Block or Charge: How Rex Chapman created a Twitter legend

(Michael Wagstaffe/Yahoo Sports illustration)
(Michael Wagstaffe/Yahoo Sports illustration)

A loose tire rolling down the street bounces up and right into an oncoming car’s windshield. A wild cow rampaging through a city street runs right over a bystander. A man minding his own business gets knocked off his treadmill when a pickup truck bursts through the wall.

They all scroll across your phone in short bursts of video, and you feel a bit guilty for laughing — Did somebody just get really hurt? — but hey, laughter is laughter. And right around the moment the poor soul in the clip hits the ground, you’re asking the same question as everyone else ...

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Block or charge?

The accidental innovation of a Kentucky hoops legend/NBA journeyman, “Block or Charge” is just about the only good thing left on the blasted hellscape of rage and paranoia that is Twitter, and for that, Rex Chapman deserves a Nobel Prize. It’s also become the unlikeliest of lifelines for a guy who’s spent many of his recent years on the receiving end of life’s charge.

So how did “Block or Charge” get started? The same way anything does on social media: an idea launched into the stratosphere without a second thought.

“Social media is f---ing toxic,” Chapman tells Yahoo Sports. “I had really become bogged down with political bulls--t. I was really getting upset about it, and I wanted off. But there are two or three places that employ me and want me to have a social media presence, so …”

One random Thursday evening in January, Chapman came across one of those quick-hit videos we’ve all scrolled past, this one of a paddleboarder getting blasted by a dolphin leaping out of a wave.

“That’s a charge!” he bellowed. And, given the fact that he’d taken more than a few charges himself in his day, he knew what he was talking about.

So he retweeted the video, topping it with three fateful words: “Block or charge?”

From such humble origins, a Twitter legend was born.

Without even realizing it, Chapman had created the perfect social media craft brew, a blend of the internet’s three greatest pursuits — short-form video, watching people hurt themselves, and intense argument over a meaningless topic — and boom, he had an instant hit. This wasn’t just viral, this was a full-on pandemic.

Everyone from Chris Pratt to Mark Hamill to Chuck D to Ice T chimed in with “Block or Charge” nominees. Chapman still can’t quite believe he got brand-checked by Arnold Schwarzenegger himself:

He’s more than tripled his follower count, up to over 350,000. He’s had “theme” weeks — during the Masters, for instance, he filled Twitter with golf-related B-or-C’s. The sheer absurdity of arguing a block or charge on a home video — if, say, a baby’s little feet were set when the family dog runs it over — helps fuel Chapman’s feed, making it a welcome reprieve from the WE ARE ALL GOING TO DIE AND IT’S YOUR FAULT tone that pervades Twitter.

As for his sophisticated social media strategy? “I don’t have to do s--t,” Chapman says, laughing. “I just look through all these stupid f---ing videos and throw them up there.” (He does have limits: “Nobody dying. This is Gore Lite.”)

There’s no real moral ethos to Block or Charge beyond that, except that this world is capricious and you might get taken out by a rogue golf cart while you’re just standing there. Of course, you can increase the odds of getting taken out by doing something stupid, and it’s in that nexus — stupid behavior in risky situations — where “Block or Charge” lives.

“We like — as long as it’s not us — watching someone do something stupid,” Chapman says. “A lot of people like watching people get [messed] up.”

That said, he’s had to veer away from a certain football-related Twitter subset. “The Bills Mafia is ‘Block or Charge’ heaven,” he says, speaking of the lunatic Buffalo fanbase that specializes in drinking heavily, lighting itself on fire and diving through tables, often all at once. “But I’m hesitant to use those anymore. I don’t want to condone someone dying.”

‘I just couldn’t stay healthy’

Ironically, the man who’s made the phrase “block or charge” famous hates the rule itself. “It’s a bad rule,” he explains. “You shouldn’t be able to just stand there and take it.” He would know; it’s how he made his entire NBA career.

Drafted eighth overall in 1988 out of Kentucky, Chapman was a legendary sharpshooter who spent his entire NBA career, in effect, floating in the midpoint of a “Block or Charge” video. His pinned tweet highlights those no-blood, no-foul days:

He wasn’t huge — 6-foot-4, 185 pounds in his playing days — but he plowed his way into the tall trees night after night. “I used to enjoy back-picking big guys all the time,” he says. “I didn’t mind that at all. I loved to get run over by Shaq or Chuck [Barkley]. They’d scream at me, ‘That’s a f---ing flop!’ And it was! But that’s all right. They just wasted a foul.”

Chapman was the very first pick of the Hornets franchise in 1988. He was close friends with Dell Curry, and remembers meeting Dell’s infant kid — little fella by the name of Steph — that first year in Charlotte. He also got some run in Washington, Miami and finally Phoenix, averaging 14.6 points and 2.7 assists for his career.

“I just couldn’t stay healthy,” he says. “I have really good legs for jumping. I have terrible ankles for landing. I wasn’t as good fundamentally as John Stockton or Steve Nash, so I had to play like an athlete, in the air all the time, coming down in vulnerable positions.”

He never played 82 games in a season. The one time he was in line to make the All-Star team — the 1994 season, where he was averaging more than 18 points a game while a member of the Washington Bullets — he came down on Dennis Rodman’s foot and dislocated his ankle.

‘Wait for it …’

Many “Block or Charge” tweets make you wait agonizing seconds for the payoff. Chapman tags these with “Wait for it,” with a flex emoji. This would be the point in Chapman’s story where everything seems to be going just fine … and then, boom.

It might be reaching to say that Chapman sympathizes with the sad sacks who get blown around by fate in “Block or Charge” videos … or it might not.

Chapman grew up in Kentucky, where basketball fandom is a communicable disease, and he started getting recognized as young as 14. That does something to a person. “I never had to grow up,” he concedes. “Everybody did everything for me. I was the first generation in my family to have money, and I had no idea what to do.”

He laughs now about his naiveté. “When I got my first paycheck, there was $15,000 in taxes taken out. I called my financial person. I told him, ‘I’ve heard about tax returns. When do I get this back?’ ”

Since he could play basketball, his older teammates and their wives helped him with basics — like, you know, packing underwear for road trips. “Those guys helped raise me,” he says. “I was just a baby. I was really lucky that I didn’t get sidetracked into drugs when I was playing.”

Even so, there were always signs of the problems that lay ahead. “I never slept very well when I was playing,” Chapman recalls. “Looking back, I was always suffering with depression and mental illness-type stuff I didn’t understand. My diet was [garbage]. It wore me out. I came in at 20 — I was the youngest player in the league at the time — and I was finished by 32.”

He began taking painkillers at the end of his career, starting with Vicodin to treat a nerve injury in his foot during the 1996-97 season in Phoenix. And then, after an emergency appendectomy just before the end of his career, he was prescribed Oxycontin … and everything changed. “I knew I was in love,” he says. “It made me feel like a nicer person. A more approachable person. Not as standoffish.”

At his worst, Chapman estimates he was popping 50 Vicodin and 10 Oxy a day, chewing them up to get them into his bloodstream faster. Like so many Americans in the late ’90s and 2000s, he was prescribed opioids to deal with long-term pain only to become addicted.

“The only reason I’m still here was that I always had enough money to buy pills,” he says. “When you run out of money to buy pills, you go to heroin and needles. And from there, you almost can’t come back.”

He also had to reckon with the curse of every athlete: that people keep an image of you that doesn’t necessarily reconcile with who you are today. “Every day, people come up to me and say, ‘Dude, you used to have hair!’ ” he says with a laugh. “People expect us to be 25 or 18 forever, and they’re disappointed when we’re not. It’s always been weird. It’s a little like being a child celebrity.”

Rex Chapman, left, played 12 seasons in the NBA for four different teams. (Getty Images)
Rex Chapman, left, played 12 seasons in the NBA for four different teams. (Getty Images)

It was that very celebrity that finally crushed him. On nine separate occasions in 2014, he stole a total of $14,000 in electronics from a Phoenix Apple store, only getting caught when a clerk recognized him from his Suns days. He says he has “very little recollection” of what happened during that time, lost in an opioid haze. He would be sentenced to probation and 750 hours of community service, plus he had to pay back the value of what he’d stolen. That, combined with three stints in rehab, helped him fight his way back from the brink.

“I was never in trouble my whole life,” he says. “I never had a second of any [trouble]. I went from high school All-American to college basketball to the NBA. From the outside looking in, it looked like I had the world by the tail. But I always struggled with my brain. There was a big part of me that felt phony, and that always bothered me.”

After his playing days, but before he bottomed out, Chapman worked with several NBA front offices. Since 2014, he’s stayed busy by working with his alma mater, commenting on basketball for Kentucky media. He’s also done stints with Turner’s NBA arm, keeping an eye on the game without the risk of injury.

He’s also trying to rebuild his personal life. His 20-year marriage disintegrated amidst his addiction, but he has four kids, ranging in age from 18 to 27. “They knew me when they were little,” he says. “They knew me when I was not very good for 15 years. I want to show them I’m not like that anymore.”

So what is he doing every day? “Nothing at all,” he says, almost before the question’s finished. “I’m perfectly content to just do nothing and swim a little every day. It makes me feel better, like a normal human.”

And that’s where “Block or Charge” comes in, a light in an often dark world. Chapman tweets and retweets dozens of times a day, inspirational messages and emojis scattered across his timeline like championship confetti.

He’s expanding the “Block or Charge” brand beyond Twitter. He’s doing a show on Adult Swim’s streaming service every Thursday night at 10, hanging and [censored]-talking about the ridiculous and absurd mini-videos.

“It’s people getting [messed] up for a half-hour,” Chapman chuckles, and if that doesn’t sell you on it, nothing will.

That’s the last element of the “Block or Charge” series. No matter how hard people get hit, they always get back up … possibly in pain, sometimes off-camera, but definitely wiser for the experience.

Bonus ‘Block or Charge’ ...

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Jay Busbee is a writer for Yahoo Sports. Contact him at jay.busbee@yahoo.com or find him on Twitter or on Facebook.

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