Chapman: Racial Taboos Affected Stay At Kentucky

By Michael Smith
Updated: May 17, 2005

Rex Chapman

LEXINGTON, Ky. — He was “King Rex” on the basketball court at the University of Kentucky, cheered by a multitude of fans who adored his scissor-kick jump shot and high-flying romps to the basket.

Off the court, Rex Chapman was told by UK athletic officials to lead a lifestyle that didn’t agree with his own beliefs, he told The Courier-Journal yesterday.

With all of the attention for his basketball exploits at UK came an unwelcome scrutiny of his private life, which included interracial dating.

On the court, he was the “Great White Hope,” he said, but off it his dates with African-American women created a stir among UK athletic officials and others.

“I went down to my car one morning and somebody had keyed ‘nigger lover’ into the door,” Chapman said. “It’s the climate of how things were. People were bothered by the fact that sometimes I dated black girls. Most preferred that I keep it confidential and hide it.”

Chapman, 37, now the director of basketball operations for the Phoenix Suns, drew attention last week during a TNT telecast for saying race might have played a role in voting for the National Basketball Association’s MVP award.

Suns guard Steve Nash, who is white, won the award by a narrow margin over Miami’s Shaquille O’Neal, who is black.

Later in the week, in an interview with Jason Whitlock for a story on, Chapman talked openly about the role of race in the MVP voting and the intense scrutiny on his dating habits at UK.

Reached Monday by The Courier-Journal, Chapman said the racial climate and his treatment by UK athletic officials, boosters and others played a large role in his decision to enter the NBA draft in 1988 after leading the Wildcats in scoring his freshman and sophomore seasons.

“It was a big deal to me,” he said. “I was being asked to lead a lifestyle that was absolutely wrong, simply for the fact that some people didn’t like that I dated somebody of a different race. I mean, what is that? Is that America?

“I won’t name names, but I can think of at least a half-dozen times or more that somebody with the university asked that it stop or to be sure that it was kept inconspicuous. At the time I just nodded my head and said the things they wanted to hear because I was 18, 19 years old and an older person was telling me to do something. To me, that was just wrong.”

Oklahoma State coach Eddie Sutton, who was UK’s coach when Chapman played, declined comment yesterday through a spokesman. Larry Ivy, an athletic administrator during Chapman’s time at UK and later the school’s athletic director, said he had no memory of anyone asking Chapman to stop dating African-American women.

Creating a stir

Former UK star Kenny Walker, one of Chapman’s best friends, said he has heard Chapman’s stories about racism for years.

“I understand the pressures he went through and the decision he made to leave when he did,” Walker said. “I’ve known him long enough to know that he’s speaking the truth.

“… Now I never had anybody specifically tell me not to date white girls, but maybe that’s because a black guy and a white girl is more acceptable. Rex dealt with it in reverse, and that put a different spin on it for him.”

Chapman now is married with four children. His wife, Bridget, is white. He said he had no agenda for talking about racial issues he encountered at UK. It’s just that this is the first time he’s been asked about it.

He said that he has been barraged with interview requests after the story appeared on and that no one from the Suns or the NBA has discouraged him from talking about race.

“I don’t have an ax to grind,” Chapman said. “I love the University of Kentucky. I bleed blue. Hey, Steve Nash is my best friend. I look at him like a little brother, and he deserved the MVP award.

“But it’s asinine not to think that some people voted for Steve because he’s white and some people voted for Shaq because he’s black. I don’t think it was enough to influence the outcome, but at the same time, there’s this elephant in the room and nothing is ever going to change unless we talk about it.”

Part-time fans

Chapman said he saw the effects of racism growing up in Owensboro, Ky., and later in Lexington and Charlotte, N.C., where his pro career began with the Hornets in 1988.

Most of his friends as a child were African-American, he said, and his best friends at UK — Ed Davender and James Blackmon — were African-American. He said they, too, were discouraged from interracial dating.

“I can think of at least three times that we were invited to dinner at the home of a friend of the university,” Chapman said. “Lo and behold, one of my teammates has an interest in that person’s daughter or the daughter has an interest in the teammate and when the family found out, they raised hell. They called the coaches, the AD; they stopped being involved with the program. It was crazy.

“They liked the players enough to cheer for them at games, but they didn’t like the players enough to let them date their daughters.”

On one hand, Chapman said he was the object of adulation from fans and students. Lexington was referred to as Rexington. A group of students staged a campaign to elect Chapman as president of the Student Government Association. Women wore T-shirts that read, “I love Rex.”

At the same time, vandals scarred his car, Chapman was the subject of obscene jokes and somebody who didn’t appreciate his interracial dating called his mother in the middle of the night, he said.

“It wasn’t normal,” Chapman said. “It made me uncomfortable. At one point there was a rumor that I was sneaking around with James Blackmon’s black girlfriend and Ed Davender’s sister. Well, Ed didn’t have a sister, and James was dating a white girl. Rumors were flying around everywhere.

“There were certain aspects of my time there that were really ugly. I don’t know how it is today, but that’s how it was 20 years ago.”

He’s seen it before

Chapman said hardly any aspect of his life in or out of basketball has been untouched by race.

As far back as the seventh grade, when his AAU team finished third in a national tournament, he remembers hearing everyone from white sportswriters to relatives tell him how happy they were that he competed on the same level and flourished in a game dominated by African-American players.

Kentucky’s Mr. Basketball award also is tainted by racism in the voting, he said, because white players often receive preferential treatment over African-Americans.

Comparisons among current and former stars often are based on race, which is unfair, he said.

“Every white kid who goes to UK is the next Rex Chapman,” he said. “Why can’t they be the next Derek Anderson or the next James Blackmon? It’s unfair.

“I grew up in Kentucky, so I was somewhat prepared for the racism that existed. But if I had come from another state, I probably would have been a mental patient after two years.”