Roy Tarpley: Drug Bust

Synopsis: Due to the tragic death of #2 overall pick Len Bias from a cocaine overdose, the 1986 NBA Draft always will be remembered more for what might have been versus what was. Adding to that sentiment, #3 pick Chris Washburn, #6 pick William Bedford, and #7 pick Roy Tarpley all had their NBA careers negatively affected by drugs and alcohol. Whereas Washburn and Bedford were bust-worthy because they never produced respectable numbers (e.g. fewer than five points and three rebounds per game), Tarpley averaged a double-double over his 280-game career. With production of 13 points and 10 rebounds per game, Tarpley wasn’t a traditional bust. Instead, he was a “drug bust” who failed to live up to his tremendous potential after receiving not one but two lifetime suspensions.


Playing for the University of Michigan in the mid 1980s, Roy Tarpley experienced both individual and team success. After both his junior and senior seasons, he was named a 3rd Team All-American while leading the Wolverines to consecutive Big Ten titles. In addition, he was the 1985 Big Ten Player of the Year with averages of 19 points, 10 rebounds, and two blocks per game. As shown by the following table, Tarpley developed nicely during his time in Ann Arbor.

ROY TARPLEY – COLLEGE STATS (University of Michigan)
Season G FG% FT% Points Rebounds Assists Steals Blocks
1982-83 26 40.7% 57.9% 3.5 3.2 0.2 0.3 0.7
1983-84 33 52.7% 79.4% 12.5 8.1 0.9 0.6 2.1
1984-85 30 52.5% 77.5% 19.0 10.4 1.6 0.9 2.2
1985-86 33 54.1% 81.1% 15.9 8.8 1.4 1.5 2.9
Career 122 52.2% 77.4% 13.1 7.8 1.1 0.8 2.1


Given his accomplishments at Michigan, Tarpley deservedly became a top 10 overall pick in the 1986 NBA Draft. After his first two seasons in the league, that pick looked like a good one. In particular, Tarpley followed up his selection to the 1987 All-NBA Rookie Team with the 1988 6th Man of the Year Award. Of note, he came off the bench yet still tied Hakeem Olajuwon for third in total rebounds during the 1987-88 season. Based on the following summary of Tarpley’s NBA career, it appears that he continued to blossom; however, statistics can be very deceiving.

Shooting % Per Game Averages
Season FG FT Minutes Rebounds Assists Steals Blocks Points
Season 1 46.7% 67.6% 18.7 7.1 0.7 0.7 1.1 7.5
Season 2 50.0% 74.0% 28.5 11.8 1.1 1.3 1.1 13.5
Season 3 54.1% 68.8% 31.1 11.5 0.9 1.5 1.6 17.3
Season 4 45.1% 75.6% 36.6 13.1 1.5 1.8 1.6 16.8
Season 5 54.4% 88.9% 34.2 11.0 2.4 1.2 1.8 20.4
Season 6 47.9% 83.6% 24.6 8.2 1.1 0.8 1.0 12.6
Career 48.3% 74.4% 26.7 10.0 1.0 1.1 1.2 12.6


Based purely on per-game averages, Tarpley’s career started out similarly to the career of Charles Oakley. In particular, Oakley averaged 12.5 points and 11.5 rebounds during his first six seasons in the league. While these averages are similar, Tarpley arguably had more upside with some truly impressive performances. In particular, he averaged 18 points and 13 rebounds per game during the 1988 NBA Playoffs, which ended for the Mavericks in the Western Conference Finals against the Lakers. During that seven-game series (in which the home team won each game), Tarpley had four games with at least 18 points and four games with at least 13 rebounds (including two with 20 rebounds).

Roy Tarpley vs. Lakers
Unlike most busts, Tarpley actually could play

Unfortunately, Tarpley never experienced the same success again due to off-court problems. Once a few more details are filled into the previous table, a more appropriate evaluation of Tarpley’s career can be established.

Games Shooting % Per Game Averages
Season Played Suspended FG FT Minutes Rebounds Assists Steals Blocks Points
1986-87 75 0 46.7% 67.6% 18.7 7.1 0.7 0.7 1.1 7.5
1987-88 81 0 50.0% 74.0% 28.5 11.8 1.1 1.3 1.1 13.5
1988-89 19 49 54.1% 68.8% 31.1 11.5 0.9 1.5 1.6 17.3
1989-90 45 35 45.1% 75.6% 36.6 13.1 1.5 1.8 1.6 16.8
1990-91 5 12 54.4% 88.9% 34.2 11.0 2.4 1.2 1.8 20.4
1991-92 0 82 Suspended – “Lifetime” ban for substance abuse
1992-93 0 82 Suspended – “Lifetime” ban for substance abuse
1993-94 0 82 Suspended – “Lifetime” ban for substance abuse
1994-95 55 1 47.9% 83.6% 24.6 8.2 1.1 0.8 1.0 12.6
1995-96 0 65 Injured for first 17 games before being suspended
Career 280 408 48.3% 74.4% 26.7 10.0 1.0 1.1 1.2 12.6


Not counting subsequent seasons after his second “lifetime” ban, Tarpley missed over 400 games due to suspension in his NBA career. Of note, that number is almost 50% greater than the number of games in which he played. Taken in a broader context, the stats highlighted in the prior table start to look much different. When on the court, Tarpley certainly had the talent to compete effectively against other NBA players. Unfortunately, his drug and alcohol abuse prevented him from being on the court.

Prior to conducting research for this post, I had heard about Tarpley’s personal issues but never realized how bad they were. While the following chronology may not be complete, it should provide a fairly accurate picture of the downward spiral which is often associated with drug and/or alcohol addiction.

  • Summer of 1987 – Entered treatment program for cocaine and alcohol dependency. STRIKE ONE!
  • January 1989 – Suspended indefinitely and missed 49 games while undergoing rehab after testing positive to cocaine. STRIKE TWO!
  • October 1989 – Skipped practice and disappeared for 22 hours. Subsequent drug test came back negative. FOUL TIP.
  • November 1989 – Suspended for 33 games after resisting arrest for suspected DWI. The charge of resisting arrest was dropped when Tarpley pleaded guilty to drunk driving. FOUL TIP.
  • April 1990 – Suspended by his team for missing practice during which he was scheduled to have a drug test. Claimed he accidentally slept-in after being out late. Test came back negative so reinstated. FOUL TIP.
  • November 1990: Out for season after 5 games because of torn right knee ligament. BALL.
  • March 1991 – Stopped for suspicion of DWI after being clocked going 63 in a 35 while drinking a beer (i.e. DWD – drinking WHILE driving). Ultimately acquitted despite police testimony and admitting to having three beers before the arrest. Suspended indefinitely for violating NBA aftercare program, but reinstated in September 1991. FOUL TIP.
  • May 1991 – Arrested for domestic violence after attacking his presumed girlfriend. CHECK SWING?
  • October 1991 – Received lifetime ban for refusing to take a drug test. STRIKE THREE!

roy tarpley STRIKE 3

Despite a presumed “lifetime” ban, Tarpley was reinstated by NBA Commissioner David Stern prior to the 1994-95 season. At the time of Tarpley’s suspension, six other players had been banned for life for violating the league’s drug policy (i.e. three positive tests for cocaine and/or heroin). These players were John Drew, Lewis Lloyd, Micheal Ray Richardson, Duane Washington, Chris Washburn (also from the 1986 Draft) and Mitchell Wiggins (yeah, Andrew’s Dad). Three of these players (i.e. Lloyd, Richardson and Wiggins) were reinstated after two years, so Tarpley’s return to the league wasn’t unprecedented.

roy tarpley drop3rd
Apparently, Tarpley reached first safely because someone dropped the third strike.

So what does Tarpley do after being given a second “life” in the NBA?

  • October 1994 – Receives a speeding ticket for going 92 mph in his Mercedes on a Dallas highway. Within one hour of getting the ticket, Tarpley lends the car to a friend who proceeds to get in an accident with a utility pole. Anyone buying that excuse? If so, I have a bridge connecting Brooklyn and Lower Manhattan to sell you.
  • December 1994 – One-game team suspension after cursing at Mavericks head coach Dick Motta, who took Tarpley out of a game against the player’s desires.
  • January 1995 – Out with a knee injury.
  • Feburary 1995 – Return delayed after dropping a water jug on his foot (Huh?).
  • November 1995 – Suspended by the Mavericks after being unable to complete a team physical because of a pancreas ailment. Suspension lifted and transferred to injured list after a few days.
  • December 1995 – Banned permanently (again) after testing positive for alcohol for a third time. As part of the league’s aftercare program, alcohol consumption was verboten.

This time, Stern caught the third strike so Tarpley’s NBA days were over. Regardless, the player’s off-court problems continued.

  • March 1997 – Tarpley’s girlfriend called police after being choked by him hard enough to cause swelling. She never pressed charges despite telling police that she thought he was “trying to kill” her.
  • September 1997 – His girlfriend called the police after being dragged out of a taxi and thrown to the ground by Tarpley.
  • November 1997 – After neighbors called the police, Tarpley was arrested for domestic violence. Specifically, he was accused of burning his girlfriend with an clothes iron. She refused medical treatment despite having a significant burn.
  • December 1997 – While on the phone with Tarpley, the same girlfriend flipped her car on a Dallas highway. After surviving the accident, she was killed by another driver who didn’t see her on the side of the road. Are you kidding me? Unfortunately, no.

After going back into rehab (as a precondition to getting representation by his attorney), Tarpley ultimately pleaded guilty to one charge of domestic violence and received two years of probation. Due to the probation, he was forbidden to leave the state of Texas. Regardless, he violated the terms of his probation by playing basketball overseas.

roy tarpley greece
More like Greek tragedy.

By staying out of the country, Tarpley avoided prosecution for almost five years. During that time, he played for teams in Greece, China and Russia; however, he eventually returned to the U.S. when international tensions from the Iraq War became too worrisome. After turning himself in, Tarpley received a 33-day jail sentence for violating his probation.

Clearly, Tarpley had a significant drug and alcohol problem that he couldn’t control. In response, he sued the Mavericks and the NBA under the Americans with Disabilities Act claiming that his addiction was a disability that should have protected him from discrimination (i.e. discipline). Despite any skepticism that the league might have had (or the numerous other reasons to suspend him), it settled the case out of court.

As if this story couldn’t get any sadder, Tarpley died in January 2015 at the age of 50. Even though the medical examiner’s report didn’t include an official cause of death, the Dallas Star-Telegram reported that representatives from the Mavericks were told that he suffered liver failure. Purely from a sports perspective, the fate of Roy Tarpley may be even more tragic than the fate of Len Bias because we can only surmise that Bias would have been able to make the transition to the NBA. As shown by this website, there have been other #2 overall picks who have failed to live up to expectations (e.g. Sam Bowie, Darko Milicic, and Hasheen Thabeeet) so Bias’s success was not a sure thing. On the other hand, it’s hard to deny that Tarpley had the ability to be an NBA star, if not a superstar.