Roy's return

Editor's note: Jennifer Briggs, who has covered sports for more than a decade, this week joins the Observer as sports columnist.

The microphones and notepads hang like Spanish moss around the tall man in the locker room, still wet from the showers and pumped from his first game back in the NBA since 1991.

There isn't even time to zip the fancy black leather pants, which, with an inseam roughly the height of a halogen floor lamp, look like something they'd use to cover expensive horses for the night.

Roy Tarpley holds the rest of his clothes in one big man's hand as a good 20 mouths close in, asking the same questions.

How does it feel to be back? Did it feel like you've been out of here four years? Did you get fatigued late in the first half?

Each politely tiptoes around any mention of "suspension" or "drugs"--those, of course, being the words that make this day a big deal.

Roy Tarpley should have been nearing the end of his first decade in the National Basketball Association now. He should be one of the game's brightest mature stars.

He was, after all, one of the game's top 10 when he departed unwillingly in October 1991 after receiving the NBA's "third strike" for substance-abuse offenders. Twice before he had been suspended for violating his aftercare program. He had also been placed on criminal probation for driving while intoxicated.

Tarpley had to choose once between drugs and his career--and his empty psyche chose the drugs, subjecting him to four anxious years of running from cocaine and alcohol and looking for himself.

Then he had to choose again.
And so, here is Roy Tarpley, back in Dallas. Back in the NBA after being a particularly annoying bamboo shoot under the nails of already cranky Mavs fans of the last few years.

Now, after just a few spins on an NBA court, it all seems so far away. The addiction. The four years Tarp didn't see a big-league arena. The Mavs' horrible, horrible years. The weak, often-worthless coaching. And the heat the owner took for taking Tarpley back.

"I look back, and I can't even believe that was me," says Tarpley. "I can't believe I had the need to do all those things."

The comment is a sign, said Linda King, a Fort Worth drug counselor, of someone who has truly closed the door on an old way.

There are signs he really has. Tarpley had 30 points and 19 rebounds in 47 minutes during his first two regular-season games. He was 8-of-8 on free throws. His performance since then has been inconsistent, but his eyes look like they are supposed to--bright windows to a soul, not a dilated abyss leading to a drug-addled cranium.

If not for the ever-present boyish smile, it would be tough to recognize the body which had grown pudgy and lethargic by the time he went off on "my world tour," as Tarp calls his long road back through the crummy cities of mediocre U.S. leagues and the unfamiliar terrain of European ball. Tarpley is now handsomely sleek, even somewhat underweight, trying to get back to 260 or 265 pounds, after a one-on-one with pancreatitis a few months ago during the brutal European league schedule. "The first few years [in the new life] were hard--real hard," says Tarpley. "I struggled."

Even with a marriage he claimed at the time as a stabilizing factor, the perpetual, annoyingly easy forgiveness of Mavs owner Donald Carter, and the almost continuous personal surveillance of one-time addict John Lucas, now coach of the Philadelphia 76ers.

It had been a hell of a lot easier to snort some coke and run, firing his brain neurons like a kid lighting a line of Black Cats and letting others consider the fire hazard. The drugs eased the emptiness and pressure. "I was bored," Tarpley told me on that day in Wichita Falls when he first played hoops again after the NBA tossed him on his fat butt.

Through it all, there has often been a perception around the NBA that Tarpley is a bad guy. But those close to him, even the local media--who have alternately crucified and crowned him through the years--mostly think of Tarpley as a good fellow, almost navely friendly. That quality may have caused much of his trouble. "Sometimes he's been a bad kid," says Donald Carter. "But Roy Tarpley has never been a bad guy."

Now he is the oldest guy on the team of kids. Though still young, turning 30 this week, Tarpley's inner child is eligible for Medicare.

Much of his final healing, he says, comes from his two-year-old, Harmoni--so named because "she has brought harmony to my life."  

"So was the family here tonight?" asks one of the mouths back at the lockerroom scene.

But Tarp can't answer. He is being the post-game star with the microphone from the Dallas Mavericks' radio network. The radio boys give the man making more than $2 million some certificates to use at Blockbuster.

"Oh boy," Roy responds. And some of the mouths laugh, thinking he's being sarcastic.

But the truth is, Roy Tarpley rents a lot of videos these days--mostly Barney, and God, he's sick of that purple pillow by now. "Man," said Tarpley one day after practice, while reflecting on his new life, "if I ever see Barney in person, I'm gonna punch him in the nose."

In the locker room, Tarpley finally gets the other arm through his sweater the color of fall and in doing so, puts his fist into the pop-out ceiling tile. Everyone giggles as Tarp pulls his hand out of the attic. The center of attention smiles, happy to answer every question.

It is a gathering of short memories.
As Tarpley departed last time, he vented his anger at Dallas--said he never wanted to come back, suggested the media had a vendetta against him.

"Is the old Roy back?" he is asked, over and over.
"Who was the old Roy?" he asks into the air, kinda curious himself about the matter. "I don't know who the old Roy was," he says. "I'm just...Roy."

Roy James Tarpley, Jr. Old Roy ain't nothing but a dog-food brand at Wal-Mart.

Whoever this guy is, he has struggled to recreate himself with the Wichita Falls Texans in the sub-mediocre Continental Basketball Association, and in Greece--but always in the public eye.

That has made it harder. "No one has to do it with everybody around, always saying something," Tarpley says.

In the last few months, a cynical Dallas, thrice-burned, has been rude. At the mall, the video store, and the supermarket, he can hear the people whispering to one another as they pass--"See, that's Roy Tarpley, he ain't gonna make it." Tarp mimics their too-loud whispers. The old Roy couldn't have heard those words. But it's okay now, he insists.

"Now I don't feel the pressure so much," he says. "I've learned to deal with it."

So he sequesters himself at home with Harmoni, behind a door he describes as "bolted," and watches that dadgum dinosaur.

"She was watching something scary the other day," recalls the new Roy. "Man, they were poking some guy's eyes out or something, and she made a face. I was like, 'I couldn't believe she knew what they were even doing.'

"Man, I had to get Winnie the Pooh on."
Can this be the same man?
"I had the same support group four years ago as I do now," says Tarpley. "But I pushed everyone away. I wasn't ready to grow up."

Tarpley's transformation can't be rushed. Stability is a new thing for Tarpley. He didn't play ball until high school in Queens. A teachers' strike prompted him to move in with an uncle in Mobile, Alabama. Then he moved to a Detroit high school with another uncle for his senior year. There was college, bright lights, the NBA--then drugs and darkness.

He wife, Dawn, the first person he identifies as a "stabilizer" in the new life, "kicked him out" in Europe, Tarpley recalls. "Just for being immature. You know, just some of the things married people go through."

"Then she got pregnant--and everything changed," Roy declares.
And who is to say Roy Tarpley isn't completely honest? That at last, he's staying--and coming--clean?

"I never doubted I would be back in the NBA," he said. "When I was sick, I wondered if I would be back this year. But I never doubted I'd be back."

He'd have to be the only one. "We talked quite a bit," said Carter, of his contact with Roy in the interim years. "I gave advice, but you never know whose advice it is that finally helps someone.

"You ask if I ever had doubts about Roy or if I ever considered giving up on Roy. Sure, every person has passing thoughts, just for a second. People have all kinds of thoughts. But I never considered actually acting on them."

Carter was among the few who barely wavered. Just a few weeks ago, Tarpley's car was stopped at 3 a.m. going 92 mph. Roy's driver, David Rooks, was at the wheel. Roy was in the car, but the Dallas police, who have done him no favors, found nothing to cite the car for other than speeding.

It's a long season--and a long life.
But all signs are that the game sweat is clean. And his brand new NBA stats say that much of the talent he left with--and lost--is slowly coming back.  

And damn what they say in the video store.

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