Rex Chapman Isn’t Sure He Deserves Good Things

Sitting in a Midtown Manhattan cafe after shooting B-roll for his new show on CNN+, Rex Chapman says he knows that he’s living a dream, and it’s making him uncomfortable. “I struggle with it,” he said.

Chapman, a former pro basketball player now best known as a Twitter personality, loves doing the show, which debuts Monday on CNN’s new streaming service. The show is not the problem. Simply titled “Rex Chapman,” it features him in conversation with a diverse array of people who have faced challenges, as he has, and who now try to make the world better, as he says he is trying to do.

Chapman has interviewed Jason Sudeikis in London, the N.B.A. forward Kevin Love in Cleveland, the actor Ben Stiller in New York City and the paralyzed former college football player Eric LeGrand in New Jersey. After this conversation, he was going to the bar next door to meet the comedian, writer and talk show host Amber Ruffin.

So why the struggle?

“People dream of doing this,” said Chapman, whose height (6 feet 4 inches), gleaming bald head and bright blue glasses make him conspicuous. “They dream of having their own show. I struggle with whether I deserve it or not.”

He explains: “I’ve been through some things,” he said. “And I’ve put myself through some things. And, uh. …”

He hesitated, his voice catching.

“I’ve got four kids,” he went on. “Sitting here talking to you is probably easier than many of the conversations I have with my kids.”

His son and three daughters — Zeke, Caley, Tatum and Tyson — range in age from 29 to 21. “And,” Chapman said, “not a day goes by that I don’t think about disappointing them.”

Chapman, now 54, was once the best high school player in his home state of Kentucky, a superstar at the University of Kentucky, the first-ever draft pick (No. 8 overall) of the expansion Charlotte Hornets and a member of the U.S. national team. He estimates that he made $40 million in 12 seasons in the N.B.A.

Chapman, who played with the Suns, Heat, Wizards and Hornets during a 12-year career, taking a shot in a game against the Seattle SuperSonics in 1999.Credit…Dan Levine/AFP via Getty Images

But the attention and scrutiny that came with success never felt right. When he was 10 years old, he quit swimming after other kids made fun of his Speedo. When he was 15 and a high school basketball star, students from another school stopped him in a mall, asked for his autograph and then tore it up in front of him.

Love and success seemed to lead to pain.

That feeling intensified in the N.B.A. After some injuries and surgeries, he ended up addicted to opioids, exacerbating his long-running gambling addiction. Retirement from basketball led to deeper addiction. Chapman burned through money. By his 40s, he was crashing on couches and shoplifting goods to pawn for cash. His wife, Bridget, divorced him in 2012.

At the height of his addiction, Chapman was consuming about 10 OxyContin and 40 Vicodin pills per day, chewing them to get them into his bloodstream quicker.

“At some point, I had just resigned myself to the fact that my life’s just going to be as a drug addict,” he said, adding an expletive for emphasis.

In September 2014, he was caught shoplifting more than $14,000 worth of electronics and was arrested. His sister, Jenny, took him in, and with the help of friends persuaded Chapman to go to a rehab center in Louisville, Ky., where his college roommate, Paul Andrews, was an executive. “Saved my life,” Chapman said.

After Chapman got clean, he began speaking in public about recovering from addiction. He found work covering Kentucky athletics on the radio for a regional media company around 2016. The company pushed him to be more active on social media, particularly on Twitter, but Chapman resisted. “The landscape was just toxic. Everybody hating each other,” he said.

A dolphin video changed everything: “I saw a video one day of a school of dolphins swimming out to sea, and a guy on a paddle board coming in, and a dolphin jumped up and hit him in the chest and knocked him off. And I said to myself, ‘That’s a charge,’” Chapman said, adding another expletive. (The account that first shared the video is now suspended.)

Chapman and his production crew filming B-roll for his new show.Credit…Gabriela Bhaskar/The New York Times

People responded well to the tweet, so he shared other slapstick videos, inspiring lighthearted debates about whether a given collision was, in basketball terms, a block or a charge. In time, he began posting “feel-good stuff” — videos of dogs, babies and animals interacting adorably — and paying two people to find content for him.

Chapman, who now has 1.2 million followers, later ventured into tweeting about politics, with Senator Mitch McConnell of Kentucky a frequent target.

In 2019, his friend Steve Nash, the former basketball star and current coach of the Brooklyn Nets, called Chapman with an idea for a podcast about people rebuilding their lives after making terrible mistakes. Chapman was wary of seeking fame again — “I didn’t fare real well with it the first time around” — but went forward after his children told him it was OK to do the show.

The podcast was called “Charges.” To make his guests more comfortable, and in the hopes of helping people, Chapman began publicly sharing more of his story. This was healing at times, painful at others. “There’s something really cathartic about it,” he said. On the other hand, he said, it never doesn’t hurt, because you’re telling a bunch of strangers the worst stuff in life.

He added: “I still can’t believe it was me. But it was. So I have to deal with that constantly.”

Worse, he knows his children do too. “If they had any reservations,” he said, “then I wouldn’t do any of this stuff.”

In an interview, Chapman’s daughter Caley, 27, said: “After he retired, that was a dark time. But he was always still my dad. I have respect for him. I just wanted him to get better for himself. And he’s done that. So I’m proud of him.”

She expressed concern that her father is too hard on himself.

“He holds a lot of guilt,” she said. “But there was never anything to forgive him for. From my point of view, I just wanted him to do better. So he’s been forgiven. And I’ll continue to say that until he forgives himself.”

Chapman’s son, Zeke, declined to be interviewed, but sent a statement by text.

“I’m extremely proud of my dad and how he has bounced back after a very tough time for him and our family,” he said. “I’m super excited for his new show and know how hard he’s been working on it.”

“Life’s weird, man,” Chapman said. “And life’s hard.”
Credit…Gabriela Bhaskar/The New York Times

Chapman was approached about the CNN+ show late last year. Rebecca Kutler, the senior vice president and head of programming for the streaming service, sought him out because she liked his Twitter feed. Like many of his followers, she didn’t know much about his basketball life.

“I found him to be an incredibly compelling human being,” she said. “He has come forward and talked about these challenges publicly, and really tried to use his experience to help others. That, along with his history as an incredible athlete, and the way that he’s been able to connect with an entire new generation of fans using social media, and sharing really uplifting content — I thought he would be a great person to bring new stories to CNN+.”

The shows will range from 20 to 40 minutes per episode, with episodes to be released on Mondays.

Chapman shooting an interview on Wednesday in New York.Credit…Gabriela Bhaskar/The New York Times

LeGrand, the former Rutgers football player whose spinal injury requires him to use a wheelchair, said he quickly felt a connection with Chapman when they met on campus in January. Chapman wore Nike Air Force 1s and a zip-up Jordan brand jacket, prompting LeGrand to say, “Look at you, all swagged out!” The two laughed and the conversation flowed.

“When somebody else has been through a rough patch or overcome adversity in their lives, and they’ve been able to get through it and impact people in a positive way, it makes you open up,” LeGrand said. “It makes you feel that sense of comfort.”

During the interview, Chapman asked what LeGrand dreamed about, a question no one had ever asked him before. LeGrand said: “When I’m dreaming, I’m always on my feet. I’m never in a wheelchair.”

Chapman said he learned empathy from his mother, and from his own pain. He still wrestles with the guilt and shame of his past, particularly for not being a better father. “What they had to go through at school, and people knowing that their dad was in trouble and got arrested,” he said. Chapman said it “crushes” him.

Now, he said, “I’m just trying to make up for lost time. I feel like I was gone for about 15 years.”

This year, Chapman moved from Kentucky to Brooklyn, 10 minutes from his son. When his new success makes him uncomfortable, he reminds himself that it helps him be the father he wants to be for his children.

“We have really no issues at this point,” he said. “Still trying to just show them a better me.”

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