By LARRY VAUGHT
ESPN’s Ryan McGee lives in Charlotte and about five weeks ago took his 15-year-old daughter, a high school freshman, and her friends to see the Charlotte Hornets play.
During the game, highlights of former Kentucky star Rex Chapman — Charlotte’s first-ever draft pick in 1988 — flashed on the big screen. McGee asked his daughter if they knew who that was. They didn’t — or last not until he told her it was Chapman.
“Then all of their eyes lit up. They knew him from Twitter but had no idea he played basketball,” McGee said.
That’s because in the last year Chapman has become a Twitter sensation with close to 600,000 followers. He posted a video of a dolphin jumping in the air and hitting a paddle-boarder and asked a simple question, “Block or charge?”
That notoriety is part of the reason Chapman’s life story will be featured on ESPN’s “E60” with McGee Friday at 7 p.m. Chapman was a folk hero during his career at Owensboro Apollo High School and then added to his legacy at UK before playing 12 years in the NBA. However, he hit rock bottom due to his use of prescription narcotics and in 2014 was arrested for shoplifting computer products in Arizona and selling them to a pawnshop. He pleaded guilty and checked into rehab and has now been clean over five years. He’s back living in Kentucky, works for the Kentucky Radio Network and reaches out to help others with addictions often.
“For somebody my age, we all knew who Rex was in high school,” McGee said. “Around here (Charlotte), he’s a big deal. He was the first Hornet. I was in high school in Raleigh when he was a senior in Owensboro. Before the internet, before high school games were on TV, before recruiting services … and we all knew who he was. We were hoping he would come to Duke, North Carolina or North Carolina State. He was so electric.”
McGee didn’t know Rex when he reached out to him after he approached his bosses at ESPN with the idea for a feature on Chapman and found out they were already thinking about the same thing. McGee told Chapman he wanted to do a story about his “third act of his life as a social media superstar.” Chapman preferred calling in the final act.
McGee feels there are three groups who think they know Chapman: People in Kentucky and Charlotte who remember his basketball prowess, people who now know him from Twitter and those who Google him and the first thing they see is his mug shot.
Even now McGee says Chapman tries to “downplay” his social media presence even though it has become a “big deal” for so many as shown by the success he has had soliciting donations via twitter after his foundation partnered with Blue Grass Community Foundation to establish the Rex Chapman Foundation COVID-19 Relief Fund to raise money that will go directly to coronavirus relief. Numerous celebrities and pro athletes have been among the contributors.
That campaign is part of the reason the airing of Chapman’s story was pushed back a few weeks. McGee spent several days in Lexington when the Cats lost to Tennessee and planned to follow Chapman at the SEC Tournament the next week before the event was cancelled.
“This story was originally going to run during the SEC Tournament or the first weekend of the NCAA,” McGee said. “We slowed down because we could tell his role had changed again with the virus and what he was doing to raise money. Now he had even more followers than before the lockdown. No longer was he putting out just funny stuff but he was sharing informative stuff. We backed the story up a week to see how it all evolved.”
McGee believes even older, die-hard UK fans will be “surprised” by Chapman’s honesty and “how low he got” with his addiction to where he was sleeping on couches or even in his car.
“He lost touch with people back home. He hit bottom,” McGee said. “I think that will catch a lot of folks off guard and just make you love him even more. He was a NBA star, hit bottom, has rebuilt his life and now does all he can to help others. It’s really an inspiring story.”