Rex Chapman

By Mark Story, Lexington-Herald

When Rex Chapman was a little boy, basketball did not have a full hold on his heart.

"I loved swimming," Chapman said. "Breast stroke. In fact, I held, may still hold, some young (age-group) breast-stroke records down in Owensboro."

It seems like Chapmanís family destiny all but required that his sports passion eventually focused on basketball. His father, Wayne, was a star high school hoops player at Daviess County who was good enough to earn a scholarship to the University of Kentucky. After a year, Wayne got homesick and transferred to Western Kentucky, where he became a hoops standout. He ended up playing 206 games of professional basketball in the old ABA, including a stint with the Kentucky Colonels.

By the late 1970s, Wayne was a successful high school hoops coach who brought Apollo High School to the 1978 Sweet Sixteen with an undefeated record.

Rex, then 10, hero-worshiped the stars of that Apollo team, Jeff Jones, Steve Barker, Darrin Cissell. "I was just eaten up with it," Rex recalls. "I lived and died with every foul, every missed shot."

When his dadís unbeaten team lost a gut-wrenching, first-round state tournament game to Charles Hurt and eventual Sweet Sixteen-champion Shelby County, Rex was heartbroken.

"I think the guys I grew up with, we were third or fourth grade at the time and seeing that really good team at Apollo kind of inspired us to want to be on a team that would go back to the state tournament," Chapman said. "For me, that was kind of when I knew I wanted to play basketball."

Once he settled on hoops, Chapman did far more than help take Apollo back to the Sweet Sixteen. He grew into one of the more electrifying high school players in the history of the commonwealth, had a two-year star turn at the University of Kentucky and a 12-year NBA career.

Tonight, the youth swimmer who turned into a basketball star will be inducted into the Kentucky Athletic Hall of Fame.

Growth spurt
By the time Rex was a freshman at Apollo, two other members of his class, Greg Baughn and Jeff Sanford, were starting on the schoolís varsity basketball team.

Rex was not.
"They were just so much more physically mature than I was," Chapman says. "I wasnít very big, and really skinny."

In the 18 months leading up to his sophomore year, Rex grew from 5-foot-7 to 6-2. By the time he was a junior, Rex stood 6-4, had a 39-inch vertical leap and became one of the most talked-about players ever in Kentucky.

As Chapman and his friends had vowed as little boys, they got Apollo back to the Sweet Sixteen in 1985. Apollo beat Somerset in the first round and led Oldham County 36-29 at halftime of the quarterfinals.

"On the first play of the second half, I was on the top of a 1-3-1 trap, deflected a ball and broke my right index finger," Chapman said. "I didnít know at the time I had broken it, I kept playing but it was affecting me. I didnít know enough at the time to realize (with an injured hand) I should have just driven the ball at the basket the whole half."

The result was a 76-69 Oldham County win. Says Chapman: "With all the basketball Iíve played, thatís still one of the most painful losses I ever  had. We didnít get back to the state (tournament) the next year."

U of L battles UK
Chapman had grown up idolizing Darrell Griffith and rooting for Denny Crumís Louisville Cardinals.

Though he listed North Carolina, Georgia Tech and his dadís alma mater, WKU, among his final five college choices, "I think I knew all along it would be Louisville or Kentucky," Rex says.

According to lore, when the longtime U of L fan made his official visit with the Cardinals, some of the Louisville guards were less than hospitable. Chapman says that didnít happen. "I had a good visit to Louisville," he says, "I didnít have any problems with anybody."

So how did a guy who had grown up on the red side of our stateís great college sports divide end up casting his lost with the blue?

"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 donít know what itís 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."

In the early-signing period before his senior year, the long-time Card backer became a Cat.

A rock star
Even before Chapman got to UK, he was a state-wide celebrity. Throughout his senior year at Apollo, people filled gymnasiums to see the player theyíd heard so much about.

In February, in a hastily-scheduled game in UKís Memorial Coliseum, Chapman and Apollo came east to face Lexingtonís Henry Clay. Almost 11,000 jam-packed the (pre-renovation) Coliseum to see the player being called King Rex. Live television carried the game throughout Central and Eastern Kentucky.

Walking into a pressure-packed environment, all Rex did was score 37 points, claim 12 rebounds and hit a 22- foot jumper with seven seconds left to give Apollo a 68-67 win.

"To me, that was the most amazing thing about what he did that year," Wayne Chapman says. "People would come out to see this Chapman kid theyíd heard so much about and, almost every time, he not only lived up to the hype, he exceeded it."

A bitter loss to archrival Owensboro in the first round of the district tournament ended Rexís high school career. To this day, Chapman says he canít bring himself to watch a tape of the game.

At UK, Chapman scored 18 points in his first college outing. Two days after Christmas, 1986, he exploded onto the nationís radar in Freedom Hall against the school he had cheered for as a boy.

Chapman hit Louisville for 26 points, making five-of-eight three-pointers and a spectacular falling-down 15-footer just before halftime. Behind The Boy King, the Cats pulverized the Cards 85-51.

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

With star forward Winston Bennett sidelined for the year by a torn ACL, UK finished with a pedestrian (by Kentucky standards) 18-11 record. Still, Chapman had his moments. He led a miracle comeback against Tennessee that saw the Cats erase a 10-point deficit in the final 1:13 to win in overtime and he hit a game-winning shot to beat Mississippi.

With Bennett back and a lauded recruiting class coming in for 1987-88, UK fans were dreaming of adding an í88 NCAA title to the ones Kentucky had won in 1948, í58 and í78.

ĎOur Pete Maravichí
Behind Rex, Bennett and Ed Davender, Kentucky won its first 10 games in 1987-88.

"Rex was our Pete Maravich," Bennett says. "He dunked it and he could shoot the three and he played with so much flair and pizzazz. But the thing was, he was real humble. If somebody was shooting a picture of him, heíd try to bring one of us along with him."

After stumbling a bit in the middle of the season, Kentucky won nine games in a row going into an NCAA tourney round of 16 match up with Villanova.

UK was expected to win. Chapman did his part, scoring a career-high 30 points. But Villanova advanced 80-74. "Very, very anti-climactic," Chapman says of the end of a season that began with sky-high expectations.

It turned out to be the final game Chapman played for UK.

As something of a one-man boy band, Chapmanís personal life had been the grist for statewide rumors during his time at UK. He was tired of that.

His relationship with head coach Eddie Sutton was chilly. Then the Los Angeles Daily News reported that an air-freight package sent from the Kentucky basketball office to the father of a prize recruit had "popped open" revealing $1,000 inside.

"We started getting feedback from the NBA that if I came out, I had a good chance to be a lottery pick," Rex says. "When you hear that, it seems pretty clear that the best decision for you is to enter the (NBA) draft."

Star-crossed pro career
Chapman became the first college player ever drafted by the expansion Charlotte Hornets, going No. 8 in the 1988 draft.

He spent 12 seasons in the play-for-pay. His best season was 1993-94, when he averaged 18.2 points and shot 49.8 percent from the field for the Washington Bullets.

His best moments came for Phoenix in the 1997 playoffs against defending Western Conference champion Seattle. In Game 1 of a five-game series, Rex strafed the Sonics with nine three pointers and 42 points in a 106-101 road victory for the Suns.

In Game 4, with Phoenix down three and the game clock running out, Chapman saved a loose ball as it was going out of bounds and flung it backwards toward the basket.

Miraculously, it ripped the net to send the game into overtime. Even now, you can see the replay of the unlikely shot on YouTube. "My lucky shot is probably the thing most people remember about my pro career," Chapman says with a laugh.

What was disappointing was that Phoenix lost Game 4 in the extra period and then the lost series when they fell at Seattle in Game 5.

"That one really hurt," Chapman says. In the NBA, Chapmanís body betrayed him. An array of injuries meant he played 70 games or more (an NBA regular season is 82 games) in a season only two times out of his 12 years. For his pro career, Chapman averaged 14.6 points and 2.7 assists.

"I have a lot of what ifs," he said. "More than anything, I wish I had been healthier. I had a lot freaky, weird injuries."

Since retiring as a player in 2000, Chapman has worked as an NBA front office official and done some TV game analysis.

He and his wife, Bridget, live in the Phoenix area and have four children Ė son Zeke (18) and daughters Caley (16), Tatum (12) and Tyson (10.).

"I had a long career," Chapman says of his playing days. "I played with some guys who are great players and many of them are still my friends. There are some things Iíd like to do over, but all in all, I had a great experience through basketball."

For Rex Chapman, you might say the switch to basketball went swimmingly.

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KAHF ceremony photos by Jim Reed