THE NBA PLAYOFFS : REBOUNDING : Tarpley Had to Overcome Drugs to Become NBA’s Best Sixth Man

Times Staff Writer

Roy Tarpley of the Dallas Mavericks almost became a cocaine casualty. Tarpley, 23, however, underwent treatment for drug and alcohol abuse last summer before it cost him his pro basketball career.

The 7-foot swingman has emerged as one of the Mavericks’ top guns and has played a pivotal role in Dallas’ drive to its first appearance in the National Basketball Assn. Western Conference finals. The series resumes tonight at Reunion Arena (Channel 9 and TBS, 5 p.m.) with the Lakers leading the best-of-seven series, 2-0.

Tarpley told Maverick executives he had a drug and alcohol problem after completing his rookie season last June. He underwent six weeks of rehabilitation. Tarpley, who is tested daily for drugs, said he has been sober for almost a year. If Tarpley, who already has one strike against him under the NBA’s drug policy, tests positive for drugs he will be suspended.

Tarpley said he doesn’t want to jeopardize his $2.6-million, 5-year contract with a drug relapse.


“It never got to the point where I had to have it (cocaine), but I felt a potential problem was developing,” Tarpley said. “I caught it before it got out of hand. I didn’t spend millions of dollars on it.

“At one time I didn’t think I could have a good time unless I had a drink or something else. Now that I’m straight I have an even better time without drugs or alcohol.”

Laker guard Magic Johnson, who has known Tarpley since college, said: “I was surprised when he went in for treatment. But I think it showed maturity. He dealt with his problem and he didn’t let it get crazy.”

Tarpley, voted the NBA’s best sixth man this season, says he would like to forget about his past but the media won’t let him. He has been under a microscope since he made public his substance-abuse problem during training camp last October.


“It’s the price I have to pay for turning myself in,” Tarpley said. “It’s part of my life. Ten years from now, they’ll still be writing about it.

“I’m tired of talking about it. What upsets me is that I’m doing so well, and that’s all people want to talk about. It (drug abuse) is a mistake that a lot of people have made.”

Tarpley’s mother, Selener, has played a key role in his recovery from drug addiction. She attended after-care meetings with him and gave him moral support.

She quit her job as vice president of a New York bank, where she worked for 21 years, and moved to Dallas to be with her son after he was released from the clinic. She got a job as vice president of a Dallas bank.


She lived with her son from August until December, when she moved into a north Dallas condominium, 10 minutes away from her son’s townhouse.

“I really feel good about what I did,” she said. “I gave up all my friends. I didn’t know anyone here but Roy.

“After I moved out, I used to call and I’d get nervous when he wasn’t home. He’s not perfect, but I feel very comfortable with how he’s handled himself.

“We have a great relationship. He was always close, but now he’s even closer to me. Roy talks to me about everything. He says that I’m a part of everything that goes on in his life.”


She plans to keep a close eye on him this summer so that he doesn’t have a relapse.

“He’s not going to be running loose and doing what he wants this summer,” she said. “As soon as he’s off, I’m going to get him active working with kids in camps. I don’t want anyone to say that he’s misbehaving.”

Said Tarpley: “She was there for me when I needed her. It felt good to have some family in Dallas.”

Tarpley dedicated his sixth-man award to his mother. He presented her with flowers during the awards ceremony last week in Dallas.


Tarpley also got strong support from the Mavericks. Donald Carter, the team owner, attended Alcoholics Anonymous meetings with Tarpley.

“We stood by him 100%,” Carter said. “I became a member of Alanon (an AA support group), and I went to meetings with him. It was quite an education. With our team, we treat them like they are members of the family.”

Maverick officials, however, became concerned recently because Tarpley stopped attending daily AA meetings.

Tarpley, who said the Dallas media blew the story out of proportion, attended an AA meeting in Los Angeles Tuesday, an off-day during the series.


Tarpley has also solved a problem of much less severity. Tarpley is a self-confessed junk-food junkie who would rather eat at Fatburger than Spago. He weighed 265 pounds at the start of training camp but has slimmed to 230 pounds after giving up junk food.

“My diet wasn’t any good, and it didn’t do my stomach any good,” Tarpley said. “And I used to put Tabasco sauce on everything I ate. Sometimes I can drink it straight from the bottle. But I’ve cut way back on it.”

Tarpley, selected to the all-rookie team after averaging 10.2 points and 9.2 rebounds in the final 43 games of the 1986-87 regular season, has become one of the league’s top rebounders. He averaged 11.8 rebounds off the bench to finish seventh in the NBA.

Tarpley also improved his offense, raising his scoring average to 13.5 points. Still, rebounding is Tarpley’s primary role for Dallas, the top rebounding team in the NBA this season.


Tarpley, who had 18 points and 19 rebounds as the Mavericks eliminated the Denver Nuggets last week, has been a force in the playoffs.

He is averaging 13.5 rebounds in the playoffs, second best in the NBA behind center Akeem Olajuwon of the Houston Rockets, who averaged 16.8 rebounds in 4 games.

Gar Heard, a Dallas assistant coach who has worked closely with Tarpley, would like to see Tarpley get more physical next season.

“He used to get pushed around under the boards, but he’s not getting pushed around anymore,” Heard said. “I think he’ll have to get stronger. I’d like to see him get a build like (Utah Jazz forward Karl) Malone.


“Roy is a natural. He does a lot of things you can’t teach. He always had a knack for the ball and you can’t teach that.

“I’m surprised that he’s matured as quickly as he did. He’s always been a good offensive player, but I felt it would take another year for him to develop into a rebounder.”

It’s doubtful, however, that anyone could win a rebounding title coming off the bench. And, the way Tarpley is playing, it’s going to be difficult for the Mavericks to keep him on the bench. He averaged 19.6 points and 16.0 rebounds in 9 games as a starter this season.

“I’d like to be a starter,” Tarpley said. “But I don’t think it’s my place to ask if I should start. I don’t think I’ve been stereotyped as a sixth man. But then again I might be a sixth man forever. I don’t have any problems with that.”


Asked if he’s considering starting Tarpley next season, Maverick Coach John MacLeod said: “Roy been playing more and more minutes. We might start him next year. His play certainly warrants more time.

“He could start for a lot of teams because he can play power forward, small forward and center. He reminds me of Larry Nance (who played for MacLeod in Phoenix) the way he goes after the ball. You can’t teach that. He’s an instinctive basketball player.

“To be honest, I didn’t expect that kind of performance from Roy based on what he did last year. But he’s worked like heck and he’s very intense.”