Rex Chapman returned home to Owensboro Wednesday morning. The Apollo High School graduate and former University of Kentucky and NBA basketball star was invited to speak at the Kentucky Travel Industry Association opening breakfast. It was fitting that Chapman spoke to the crowd of several hundred travel industry attendees, as he has been on a journey himself for the last 18 years that has proved to be a bittersweet and tumultuous one.
As Chapman spoke Wednesday morning, he recalled his early school days growing up in Owensboro. He mentioned that, at 5 foot 7 inches, he never started a game his freshman year of high school. But life soon began to change for Chapman as he stood at 6 foot 3 inches tall his sophomore year and finally began to figure out his body and the game of basketball.
He shared how he originally committed to the University of Louisville out of high school, but a coaching change and two campus visits soon persuaded him otherwise.
“I ended up choosing Kentucky; it was the greatest decision ever,” Chapman said. “They still take care of me there.”
Chapman entered the NBA draft after his sophomore year at the University of Kentucky and went on to play for 12 years in the NBA for the Charlotte Hornets, Washington Bullets, Miami Heat and the Phoenix Suns.
At the age of 32, with the anticipation of retiring at the end of the year, Chapman had to have an emergency appendectomy. In his career, he has had seven surgeries that involved everything from rods and screws to fused fingers, but he said he had never taken a prescription pain pill.
“I never took any of the pain medication after surgeries so I knew really how it felt,” Chapman said, “so I could feel the pain to know when I could go back to playing.”
After the appendectomy, a doctor wrote him a prescription for Oxycontin. He said within a matter of days, he “was in love,” and that the medication not only brought him happiness but helped him to combat social anxiety that he dealt with daily.
“That medication took me out of my head,” Chapman said. “It made me feel nice, more social, kinder — that was alluring for me.”
It was at that point that Chapman’s life would seemingly spin out of control, to where, at one point, he said he was taking up to 40 Vicodin and up to 10 Oxycontin a day.
“If you are an addict, you can become really one-dimensional…I was just a basketball player, and then all of a sudden I wasn’t a basketball player. That’s when I started to realize I haven’t bettered myself in any way.”
He would enter rehab three times, and face a devastating arrest, before truly finding recovery. Chapman has now made it four years without opiates, when he said there was a time he didn’t think he could go a day.
When family friend Kirk Kirkpatrick was asked why the Kentucky Travel Industry would want a Kentucky basketball legend as their guest speaker, Kirkpatrick said he thought it had to do with a lot more than basketball.
“He was probably chosen because he represents, not only Owensboro, but Kentucky,” Kirkpatrick said. “His real story is not how good he was on the court; it’s how he overcame what most of us probably couldn’t. His mission now is sharing it with anyone that will listen because he’s lived through it.”
David Helmers, a lifelong friend and fellow Apollo High School graduate, has been present in Chapman’s life for both the successes and the trials. Helmers is now able to see that friendship come full circle as his son Lee plays basketball for Chapman’s son Zeke at Sayre School in Lexington.
“He’s been essentially the same guy the whole time — bright, insightful, loyal, with a great sense of humor and driven to succeed,” Helmers said. “There was a period of time, due to addiction, where that light dimmed a bit, and Rex wasn’t his best self. He’s enjoying life again. I’m proud of him.”
During this visit, Chapman looked healthier than he has in years, and people noticed. He attributes his fit build to swimming, which he said is his current “addiction.”
“I try to stay as busy as I can,” Chapman said. “I’m an addict. I’ll dive into my exercise just like any other addiction. I swim for about an hour, that’s all I do. I feel like I’m not even a real person unless I do that.”
As far as continuing to stay on the right path, Chapman said he fills his time with exercise and tries to stay busy. He also continues to see a therapist twice a month in Louisville, a woman he refers to as “a lifesaver.”
Chapman said he has been very fortunate to once again find work, although he jokes that it isn’t, as he broadcasts live with the University of Kentucky on TV and radio and the NBA on TV.
“It beats working. I just talk about basketball,” Chapman said. “Basketball has taken me to so many great places…and just opened up so many doors for me.”
Chapman said he is happy to be back in Lexington, where he enjoys the slower pace, which he feels helps to keep him grounded.
“I feel so blessed to have grown up in this state, to have gone through the things that I’ve gone through and still have a city, and a state and a university stand behind me,” Chapman said. “I haven’t always been the most shining example of what a favorite son should be or what a hometown kid should be, but I’m so very fortunate to be here today. I’m happy to be anywhere today.”