Goodbye, Roy

It is Thursday morning, and Roy Tarpley is walking away from what will likely prove his last home practice in a place where he has never really felt at home.

He sees that the sun is shining and says the weather is crazy and that he will not talk to the media--about anything. Period.

Standing on the steps to the parking lot, he squints at the sky and sings a few words from "Happy Days are Here Again." Roy has been singing a lot of funny little songs this season. Figuratively, he has probably sung the last verse in his off-key Dallas ballad.

It is difficult to say just what Roy has done with his year here. He has quit talking to the media. Snippets of his life emerge from teammates and other co-workers to give us some idea of what it is to be Roy Tarpley in Dallas, Texas. We learn about Roy from those on the periphery--like reporters trying to piece together from yearbook snapshots and the words of neighbors a profile of someone who has done something terribly wrong.

Roy hasn't done anything all that wrong--other than go about everything awkwardly. He has just completed his first season back in the NBA since the drug suspension. There have been injuries, sickness, weird behavior, poor play, stellar performances, pats on the back, and just a few smiles.

He is a 30-year-old man on a team of 22- and 23-year-olds. He is building a house in Lewisville. He is the only married man on a team of very single gentlemen, most of whom still call their parents' house "home." He is the one guy who doesn't quite fit in--even though he is the one who needs to fit in somewhere more than any guy. But he does not go to their bars. He does not share their deep friendships.

Jason Kidd and Jim Jackson and the bunch play video games and pool for fun; sometimes, for some of the kids, there is an occasional foray to a girlie bar. Roy simply does not fit in. Earlier in the season, one teammate, speaking of Roy, said it was as though the team had this "retired guy" just hanging around.

Jason Kidd, the hope of the future, says he and Roy, the hope of the past, talk--but not about how to play basketball. "We talk about life and stuff," says Kidd. "I don't usually start the conversations, but we talk. Roy usually says something first.

"He might give advice, just about stuff."
"Stuff" might be how Jason and Roy have both been held up to public scrutiny after ugly, controversial incidents. Kidd won't say. "Every athlete has suffered," says the rookie. "This is just the challenge he has put in front of him. Everybody has challenges."

Roy gets along well enough with teammates. But he seldom associates with them off the court. Instead, he sticks with "his boys"--a group of nonbasketball friends from years ago in Dallas who accompany him socially and provide a disassociation from the Mavericks. They insulate him from the curious in the places where they hang out--often black clubs, where everyone seems to leave Roy pretty much alone.

Just as often, Roy goes home. He plays with his baby. He eats with his wife. He gets in that white Mercedes to go to the video store. He is no saint. He is not horrible.

But he has nothing in common with his teammates save an affinity for basketball--on a team which thrives like few others on its deep fraternal atmosphere. And he certainly has nothing in common with the media, which has become both the rightful target of his anger and the weak scapegoat for his failures.

If, as expected, Roy gets traded--and the Mavericks may actually be able to get more than a box of rocks for him after a string of fine late-season performances--it is doubtful his new media pack will be as indulgent as this one. At least this group has known him for years and learned to like him as a human.

After this final practice, Roy walks past the reporter herd. He hasn't spoken to the media in weeks. It is his new deal. "Hey, Roy," a few of them say in passing. He responds politely with a smile and "How ya doin'?"

But that is as far as it is allowed to go.
I follow Roy past the door. We get near the white Mercedes. He reminds me that he will not say anything to me.

"Y'all never write anything positive," he complains, his voice more weary than mean.

I'll write something positive if he'll just say something positive, I tell him. What does he want to say?

"No, no," Roy shakes his head, opening the car door.
"It's just a brother gets sick of this stuff--everything I do--I have a wreck and everybody...No one is ever fair."

We talk about what I've written. I figure I've given Tarpley the benefit of the doubt for years--all the way back to the CBA and Wichita Falls and round one with drugs.

"I know, I know," he says. "I know you've been fair, but I'm sorry.
"I'm not talking any more this year. Maybe next year I'll talk. But not this year."

And there probably won't be a next year here.
"I'm sorry," he says, and the Mercedes door shuts quietly.
It is about 6 p.m. that night--the night of the home finale against the San Antonio Spurs--and Roy Tarpley is sitting in his locker cubicle, busying himself with not talking to anyone.

An area television crew doing a season wrap-up piece approaches for a word of summary from the Tarp. He tells them to get out of his way. Hey, Roy--a quote on the season, not on you.

Roy gets pissed. OK, just a camera shot then--OK, Roy?
Roy stands up. He summons a ball boy to fight this battle. The camera crew leaves. The shot was not that important.

The ball boy brings Roy three boxes of free tennis shoes. Athletes get more boxes of free sneakers in a single week than they can fit in the trunk of their fancy little convertibles. Roy wonders why he does not get six pair of shoes. Why just three?

Tarpley is greeted warm-ly when he is introduced to the fans at this Fan Apprecia-tion Night love fest. Things have turned out so well for this team--as coach Dick Motta noted earlier in the day, it's been one of the greatest turnarounds in NBA history.

This night almost made it possible to forget what a pain in the butt this whole Tarpley business has been. Though the team lost, he scores 25 points, and, afterward, he is smiling a little, looking like maybe--just maybe--he could actually be having some fun. We've seen some good glimpses on the court of the old Roy in recent weeks.

Some say he is the old Roy. As always, he's brought a lot of grief upon himself. Much has also been heaped upon him. The origins of his persecution complex are clear. But the act is getting tired.

At least the old Roy gave quotes.
Now Roy doesn't even shower after the game. He drapes his clothes over the sweat and slips out the back.

I see him a half-second out of the corner of my eye, and he is gone. Another glimpse seconds later. He has left for good. Sort of the way we've all been viewing Roy this season.

He may have walked out of this lockerroom for the last time. But no one saw him do it. He left behind a stick of deodorant, a stack of papers, a Mavs-issue bathrobe and an unopened box of some kind of cologne with a Dallas Cowboys' logo on the front.

"Sometimes," one reporter remarks, "we get to see the end of his pant leg or his shoe as it goes out the door."

In all likelihood, Dallas won't have even that opportunity any more.

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Jennifer Briggs