Mavericks, sandwiched between the Suns’ choice of William Bedford and the Cavaliers’ of Ron Harper.
The Dallas Mavericks had only existed for six years before he joined the team, but at this point, they were in a very good place. They’d made the playoffs the last three years with winning records, and the last three top ten picks that they’d gotten were Dale Ellis, Sam Perkins, and Detlef Schrempf. Three players who all turned out to have very good careers.
Tarpley didn’t start out amazing certainly – he averaged just seven points and seven rebounds in limited minutes off the bench, only starting one game and playing 18 minutes per game; in the playoffs though, he made himself known with averages of 13 points and 10 rebounds throughout their series against the Sonics, including a game where he had 25 points, 11 rebounds, and three blocks.
And that absolutely translated into a great sophomore season. While most players seem to have a sophomore slump, he won Sixth Man of the Year, averaged 13.5 points and 11.8 rebounds in 28 minutes per game off the bench, plus an assist, a steal, and a block per game.
If you want to refer to advanced stats, he had the highest total rebound percentage and highest offensive rebound percentage in the entire league, and this team, which was led by Mark Aguirre and Rolando Blackman, managed to come just one game away from the finals, losing in seven games to the eventual champion Los Angeles Lakers.
In the offseason, the Lakers would actually offer a trade of James Worthy for Roy Tarpley, straight up, but the Mavericks would turn them down, and that ended up being a very bad mistake for the Mavs, as, just 13 games into the season, Tarpley would be suspended for almost the entire year for cocaine use.
But he served his time outside of the league and came back a much better player for the last six games of the year.
He averaged, in what’s obviously a very small sample size, around 23 points, 13 rebounds, two steals, and a block, and with the team revamped with Adrian Dantley there instead of Aguirre the next year, it seemed again like things might actually be looking up for Dallas.
And for Roy, as he was able to be a starter this season. In the first game of the season, he has 23 points, 17 rebounds, three steals, and two blocks, and things were really looking up.
But then, just five games later, he blew it. He was arrested in Dallas on charges of driving while intoxicated and resisting arrest, and he ended up being suspended by the league for another half season.
He came back for the second half of the year and balled out, but this was starting to become a problem and a pattern.
Then, five games into the next year- this one actually wasn’t a substance abuse thing! – he tore his ACL. So he misses the entire season again.
But then, with the season almost over, in March, he is caught drunk driving. Again.
This didn’t actually get him banned from the league yet; just another suspension. The “three strikes, you’re out” rule was in place at the time, but they only counted the drug issues and the drinking issues separately. So with one drug violation and alcohol violations, it didn’t count as his third strike.
The third strike would be in the preseason of the next year, when he flat out refused to even take a drug test. And that automatically led the NBA to assume he was guilty, upon which he was officially banned from the NBA.
He went overseas and became an absolute sensation in Greece, leading Aris to win the EuroLeague and Olympiacos to make it to the EuroLeague final, but, unhappy with the level of competition and the level of pay (that probably didn’t lead to the same level of drugs and alcohol as his US contracts did), he decided in 1994 that he was going to try to come back to the NBA and play for the Mavericks again.
And he did succeed in getting reinstated!
A bit heavier than he was three years prior, Tarpley was repurposed from a power forward to a center and came off the bench, but he had a very solid season, averagin around 12 and eight.
The Mavericks even resigned him to a long-term contract.
But he couldn’t report to training camp the next year or play for quite a while at the start of the season because of some severe pancreas problems (which were brought to him likely because of his alcohol problem), and in December, when he showed up for a practice, the team’s trainers believed that he’d been having alcohol still, and that violated the terms that he’d agreed to upon his reinstatement to the league.
He got banned from the NBA at this point, for a second time – this time permanently – literally just for drinking alcohol at all this time.
He’d go on to play ten more years overseas and in semi-professional leagues in the US, but the story of Roy Tarpley in always going to be one of a “what if”.
Just over four years ago, Roy Tarpley passed away on January 9th, 2015, because of liver failure.
That is, of course, a disease that has very serious correlations to drinking problems.