One of the most talented basketball players in the history of the game died way too young last week. A worn-out liver took down Roy Tarpley at 50.
This is about all we can say for certain about the former University of Michigan star … so let’s say it here again: He was talented, he abused substances, that abuse cut short his career and, finally, cut short his life.
In the days since the news of his death Friday, we’ve heard all sorts of words used to describe the 6-foot-11 phenom. Troubled. Gifted. Enigmatic. Big-hearted. Addicted. Many of these words, however blunt, are fair and to the point.
Here are two that are not: cautionary tale.
That the phrase is so often attached to addiction reminds us that we really don’t understand addiction, especially in sports.
Cautionary tale suggests choice. As in … Tarpley couldn’t make the right ones and paid for it, first with his career, then with his life.
Or, as Dr. Kenneth Adams said, to call Tarpley a cautionary tale means we are saying “he gave it all away.”
And the problem with that?
“People don’t surrender that easily. It’s not that simple,” said Adams, a professor of psychiatry at U-M’s medical school who arrived on campus in 1987, the year after Tarpley left. “Saying it’s a matter of free will … that sounds clean and clear and that may work with some people, but you can’t write the same life story for everyone.”
No, you can’t.
As Adams points out, addiction, particularly to substance and alcohol, is thought to be a matter of biology, a congenital predisposition.
“Research suggests circuitry underlies this,” he said.
Adams and the people who study brain chemistry and addiction are a long way from fully understanding why one person drinks a beer but waits a month to have a second, whereas another person drinks a beer and begins a deluge that undoes his liver.
“A lot of (us) suspect something genetic,” Adams said. “It’s the same sort of process with Alzheimer’s.”
Just as there is no test for that devastating and baffling disease, there is no test to check for an addictive predisposition, either.
In other words, said Adams, “You can’t do a blood test.”
Even if you could, such information would only tell us who is more at-risk. Brain cravings and the need to self-medicate are a heck of a force to combat. Tarpley knew that well. He understood the consequences of his addiction and still couldn’t find a way around them. The NBA banished him just five years after he was drafted. But really, his career ended well before that.
Tarpley arrived in Dallas as the No. 7 pick in the fall of 1986. As it happened, I was living in Austin, Texas, at the time — I’d graduated from high school in Ft. Worth and had spent my late teens living and dying with Mavericks wins and losses.
They were a good team before Tarpley arrived, built around Mark Aguirre and Rolando Blackman and Derek Harper, but not good enough, we thought, to unseat the Lakers in the Western Conference. A month into Tarpley’s rookie season, we began to think differently.
Here was a forward with the height of a center and the speed of a guard, a fluid and explosive force who could rebound, run the floor and attack the rim. By his second year, he was tossing up 20-point, 20-rebound nights and helped the Mavericks get to the conference finals against the Lakers.
Dallas lost in seven, but we thought of it as the beginning.
Instead, Tarpley never played a full season again. Injuries. Substance abuse. Demons he couldn’t shake. They got in the way of a player whose talent was ahead of his time, whose combination of skill, size and athleticism was a precursor to the great forwards that arrived in the ’90s.
It has not been easy reading and listening to the what-might-have-been tales spun the past week. None of us enjoys recalling talent unfulfilled.
For me, Tarpley was more than the missing piece to future championships. He was the future itself, graceful, standing on the edge of something different.
Whatever nostalgia and loss we feel for that era in north Texas is a blip to the sorrow Tarpley’s friends and family surely feel. Yet it’s helpful to remember most of us don’t willingly choose to toss away the gifts we’ve been given.
Tarpley didn’t either.
He succumbed to a mix of wiring and environment we don’t completely understand, a cauldron that some find their way out of and some don’t.
Said Adams: “It’s not that black and white, or simple, to say that one day he said, ‘I’m going to pursue a life of problems with addiction.’ ”
So call it a tragedy and a career that might have been. Just don’t call it a cautionary tale, because we may not know as much about addiction as we’d like, but we know enough to know it’s more than that.