The Roy Tarpley Saga

Roy Tarpley’s NBA career has been closed for 14 years and his subsequent lawsuit against the NBA was also recently closed.  What is forgotten was how great a player Tarpley was when he was healthy.  I thought we could take a look back at Tarpley and his lawsuit against the NBA and see what exactly happened before, during, and after Tarpley’s fall from the NBA and see if a re-examination now yields some new perspective.

The College Years

Tarpley started out as a center at college with Michigan in the mid-1980s.  Tarpley first really looked like a potential star when he helped Michigan win the NIT in 1983-84 as a sophomore.  Tarpley didn’t win the NIT MVP (future solid pro center Tim McCormick did) but Roy looked like a key player for the next Wolverine teams.

A Quick Sidebar to the NIT

As an aside, have you ever wondered what the NIT ever offered in the way of pros?  Since the NCAA expanded the tourney to 64 teams in 1984-85, the NIT has been the place to find the 65th (and now 66th best) team in the country.  That’s not exactly the truth but certainly the tournament has stench of also-ran to it and you wouldn’t expect huge stars to participate in it.  To test his notion, I thought we could take a look at all the NIT MVPs since 1984-85 to see how may serious pros we have.  Let’s break down the group into the following categories: (1) NBA Hall of Famers, (2) very good NBA players, (3) solid NBA players (starters or bench guys who play), (4) fringe NBAers (including both busts and guys who only had cameos), and (5) the non-NBA guys.  Here’s how the the 25 MVPs of the NIT since the NCAA expanded sort out:

-Hall of Famers: Reggie Miller (84-85)

-Good NBA players: Jayson Williams (88-89)

-Solid NBA players: Adam Keefe (90-91), Bryant Stith (91-92), Voshon Lenard (92-93), Erick Strickland (95-96),

-Fringe NBAers: Brad Seller (85-86), Randolph Keys (86-87), Robert Traylor (96-97), Sean Lampley (98-99), Dajuan Wagner (01-02)

-To Be Determined: Renaldo Balkman, Kostas Koufos (maybe solid or fringe)

As confirmed by this list, you are not likely to be a huge star if you play or are featured in the NIT.  Only Miller and Williams made All-Star teams and the only other players who were anything near top regulars for decent teams were Sith and Lenard.

Returning to Tarpley, he followed that up as a junior, when he put up 19.0 ppg, 10.4 rpg in 33.9 mpg in 1984-85, including a 48-point, 18-rebound game against Purdue.  Sport Illustrated described Tarpley as a revelation in 1985: “Last season Tarpley—elusive and mobile, the proud possessor of a certain McAdoovian presence in the pivot—came out of everywhere to be the team’s most valuable player. Having grown up in New York, moved to Mobile, Ala. and finished high school in Detroit, ‘Tarp really dropped out of the sky,’ says [coach Bill] Frieder.”

Tarpley returned for his senior season but his scoring and rebounding actually regressed (15.9 ppg, 8.8 rpg, in 31.7 mpg).  Still, Tarpley added an extra block per game and improved his shooting and he was a pretty coveted draft pick.  Dallas took Tarpley with the seventh overall pick in the 1986 draft, the famed “Drug Draft”, where several players battled substance abuse problems, including Tarpley himself. Second pick Len Bias famously died the night after the draft of an overdose and third pick Chris Washburn and sixth pick William Bedford both were out of the NBA after quick and disappointing careers.

Tarpley As A Rising Star

Tarpley, however, looked like a very good player from the start.  He came off the bench for the 1986-87 Mavs, playing only 19 mpg with several established pros like Mark Aguirre, Rolando Blackman, Derek Harper, Sam Perkins, Detlef Schrempf, Brad Davis, and James Donaldson in front of him.  The Mavs won 55 games and won the division but were upset by the Supersonics 3-1 in the first round.  In 1987-88, the Mavs won 53 games the next season and Tarpley was a force off the bench.  In what seemed like a small bump in the road at the time, Tarpley entered rehab early in the 1987-88 season.  Still, he ended missing only one game and in 28.5 mpg, he had 13.5 ppg, 11.8 rpg, and a 19.5 PER.  The Mavs made a run to the conference finals before losing to the great 1987-88 Lakers in a tough seven-game series.  Tarpley also won the Sixth Man Award and led the NBA in rebounding rate and offensive rebounding rate.

The Mavs and Tarpley seemed to be set up for great things in 1988-89 but it didn’t quite work out this way.  Early in the season, Tarpley was arrested for a DWI and resisting arrest and he also started having knee problems.  Tarpley ended up playing only 19 games (though he put up 20 ppg and 13.3 rpg in that time).  In 1989-90, Tarpley’s problems with injuries and substance abuse continued.  He played only 45 games and had a relatively weak season.  The Mavs lost in the first round of the playoffs and it wasn’t clear whether the team was still considered a threat or whether Tarpley would have an NBA career.

1990-91 was the effective end of Tarpley’s career.  He tore his ACL five games into the season and then was arrested for DWI again and suspended for another relapse.  Before the 1991-92 season, Tarpley, who had failed two prior tests, refused to take a mandatory drug test.  The NBA considered this a third failure and resulted in a ban from the NBA.  The Mavs also fell apart and were a lottery team for roughly a decade until Dirk and Mark Cuban came to town.  Tarpley was something of a tragic figure.  When the Mavs were having a historically bad season in 1992-93, Jack McCallum of Sports Illustrated contributed to the legend of Tarpley with this little ditty:

“And then there is Roy Tarpley. That’s Tarpley with a T, and that rhymes with P, and that stands for problems. Lots of them. The Mavs did not just stick with Tarpley, a potential superstar, through several alcohol-and drug-related incidents; they built the franchise around him….Here’s the real news: The Mavs would still welcome Tarpley back. ‘Absolutely,’ said [GM Norm] Sonju last week. “Why not?” asked [coach Rich] Adubato. Even Harper only hedged a bit. ‘He broke our hearts so many times, but, yeah, I’d play with him again,’ he said.”

The 1994-95 Return

Tarpley then went to play in Europe for several years and it seemed that his NBA career was over at age-26.  Tarpley was reinstated for the 1994-95 seasons and the Mavs, for some unknown reason, gave him a six-year $20 million deal in his return, which seemed like a lot of security to provide a questionable risk, even if he was a good player a few years before.  Still, the quotes from 1993 article give you some idea where the Mavs’ heads were with Tarpley.

Surprisingly, Tarpley at age-30 for the 1994-95 Mavs was still a very good player.  Tarpley had some injury problems, playing only 55 games, but was pretty effective when he did play (12.6 ppg, 8.2 rpg in 24.6 mpg and 17.8 PER).  The Mavs, who were comically bad the previous year, went 36-46 in 1994-95 and Tarpley was certainly a factor in the improvement (though not nearly as big as co-Rookie of the Year Jason Kidd).  In 1995-96, the Mavs again looked like a promising team but Tarpley’s problems popped up again.  Apparently, as part of the terms of his return to the NBA Tarpley had agreed to a near zero tolerance agreement, where he would refrain not from just drug use but also any alcohol use at all.  Early in 1995-96, Tarpley tested positive for alcohol.  Tarpley claimed that the positive test resulted from taking NyQuil.

Sports Illustrated’s Phil Taylor covered the scene in December 1995 and described it thusly:

“Although he can petition for reinstatement at any time, this ban is almost certainly permanent, since he has embarrassed the league and exhausted the considerable patience of Maverick management. Now, team president Norm Sonju keeps a picture of the troubled forward near his bathroom mirror to remind him to pray for Tarpley as regularly as he shaves.

‘He didn’t want to be helped,’ says Sonju. ‘My best guess? I think he’ll continue to drink, I think he’ll continue to be in denial and blame everybody else for his problems. I fear for him.’ Indeed, Tarpley did label the Mavs as the culprits. ‘They’re out of my contract’—which called for $25.8 million over six years—’and that’s what they wanted,’ Tarpley told the Associated Press. ‘I’m going to hang my head high.’

Tarpley’s story is undeniably a sad one, but the Mavericks are convinced that they cannot help him write a happy ending. ‘This is the final chapter of the book,’ says Mav majority owner Donald Carter. ‘And it wasn’t a very good read.’

Tarpley and Litigation

In some senses, the story was over.  Tarpley never did play again in the NBA.  Rather, he kicked around Europe, Asia, and the CBA before giving up basketball for good in the mid-2000s.  Tarpley also apparently had a few more legal scraps in this time but he never gave up trying to comeback to the NBA.  When the NBA continually rejected his application to return he ultimately sued the NBA claiming primarily that he was discriminated against because of his problems with substance abuse under the Americans with Disabilities Act (“ADA”).

Up to now, most NBA fans knew this part of story generally.  This is where things get very interesting.  Thanks to publicly available filings we can go a little deeper and give you a closer look at the allegations.  Tarpley’s complaint wasn’t very long but tells a story and has tons of interesting exhibits.  The complaint takes us back to 1994-95 and Tarpley’s banishment.  Rather than discuss whether Tarpley had truly drank recreational alcohol, the complaint states in a conclusory fashion that the his blood alcohol test failure was measured at a very low .003% where .08% is the legal limit.

The complaint next picks up in 2003 when Tarpley applied for reinstatement.  At that time, the NBA told Tarpley to undergo drug testing and pass for 52 straight weeks.  Tarpley apparently successfully tested by early 2005 and re-applied to the NBA together with a letter of recommendation from former ABA/NBA player and now drug counselor Gus Gerard detailing community service work done by Tarpley.  In October 2005, the NBA sent back a letter denying the application and providing no reasoning for the decision.

Tarpley then filed a discrimination complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (“EEOC”) against the NBA and the Mavs under the ADA. In May 2007, the ADA found that there was basis for a discrimination complaint because, though the NBA and the Mavs have reasons for their anti-drug policy, Tarpley had proven sufficient time of sobriety (four years) that he was entitled be eligible to work in the NBA.  Tarpley was permitted by the EEOC to sue the NBA in June 2007 (apparently he was unable to reach a settlement with the NBA after the EEOC decision and subsequent mediation).  The NBA and the Mavs answered the complaint asserting that they had legitimate and non-discriminatory reasons for barring Tarpley. At that point, that story became hazy again.  The court sealed the case for discovery in August 2008 and no more publicly available documents come up.  In January 2009, the case settled for undisclosed terms.

We have no idea whether the case settled favorably to Tarpley or not.  We can speculate, however, as to the outcome.  Tarpley’s case had some holes.  He basically admitted that he was not sober from 1995 to 2003 at which point he was 38 years old.  It seems highly unlikely that an NBA team would’ve wanted an older player with his past legal issues at age-38.  At best, Tarpley was looking at a minimum deal for a year or two (the minimum is $1.2 million for a vet) or even a few 10-day contracts.  But even this scaled damage might be worth something to someone toiling on CBA salary and conversely not that much to a billion dollar business like the NBA.  Also, the NBA probably had an interest in not revisiting Tarpley’s summary suspension in 1995 that looked a bit unfair and might’ve opened the door for other suspended NBA players with similar beefs to sue the league.  Throw attorney’s fees and the possibility of having to pay Tarpley’s fees under the ADA provisions and some sort of settlement clearly makes sense for all parties.  Whether that means $50,000 or $500,000 for Tarpley, however, we just don’t know.

In the end, Tarpley is a major figure in NBA history.  He is one of the archetypes for potential stardom undone by personal own problems that were so visible in the NBA in 1970s and 1980s.  But when you look at his career even more closely, you see that story actually has several more acts.  Tarpley may not have been totally clean in 1995 but it’s clear that the NBA or his own union were not really supporting his efforts and probably punted him prematurely.  Obviously, this does not absolve Tarpley for his choices or for his myriads of excuses he made for the failure.  But what strikes me as most clear here is that the NBA drug policy, which was widely viewed as quite progressive by the mid-1990s, had some holes and the NBA’s failure to deal with Tarpley directly and honestly even in the last few years only reinforces that notion.  Hopefully in the future the NBA will better balance the need to help addicts and uphold the reputation of its league because it does seem that there is still a ways to go.

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