Top to bottom

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.

Police reports state that on March 18, Spacek was at her Marsh Lane home when Tarpley showed up at her front door yelling, "Why are you lying to me?" He entered the front door, grabbed her wrists, then threw her to the couch and began choking her--so much so, police said her throat was swollen when they arrived. With his hands wrapped around her neck, Tarpley continued yelling at her: "You are going to take this to your death!" Spacek broke free once, but Tarpley caught her and continued choking her.

Spacek told police she thought Tarpley "was trying to kill her," according to the report.

She finally broke free and ran out of the apartment. Tarpley followed and tried to drag her back inside, but he let her go when two passers-by saw him chasing Spacek. They got her away from Tarpley, and he fled.

Spacek's injuries were severe enough that paramedics came and treated her--but she didn't file charges against her boyfriend. In fact, five months later, Spacek moved in to Tarpley's apartment on Skillman.

Their live-in bliss didn't last long. One month later, in September, Spacek called police again. This time, she said, Tarpley yanked her out of the back seat of a cab--she was apparently trying to leave their apartment after a fight, and he wasn't quite through arguing--and threw her to the ground. Again, she managed to get away from him and took the taxi to a friend's house, where she called the cops. Dallas police found Tarpley at home and arrested him. Again, no charges were filed.

Then, in November, the police made one more trip to Tarpley and Spacek's apartment--this time because witnesses heard screaming. The two had been arguing about money Tarpley had allegedly taken from Spacek. She told police she was lying on the floor, crying, when Tarpley started burning her side with a clothes iron; police later said her burn was at least six inches long, but Spacek refused medical treatment.

Spacek told officers that after Tarpley burned her, he put his hand over her mouth and kept telling her to shut up. When the police arrived, they arrested Tarpley and gave Spacek a card that had phone numbers of family-violence counselors. They had done so before, but she never called.

Aguirre had been there for Tarpley after every arrest, been there to bail him out, hustle him out of the Lew Sterrett Criminal Justice Center, keep his name out of the papers. After last month's arrest, he brought in attorney Carl Hays, who attends the same church as Aguirre, to defend Tarpley. Aguirre also put Tarpley in rehab in New York, which Hays says he demanded before accepting Tarpley's case.

Hays says Tarpley's still in rehab, that he's supposed to be there for a minimum of 60 days. Last week, no one could be found at his apartment. But the police officers who handled Spacek's accident believe Tarpley is back in Dallas, though he called them after Spacek's accident. He phoned officers just last week to see if he could get his clothes out of Spacek's totaled vehicle.

Hays blames Tarpley's continued problems on the fact that he's barely been punished for his myriad violations of the law. Hays refers to him as a product of probation, a celebrity whose problems have been dismissed with a wink and a nod.

"Roy is what I would consider a very talented, talented person," Hays says. "I don't think he's been able to cope with the fame and the talent he has. I think he's maturing a lot. I think he's going through what a lot of pro athletes go through when they're thrust into the spotlight of celebrity. I was amazed when I took his case how humble he is and how submissive he is to the advice I gave him. I explained to him I would represent him on one condition--he turn his life around."

But Tarpley hasn't been a celebrity in a very long time. To most of the world, he's just one more talented kid who had everything and then pissed it all away--for himself, and for the teammates who thought, once upon a time, he was going to be the brightest star in the NBA this side of Michael Jordan.

There are a dozen reasons for the Mavericks' failures over this decade: You can go all the way back to 1985, when the team passed over Karl Malone in the draft. You can point to the untimely departures of Sam Perkins, Dale Ellis, Mark Aguirre, even Bill Wennington. Or the acquisitions of Rodney McCray, Adrian Dantley, and Eric Montross. Or the hiring of Quinn Buckner as coach, who taught a young basketball team how to lose effortlessly. Or the first-round draft picks of Randy White, Doug Smith, Cherokee Parks, and Jim Farmer. Or the trading of Jason Kidd, the dumbest basketball decision ever made by a glorified real estate agent.

This is the Mavericks' legacy, a humiliating history of mistake after numbing mistake that turned a once-promising young NBA expansion team into a bush-league training camp. The Mavericks of the 1990s will go down as nothing more than footnotes in the history books, perennial losers who redecorated the basement in green and blue.

But former owner Don Carter's decision to bring Tarpley back to the Mavericks just three years ago will forever rank right up there among the all-time worst moves in the history of the NBA. In holding on to the past, Carter sacrificed the future of this team. Even now, former coach Dick Motta points to Tarpley's return as a pivotal moment in this franchise's demise.

Though NBA commissioner David Stern reinstated Tarpley on September 30, 1994, Carter had heard rumblings about how he still wasn't clean, how he was still troubled by the same demons that ran him out of the league in October 1991. Yet Carter, The Good Christian, was convinced that Tarpley was still a first-rate ballplayer--he had, after all, been named the U.S. Basketball League MVP in 1992, just after he left the Miami Tropics to play in Greece.

But Tarpley's return was more than just about basketball for Carter: He also considered Tarpley family, and he wanted to redeem Roy, to save his doped-up soul. Some Mavs officials, former and current, also believe that Tarpley represented "the dark side of the moon" for Carter, himself once a hellraiser before finding religion. Carter, they say, got a "vicarious thrill" out of being around a bad boy; he represented something Carter had all but left behind for God and wealth.

Some around the league say Carter re-signed Tarpley to an astonishing six-year, $22-million deal--one of his last acts as owner before selling the team to Ross Perot Jr.--because he was scared of using the money on unproven rookies. They say he was less willing to risk a big contract on a new, unestablished player and far happier to bring in a known product, no matter how rotten.

And Tarpley was rotten: On October 29, 1994, just three weeks after the Mavericks signed him, Tarpley got a ticket for driving 92 mph on the Dallas North Tollway. An hour later, he plowed his Mercedes into a light pole, then denied he was driving the car.

Though he played in 55 games during the 1994-'95 season--posting an average of 27 minutes per game, 8.2 rebounds, and 12.6 points--Tarpley seemed to struggle through every game; he was out of shape, gasping for air after a few minutes, drenched in sweat before ever touching the ball. He was clearly frustrated: Dick Motta yanked him from a December 1994 game against the Lakers, and Tarpley berated him, earning a one-game suspension without pay.

Tarpley would never return for the 1995-'96 season: In November '95, he was sidelined with a mysterious pancreas problem that doctors couldn't explain. At the time, his agent, George Andrews, said it wasn't a "career-ending" problem. Mavs officials already knew, deep down, that his problems were caused by booze. By December, their suspicions were confirmed, and Tarpley was once again an ex-Maverick, a former NBA player no one would ever again take a chance on. Tarpley was finished, and Carter was labeled a sentimental fool for having gambled the franchise's future on yesterday's problem.

Aguirre says now that Tarpley never should have come back to the NBA; he wasn't ready yet, hadn't "adjusted his lifestyle." Clifford Ray, a former Mavericks assistant coach now with the Fort Wayne Fury, agrees: Tarpley might have been cleared to play by the NBA, he says, but was never clean.

"I don't think it would have mattered where Roy was," Ray says. "It didn't have to do with Dallas. It had to do with Roy. He had to realize it was more important to maintain sobriety than it was to not maintain it...I think everybody in Dallas has wanted Roy to succeed not just as a basketball player but as a human being in terms of his addictions and his demons he's had to deal with. I've gotten on my knees many nights to pray for him to find peace within himself and break free of those bonds."

During Ray's tenure in Dallas, from 1988 to '93, it was his job to watch Tarpley, to act as his baby-sitter. He was Tarpley's confidante, the man he sought out whenever he felt the need to take a drink or get high. Theirs was a stormy relationship, at best: Just when it seemed Tarpley was getting better, he'd disappear for long stretches. Ray became frustrated with Tarpley for throwing away his talent, frustrated with himself for not turning this talented young man's life around.

"He was a great worker on the court, and that's what hurt you so bad--because he worked so hard on the court and he got in trouble," Ray says. "And people liked him. If he had his life in order, he could have been Michael Jordan, because he had that charisma, that talent. He was the best power forward in the NBA that hadn't made a name for himself, and had he sustained the longevity of someone like Karl Malone, he'd be an elite player today. And, at times, he knows that. His problems were just bigger than him."

Ray has tried to remain close to Tarpley--as close as anyone can be to an alcoholic who constantly lets down those who try to help him. They speak every now and then, but haven't seen each other often. The last time Ray saw Tarpley was July 4, 1996, at a barbecue at Tarpley's home. Ray says that he noticed "Roy was drifting" and that he mentioned it to him. He recalls Tarpley just flashed him that once-familiar, once-charming smile and told him, quite simply, "I'm gonna be OK, big fella."

Aguirre says Tarpley's still working out, though not playing any basketball; he also says, shockingly enough, there are still a few European ball clubs that would be thrilled to sign Tarpley, addictions be damned. But Ray and Aguirre and others know that his problems will never disappear with a grin, a few reassuring words, and another contract with a fourth-rate European team looking to exploit an addict. Tarpley's friends know he must hit bottom before he ever sees the top again. They only hope they're around to pick him up one more time.

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