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Roy Tarpley was once the NBA's best--till he stumbled and took the Mavericks down with him

Even over a cellular phone, even with the driving rain battering the roof of his car, you can still hear it in Mark Aguirre's voice--the frustration, the resignation, the utter sadness. The tone in his voice is as damp as the weather.

These recent days have not been easy ones for the former Dallas Mavericks star, a man once branded a team troublemaker only to be reborn as an adult far more compassionate and mature than his reputation would once allow. Aguirre has spent far too much time the past few months, years, trying to keep an old friend and teammate out of trouble--trying to keep him, quite frankly, alive.

For almost 10 years, Aguirre has watched the 33-year-old Roy Tarpley waste away his life, and for almost all of that time, Aguirre has been there to scrape Tarpley out of the bottom of a bottle. This year alone, he has been there to help bail Tarpley out of jail three times. He has been there to get Tarpley into rehab yet again, to secure him a lawyer when no one else would touch him, to feed him and provide him with a home, to help Roy's mother care for her shadow of a son. And it has taken its toll on Aguirre. You can hear that much when he speaks through cell-phone static, wondering how much further Roy can sink.

"I think a man has to be torn down to the bottom before he can recover, and who's to say what the bottom is?" Aguirre says. "When that man is broke down to the bottom, when he is totally broken, that seems to be when most [substance abusers] recuperate, end up coming out of that and recovering. I think as long as we're here to help Roy and he always has a place to go, I don't know if bottom is going to happen. I'm never going to let him be homeless. As long as he calls me, I'm not going to let that happen. But bottom has to happen, and where is it?"

It's a question Aguirre and so many of Tarpley's friends have asked for far too long--almost since the moment Tarpley suited up as a Dallas Maverick in 1986. Even then, the Mavericks knew their 21-year-old forward/center had a substance-abuse problem in the making: In 1987, the year he was named to the league's All-Rookie team, he also entered the NBA's rehab center for chemical abuse, receiving the first of many strikes that would eventually get him banished from the NBA.

He won the league's coveted Sixth Man of the Year award in 1988--then went back into drug rehab, got suspended, and received strike two. Three years later--after numerous arrests for drunken driving and family violence and resisting arrest, more suspensions, a knee injury, and unexplained absences from practices and games--he was booted from the league.

In the six years since, Tarpley has been relegated to the minors, played in Europe, been re-signed by the Mavericks for millions, been kicked out of the league once more--in and out of trouble's revolving door so often it's dizzying. Most people who remember the name Roy Tarpley are surprised to find he's still living in Dallas--in a Skillman Street apartment owned by Mark Aguirre, no less--and still dreaming of playing basketball once more.

They're surprised to discover he's still alive at all, so sure he'd become a casualty of a lifestyle he has embraced for more than a decade. Tarpley's name has become a tragic punch line--yet one more Dallas athlete whose career was cut short by drugs and booze, a man whose promise turned into a threat and helped turn the Mavericks from a contender into a joke.

This year alone, Tarpley's been arrested three times by Dallas police--all on charges of beating his 23-year-old girlfriend, Elisha Spacek. He also has been in trouble in Gregg and Denton counties, charged with drunken driving and assault, respectively. On every arrest report, Tarpley gives his occupation as: "Pro basketball player." The employer is listed as "unknown."

Two weeks ago, his name was on the front page of the newspaper once more: On December 19, Spacek, his girlfriend for two years, was killed in a traffic accident on LBJ Freeway, killed on the side of the road after she flipped her BMW. The driver of a Ford Explorer didn't see Spacek and two other people trying to help her, and struck all three. Spacek was on the phone with Tarpley when she was hit. Police say Tarpley told them he thought the line had just gone dead.

According to one police officer contacted by the Dallas Observer, Tarpley and Spacek's relationship was "heading for disaster," bound to end violently; he figures it was appropriate, if not a little eerie, that they were talking over the phone moments before she was pronounced dead. Theirs was a relationship doomed from the start.

The couple had been dating for about two years, according to police records--though Tarpley was only divorced from his wife Dawn in July. To call theirs a stormy relationship would be an understatement: In 1997 alone, Dallas police filed three reports detailing abuse Tarpley heaped upon Spacek. Yet Tarpley was never convicted for the first two incidents; Spacek refused to press charges. And now, it seems, he won't be punished for the third incident. Spacek, after all, isn't around to testify.

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