Foster: Aguirre saw better side of big-hearted Roy Tarpley

Terry Foster
The Detroit News
Mark Aguirre on Roy Tarpley: “He did not have an evil spirit in his heart. He had a great big heart.”

It was difficult for Mark Aguirre to talk about the death of his former teammate, roommate and friend, Roy Tarpley.

That's why he vowed not to talk publicly about it from this point on.

The death of Tarpley, 50, was a shocker to Aguirre and the rest of the NBA old heads who played with and against him. Tarpley, from Detroit Cooley and the University of Michigan, battled drug and alcohol abuse that led to a lifetime ban from the NBA in 1995. He died Friday in Arlington, Texas; the cause of death has not been released.

"He was a beautiful person with a really big heart," Aguirre said Saturday during a telephone interview from Chicago.

Aguirre and Tarpley were teammates from 1986-87 (Tarpley's rookie season) until 1989, when Aguirre was traded from the Mavericks to the Pistons for Adrian Dantley. The Mavericks were Aguirre's team, but he knew secretly that the 6-foot-11 Tarpley had become the team's best player. Tarpley was a great blend of athleticism, scoring and rebounding.

Tarpley easily could have become a Hall of Fame player but drugs and alcohol always gripped him. He was the seventh pick in the 1986 draft out of Michigan and was named to the NBA All-Rookie team that season. The following season, 1987-88, he won the NBA Sixth Man of the Year award and led the Mavericks to the Western Conference finals, where the Mavs lost to the Los Angeles Lakers.

"He was really talented," Aguirre said. "He had talent that you could not duplicate. Nobody could do what he could do. Before I left for Detroit, Roy was becoming our best player even with me there. I could score but I could not grab 20 rebounds like he could. He was becoming incredibly valuable."

Tarpley's mentor

At Michigan, Tarpley led the Wolverines to back-to-back Big Ten titles in 1984-85 and 1985-86. He was Big Ten Player of the Year in 1985 and made third-team All-American.

Michigan recruited him from Detroit Cooley High School.

The Mavericks vowed to help him with his drug and alcohol problems shortly after the draft. That's when the team and the Tarpley family reached out to Aguirre and asked him to mentor Tarpley. Aguirre agreed to do it under one condition.

"I said, 'You have to move in with me,'" Aguirre said.

Tarpley lived with Aguirre his first two seasons in the NBA and he said Tarpley was on the straight and narrow.

Mark Aguirre is pictured playing golf at Birmingham Country Club in 2008.

"Look, I'm from the streets," said Aguirre, who grew up in Chicago. "That stuff was not going to happen. And he knew me. He knew I was not going to let that happen. And his mom knew. She knew I had him, too. He did not get into any of that stuff. No suspensions or anything like that. Hell, no. There were no suspensions or anything like that when I was there."

But after they were separated, Tarpley's world unraveled. Just six games into the 1989-90 season, he resisted arrest after being pulled over for intoxicated driving, and was suspended by the NBA. In 1991 he had two more DWI incidents and was suspended again.

The final straw came in 1995, when Tarpley was permanently banned from the NBA for violations of his aftercare program. He spent the rest of his career bouncing around minor-league teams in the United States and Europe.

"If Roy had stayed healthy, he could have been one of the top-50 players ever (in the NBA)," former teammate Brad Davis told the Dallas Morning News. "He could do it all — shoot, score, rebound, pass and defend."

Scraping by

His final stop came with the CBA's Michigan Mayhem, located in Muskegon. That's where I met Tarpley in 2006 while doing a story for The Detroit News. I met him at his apartment, where we talked for about two hours.

His goal was to show NBA teams he could play and he hoped to be reinstated.

During my visit a cable installer came to his sparsely-furnished apartment. Tarpley's credit was so bad that the cable guy said Tarpley had to pay $20 cash to get the service started.

Tarpley didn't have the money, and he was too proud to ask me for it.

I handed the $20 to the cable guy.

"I appreciate it," Tarpley said.

Tarpley will go down as a tragic figure who never reached his full potential. Aguirre can't argue with that, but he wants people to know there was another side to the guy who could never win his battle with drugs and alcohol.

"He was one of the kindest people you ever wanted to meet," Aguirre said. "We had no issues — none at all. No problems. He was a big practical joker. He was full of love and joy.

"Let me put it this way: He did not have an evil spirit in his heart. He had a great big heart. I know he did a lot of things wrong and he had some difficult issues, but he was a kindhearted person. There were a lot of people who took advantage of his kindness."