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One of the most gifted and ultimately tragic talents in NBA history has died. Former Dallas Mavericks big man Roy Tarpley, a terrific scorer and rebounder whose career was derailed by drug and alcohol abuse, died in a Dallas hospital Friday at 50 years old.
The 6-11 Tarpley was the seventh pick in the 1986 draft by the Mavericks out of Michigan. In his second season, he was the NBA’s sixth man of the year before drugs and controversy shrouded the rest of his six seasons in the league.
According to a medical examiner’s report, Tarpley’s death happened at Texas Arlington Health Memorial Hospital. It is a sad ending to one of the most gifted talents ever to play for the franchise. Tarpley had a rare combination of strength and speed that made him one of the best athletes of his era. [...]
He was suspended by the NBA after five games in the 1989-90 season after being arrested for driving while intoxicated and resisting arrest. In 1991, he drew another suspension after a second DWI arrest and months later, he had a third violation and was banned from the league for violating the NBA’s drug-use policies.
He returned to the Mavericks briefly in 1994 but then was permanently barred in December, 1995, for violating terms of his aftercare program.
Mavericks owner Mark Cuban honored Tarpley on Twitter shortly after the news broke:
Our condolences go out to the family of Roy Tarpley. RIP Roy. Mavs fans everywhere will remember you fondly
— Mark Cuban (@mcuban) January 10, 2015
Sefko reports that several members of the Mavericks traveling party, now in Los Angeles for a Saturday game vs. the Clippers at Staples Center, were informed that Tarpley died due to liver failure, but that has not yet been confirmed.
Tarpley's story is one of massive talent lost to addiction and substance abuse. He joined the Mavericks after an excellent collegiate career at Michigan and immediately gave their guard heavy lineup a credible interior threat. His award-winning campaign in 1987-88 included averages of 17.9 ppg and 12.9 rpg during the team's trip to the Western Conference Finals, where they took the eventual champion Lakers to seven games.
Unfortunately, that proved to be the peak of his career. Tarpley began to suffer a string of knee injuries the next season, after which his drug and alcohol problems began to lead to suspensions. Yet it's telling that Tarpley still managed to average double-digit points and rebounds in the midst of his troubles, including 20.4 ppg and 11.0 rpg in his five games of 1990-91. He could have accomplished so much if he had been able to stay on the court.
It is also worth noting that Tarpley later sued the NBA and the Mavericks for violating the American with Disabilities Act in keeping him off the court throughout his struggles with addiction. The case was settled out of court in 2009.
Tarpley will be remembered overwhelmingly as a cautionary tale and disappointment, but his impact on the basketball landscape should not be forgotten. With his combination of strength and speed, he served as a precursor to many do-everything power forwards of the '90s like fellow Michigan product Chris Webber and even Kevin Garnett. His 304 total career regular season and playoff games were meaningful, if also far too few.
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