By Mark Story,
When Rex Chapman was a little boy, basketball did not have a full hold on his
"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
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
"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
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.
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
"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
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
"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
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
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
"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
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