‘It’s pretty terrifying’: Ex-Suns guard Rex Chapman’s memoir sparks conversations on addiction, recovery in Tempe

(Video by Jack Pierson/Cronkite News)

TEMPE – Sitting down in a chair at the Changing Hands Bookstore, Rex Chapman gazed through a near-filled audience who were on hand to support his first book, “It’s Hard for Me to Live with Me: A Memoir.”

Chapman’s eclectic group of fans – including those who have known him from his University of Kentucky days, others who watched him with the Phoenix Suns, the legions who now follow him on social media, and his family and friends who stood by when he hit rock bottom – had come together Tuesday night for a conversation of humility, transparency and, in some cases, regret.

Chapman spoke with reporters privately before the seminar. The former Suns guard faced conflicting emotions about the anticipation of his book.

“It’s pretty terrifying,” said Chapman, who lives in the Valley. “I should acknowledge right away … I feel pretty conflicted being here, being celebrated for failing so miserably at life and today is a hard day for my family.”

As Chapman spoke, he caught the eye of Lorenzo Sierra, who works as the government and community affairs officer for Terros Health. Sierra took the honors of asking the final question of the night and was blown away by Chapman’s response. For Sierra, it was refreshing seeing someone whom he knew as “King Rex” on the basketball court be so vulnerable and talk about a very taboo topic.

“The vulnerability, his ability to take accountability for all the things that he’s done, speaks volumes and is something that should be commended,” Sierra said. “That’s why I asked him a question about being that mentor to people who are going through addiction, going through some tough times in their lives because right now, or at least for us, it’s one day at a time when you’re in sobriety.

“Right now, Rex is living one day at a time and hopefully he can continue to stay sober and continue on the right path.”

Chapman’s journey has fluctuated between soaring highs on the court and debilitating, life-threatening lows off it. The eighth pick of the 1988 NBA draft left the University of Kentucky averaging 17.6 points, 2.6 rebounds and 3.6 rebounds while shooting 40% from the 3-point line. Chapman also brought a flashy element to his game that set him apart with his dunks.

Chapman, 56, has since leaped from job to job within the NBA after retiring as a player in 2000. He went from being a scout to the Director of Basketball Operations with the Suns. After his stint in Phoenix, he went to the Minnesota Timberwolves as a scout and then to the Denver Nuggets as the Vice President of Player Personnel.

Now, he is a senior analyst of pro personnel evaluation and an ambassador for the Suns. His son, Zeke, is a video coordinator for the team.

While Chapman was flying high at the NBA level with athleticism and his distinct style of play, he sustained a variety of injuries. In total, there were 10 injuries, seven of which required surgery. As a result of his injuries, Chapman was prescribed Vicodin by his doctor and then began the downward spiral of his playing career and in some instances, his life.

Anxiety was nonexistent in Chapman’s mind while he was using medication for the first time despite suffering from an uneasy feeling throughout his adolescence.

During Tuesday’s seminar, he shared a story of being at one of his children’s baseball games and how he couldn’t stand talking to other people, since they would ask about his basketball career. When he started using Vicodin, Chapman said he became a different person – “I was nice” – when he was talking to others.

While he was nice to people while attending his kids’ games, his euphoria from taking Vicodin eventually vanished. This time, he fought a dangerous addiction to gambling while simultaneously using painkillers, but the combination of vices still brought him wisdom.

“It’s not as easy to win something,” Chapman said, “as it is to completely lose everything.”

From Chapman’s perspective, his life became the most challenging in 2014. Chapman was arrested for shoplifting in an Apple store and pleaded guilty to four felony theft charges. Eventually his sentence was reduced to four misdemeanor charges, which earned Chapman 18 months of supervised probation.

Chapman flew back to Kentucky two weeks after his arrest and checked into The Brook, a mental health and addiction treatment service hospital. When one of his friends, former Louisville and current Saint John’s men’s basketball head coach Rick Pitino, came to visit, Chapman had an emotional breakdown. He claimed he was “so f—— toxic” and that “my life is over” as Pitino consoled him.

Chapman vividly recalled their first conversation in treatment, advice he takes to heart to this day.

“Rick looked at me and said, ‘Listen, you’re gonna eat a lot of s— for a while,’” Chapman said. “He said, ‘But at first it’s going to feel like a big beach ball size s—, and then if you keep doing the next right thing, it’s going to go to a basketball-sized ball, then a volleyball. Keep doing the right thing and then a softball, then a baseball, then a ping pong ball and then a pebble.’”

From being arrested to his time in rehabilitation facilities, Chapman said he fights the regret of his past decisions every day. As he described, it’s about processing his emotions and not trying to find something to fill the void.

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“The biggest thing for me is sitting in my emotions because for so long when something sad or bad (happened), something made me angry, I would go and take drugs or go to the track or, you know, when I was younger, chase a girl or, you know, just, anything to fill that hole,” Chapman said.

Sitting in the seminar was Sara Hass, who shares a special friendship with Chapman, as his current girlfriend is best friends with Hass. She stamped her thoughts on the importance of what Chapman is doing for people everywhere.

“I think it is so critical that we have public figures like Rex, who are talking about these things that might carry a stigma,” Hass said. “Because mental health rates are soaring among youth especially and whether or not there is an addiction or a dependency on something, or it might be significant anxiety, depression in childhood trauma, things that sort of carry with a lot of people throughout their lives.”

Four out of 10 students feel persistently sad and nearly one-third had experienced poor mental health, according to a 2021 CDC study. One in five seriously considered suicide, with one in 10 dying by suicide. Hearing Chapman’s story, Hass said, can serve as a beacon of hope for generations to come.

“There’s a lot of people who go through really challenging times in their lives and being able to sort of see him come out on the other end and sort of know what his success story is like,” Hass said. “I think he can give a lot of hope to a lot of people.”

When Hass heard about Chapman’s addiction, his arrests and his conversation with Pitino, she couldn’t fathom his struggles yet commends him for his transparency and strength.

“I don’t know all the full details, but it sounds like he really was at the bottom,” Hass said. “He was at his worst. He thought very poorly of himself. He was ruining relationships and really struggling and knowing that he was able to get help, and is now helping other people still involved in professional sports. I know he has gained more notoriety in other ways and more positive ways.”

Chapman has made substantial progress in fighting his addiction since the dreadful day of his arrest.

However, he fights one battle every day – regret for not prioritizing his four children.
As he described, fighting that battle is about processing his emotions and not trying to find something to fill the void.

“I missed a lot while they were growing up, and that’s a battle that I fight because those days aren’t coming back,” Chapman said.

The positivity is something that Chapman’s 1.2 million X followers witness daily. He has joined many athletes like Charles Barkley and Ryan Leaf to talk about stories of addiction and opening the door for a more evolved conversation about specific struggles.

After watching Chapman bare his soul, Sierra talked about how it wasn’t that long ago when conversations about mental health and addiction were thrown to the wayside. Now, times are evolving and Sierra believes that Chapman has a duty to keep sharing his struggles to share insight on any potential warning signs.

“We grew up in a very machismo, very politically incorrect time,” Sierra said. “But now we’re able to sort of share with our children some of the things that we wish we hadn’t done, but that are part of the total narrative of who we’ve become.

“Rex’s story is so powerful and he, I think he owes it to everyone who may go on that bad path to give that warning sign to talk about what he’s been through.”

Hayden Cilley HAY-din SIL-lee (he/him)
Sports Reporter, Phoenix

Hayden Cilley expects to graduate in December 2024 with a master’s degree in mass communication. Cilley covered the Phoenix Mercury in 2022 for The Next Hoops and is writing and podcasting about the Mercury for PHNX Sports.

Sports Reporter, Phoenix

Jack Pierson expects to graduate in May 2024 with a bachelor’s degree in sports journalism and a minor in business. Pierson has interned as a videographer for House Of Sparky and at College Recruiting Coach.