Dallas Mavericks

Former Mavericks player Roy Tarpley dies at age 50

Roy Tarpley prepares to shoot a free throw against the Los Angeles Lakers in 1987. Tarpley showed flashes of greatness but likely never reached his true potential with the Mavericks.
Roy Tarpley prepares to shoot a free throw against the Los Angeles Lakers in 1987. Tarpley showed flashes of greatness but likely never reached his true potential with the Mavericks. Getty Images

When Derek Harper found out that one of his former teammates, Roy Tarpley, had died Friday, he thought of the potential that was never realized by the Michigan native.

“His potential was unprecedented,” Harper said. “He was on his way to being an all-time great, I feel, at his size and with his skill set.

“The uniqueness of what he brought to the table would have been second to none. But we won’t really know.”

Mr. Tarpley, 50, died Friday afternoon at Texas Health Arlington Memorial Hospital. A Tarrant County medical examiner’s report did not list a cause of death, but members of the Mavericks’ traveling party say they were told that liver failure was to blame.

Mr. Tarpley’s death ended a long and sordid chapter for a multitalented 6-foot-11, 230-pound center/power forward who could overpower players inside and float to the perimeter and pop in a feathery jump shot.

While Mr. Tarpley could always hold his own on the court, he couldn’t overcome drugs and alcohol.

The Mavericks selected him with the seventh pick of the 1986 draft out of Michigan. He was the NBA’s Sixth Man Award winner in 1988 and played for Dallas through the 1989-90 season. But when he violated the NBA’s drug policy for a third time, the league banned him.

“Our condolences go out to the family of Roy Tarpley,” Mavericks owner Mark Cuban said on Twitter. “RIP Roy. Mavs fans everywhere will remember you fondly.”

A statement from the Mavs said: “The Dallas Mavericks organization is deeply saddened upon hearing of the death of former Sixth Man of the Year Roy Tarpley. Our deepest condolences go out to his family. Mavs fans everywhere will remember him fondly.”

After stints in the Continental Basketball League, the United States Basketball League and in Greece, Mr. Tarpley was reinstated by the league and rejoined the Mavericks for the 1994-95 season.

But he was permanently banned from the NBA in December 1995 for violating the terms of his court-imposed personal aftercare program and for using alcohol.

“Roy, he was his worst enemy in a lot of ways,” said Harper, an analyst on the Mavericks’ television broadcast. “But in spite of him having the addiction and the problem that he had, I don’t think anybody has ever said he was a bad person — he was a great person.

“But the disease of drugs basically stopped his career short, and we just don’t know how good he would have been, unfortunately.”

After his permanent ban, Mr. Tarpley played in Greece, Russia and China. He also played for teams in the CBA and USBL before finishing his pro career at age 41 in 2006.

With Mr. Tarpley’s help, the Mavs took the eventual NBA champion Los Angeles Lakers to seven games in a spirited Western Conference Finals in 1988. While going up against the likes of Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, James Worthy, Magic Johnson, A.C. Green, Byron Scott and Kurt Rambis, Mr. Tarpley averaged 17.9 points, 13 rebounds, 2.1 blocks and 1.4 steals in the series at age 23.

“Roy was before his time,” former NBA point guard Spud Webb said. “Nobody his size played the way he played.”

Mr. Tarpley averaged 12.6 points and 10 rebounds in his Mavericks career.

Harper noted that Mr. Tarpley had other skills that people may not be aware of.

“Roy could dance like Michael Jackson and Chris Brown or Usher,” Harper said. “He enjoyed dancing. The Prep, all the dances that were out — the Whop — he could do all that stuff.

“Roy was a good, fun-loving person, just a fun guy to be around.”

A fun guy, Harper said, who will be sorely missed.

“When you compete with a guy and you spend that kind of time with a guy, you’re subject to grow to love people like that,” said Harper, who played alongside Mr. Tarpley from 1986 to 1990. “His life being cut short is really a sad thing.

“It’s a tough deal because when somebody doesn’t reach their full potential and they leave here premature … it’s unfortunate. What makes this so unfortunate is that Roy, we know that he had the potential to be great, but we’ll never know how great he would have been.” 

Dwain Price, 817-390-7760

Twitter: @dwainprice