When thinking about a player who might be defined as bold, fearless or daring, the first Wildcat to come to the minds of many in the Big Blue Nation is Rex Chapman. Rex Chapman is mostly remembered for his heroics against the Louisville Cardinals, but in two short years at Kentucky, Chapman made his mark on the record books at UK as well as the hearts and minds of the Louisville faithful, who still speak his name with a bit of awe.
Chapman was a part of only two Kentucky teams, 1986 and 1987, during a time when the Wildcats were rebuilding from the highly successful Kenny Walker era. In 1985-86, the Wildcats fell just short of a Final Four, losing in the regional final to LSU at the Omni in Atlanta in a game that was lost primarily due to poor Kentucky free throw shooting (56%) and a defensive breakdown at the end of the game that allowed LSU to score with the clock running down.
When King Rex came to Lexington in 1986, it was to a team without a true star and lacking offensive punch. Winston Bennett, who would have been the leading returning scorer, had suffered a knee injury and was redshirting to rehabilitate, so Ed Davender was the only double-figure scorer returning from the 1985-86 team. Chapman was able to immediately step in as a freshman and provide the scoring that the 1896-87 team so desperately needed, and he did it in style.
When Chapman came to UK, he was already a known commodity around the Bluegrass as Mr. Basketball from Owensboro Apollo. Kentucky won a bitter recruiting war for Chapman's services over Denny Crum and the Louisville Cardinals that captivated partisans of both teams for months.
Chapman had grown up a fan of Louisville, particularly "Dr. Dunkenstein" Darrell Griffith who starred on the Louisville teams of the late 1970's and early 1980's, leading Louisville to an NCAA Tournament championship his senior year in 1980. Like Griffith, Chapman had a remarkable vertical leap and played above the rim, but unlike Griffith until his professional days with the Utah Jazz, Chapman was also a prolific perimeter scorer.
King Rex was an immediate hit among the Big Blue faithful. Obviously, Wildcat fans were delirious with joy that Chapman picked UK over the detested Cardinals, and would have cheered lustily for Chapman if he had only played 15 minutes a game and averaged 10 points. But that pedestrian "growing up" career path was not whatsoever to the interests of the flamboyant and fearless Chapman.
Chapman's first truly memorable game came against against a major Kentucky rival, the Indiana Hoosiers. In only his third game as a Wildcat, Chapman and Indiana senior Steve Alford electrified the Assembly Hall crowd in Bloomington by scoring 26 points apiece in mirror-image games. Former IU coach Bob Knight's thrid-ranked Hoosiers won that game, but it represented the coming-out party of the dynamic, charismatic player that would be Chapman for the next two years.
Four games later at Freedom Hall in Louisville, Chapman put his indelible stamp on Kentucky basketball and forced all of America to take notice. Against the defending 1986 NCAA Tournament champion Louisville Cardinals, King Rex became known as the "Pete Maravich of Kentucky" after a dominant, 26-point performance which saw Chapman dunk, dish, and shoot his way into Bluegrass immortality on the way to an 85-51 Kentucky emasculation of Louisville -- the worst defeat in Denny Crum's long and storied career.
Chapman even tried to dunk over Pervis Ellison, the 1986 NCAA Tournament's Most Outstanding Player. It was blocked, but he did posterize Cardinal forward and current UK assistant Kenny Payne later in the game. Chapman and fear were total strangers.
Perhaps no play better described his surpassing skill than a one in which Chapman took the ball to the foul line against two taller Cardinal players, rose up between them,and scored effortlessly. The defeat of Louisville that memorable day was so utter and final that Chapman actually felt bad about it:
"I'm not going to lie, I felt bad after that game," Chapman said. "I'd known Coach Crum and those guys for years, and I felt a little bit like a turncoat. I got over it real quick."
Here is a video of some of the great plays by Chapman in his legendary tour-de-force. Note in particular the Maravich-esque left-handed bounce pass to James Blackmon at the 1:40 mark:
Chapman went on to many more glorious games, but none more glorious than that afternoon in Louisville where he took apart his former favorite team. It was the game that created his legend, a legend that still lives on in Kentucky. Those of us around at the time remember the days of "Rex-ington," and even though his last year at Kentucky marked the advent of the disastrous scandal that ended Eddie Sutton's career in Lexington and let to NCAA sanctions, those two years were full of charismatic, bold, and exciting basketball from a young man who will forever be remembered as King Rex, monarch of the Bluegrass.
His reign will never be forgotten.