Rex Chapman is a comeback story and a Twitter feed for our time

How former NBA star Rex Chapman overcame addiction and became an internet star (5:49)

Former Kentucky star and NBA player Rex Chapman chronicles his battle against drug addiction and the growth of "Block or Charge." Watch E:60's "Being Rex Chapman" tonight at 7 ET on ESPN. (5:49)

A group of friends are running down a sidewalk through a blinding rain, desperate to get into their car and into the dryness. The guys out front, they see the stop sign up ahead and scatter accordingly to avoid it. But the dude in the back, he does not. He plows into the metal pole with such force that when his body suddenly stops moving, his feet skate atop the wet concrete and he ends up clinging to the pole for dear life, his friends laughing hysterically over his plight.

Hey, Rex Chapman, block or charge?

"Oh, that's definitely a charge. That stop sign clearly had its feet set." The 52-year-old has to push his analysis through a fit of his own laughter. Like the poor victim being replayed again and again on the smartphone in his hand, Chapman also now has his feet up in the air. He has fallen back onto the couch where he is sitting, slapping his knees with his free hand and guffawing. "Why the hell am I still laughing so hard at this?! I've already seen it like 50 times!"

That's nothing; the world into which he retweeted that video a week earlier has watched the clip 3 million times and counting, over 700,000 views from Chapman's original post and another 2 million-plus from the seemingly endless cycle of retweets. They think it's hilarious. So does Chapman. He thinks this whole damn thing is hilarious. Not just the guy smacking into the street sign but his new role as @RexChapman, the man who fills our Twitter timelines not with pandemics and politics but with pratfalls and practical jokes.

"A social media influencer. I'm not even sure what that means," Chapman says from his home in Lexington, Kentucky. "Me, an influencer? Man, I hope not."

As unlikely as that idea once might have seemed, Chapman has more than 580,000 Twitter followers. That's 10 times more than he had one year ago, a swelling of devotees that began with a tweet on Jan. 10, 2019.

Before that day, his followers were almost exclusively basketball fans who had rooted for Chapman as a Kentucky high school hoops phenom, a Kentucky Wildcats legend and a 12-season NBA player who found fame as the first-ever draft pick of the Charlotte Hornets, a player who electrified the NBA slam dunk contest and who, as a member of the Miami Heat in 1996, hung 39 points on Michael Jordan and the legendary Chicago UnbeataBulls. His prolific on-court career brought followers like Ice-T and Chuck D, and Steph Curry, who has known Chapman his entire life via father Dell, a Hornets teammate and still one of Chapman's closest friends.

But since his tweet that January day, hundreds of thousands have followed Chapman's account -- including Bootsy Collins and the Imam of Peace, Mark Hamill and Chris Pratt, state governors and international news correspondents. Most of those newbies have no clue he ever played basketball.

In Lexington, once known as "Rexington," Big Blue Nation citizens above a certain age certainly remember the 6-foot-4 former Mr. Basketball who was a pre-viral viral superstar, hiding out in his dorm room and in the gym to avoid rabid fans at age 18. They likely also remember his succession of addictions over the years, which ranged from hoops drills and swimming to betting on horses and a five-bottle-a-day diet of painkillers that damn near killed him. They might have seen his mug shot from 2014, the first item that appears from a Google search.

But the vast majority of recent arrivals to the Rex Chapman bandwagon likely aren't aware of his vaunted history on the court or his deep struggles off it.

"I was at the SEC tournament last year," he says. "I went to get my credential, and it was eight to 10 interns, just college students there helping out. I showed them my ID, and they said, 'Are you Rex Chapman, the guy from Twitter?!' I went, 'Yeah, that's me, getting my credential. Let's go.'"

The post that changed everything for Chapman was a clip of a man on a paddleboard, churning out into the ocean. A pod of dolphins can be seen just under the surface of the water, coming right at the clueless boarder. Suddenly, one of the dolphins explodes into the air to perfectly body check the man off the board and into the ocean, then rejoins its group.

"When I saw that, I said to myself, that's a f---ing charge. I tweeted it out, and people thought it was funny, and that's really it. That's all." But people have watched the clip from his post and its echoes nearly 10 million times. The accidental influencer definitely tapped into something.

"Well, I tapped into maybe arguably the worst rule in basketball," he says. "I wish they would just take it out or amend it greatly. It's a terrible rule, block or charge. I shouldn't be able to stand there and it's a foul. Come on!"

Chapman says he's always been obsessive-compulsive, and a bit of a loner. He says he was the kid who, when given a Jolly Rancher by a friend, would think, "Wait, you aren't going to give me the whole bag now?" This is the man who would stand at the free throw line in an empty gym for hours on end, resetting angrily after any miss, and the man who once ate nothing but canned turkey chili for an entire year. So having his face in his phone, compulsively scrolling through his Twitter feed? That comes all too naturally. For any of us, time spent on social media is time locked in an echo chamber. For a man with a personality like Chapman's, it increasingly felt like a torture chamber.

"Yeah, I wanted off of it. I was so tired of it," he says of Twitter. (He has never taken the Instagram plunge: "One feed is enough for me.") "It's just toxic right now, the political climate. Everything is so snarky. And I'm that guy. I want to be that guy, the smartass smart guy. So I'm not naturally happy all the time, all upbeat. People that know me will tell you that."

But he couldn't delete his account because his work as an analyst for Kentucky basketball and NBA TV demanded some sort of social media presence. The guy falling off the paddleboard helped pull him out of the Twitter tar pits; he went searching for more slapstick. He found a zoo visitor getting slapped upside the head by an elephant's trunk. He found a kid who opened a new Nerf gun and immediately shot himself in the crotch. He found a guy trying to drive a four-wheeler down a flight of stairs and ending up on his head. He found another on a rope swing who tried to be Tarzan but ended up centering a tree with his face like Daffy Duck's Robin Hood.

He loved them all. So did everyone else.

"It started picking up so much steam, I had to kind of put some ground rules out there. I asked people, 'I think this dude breaks his arm. Is that OK to post?' But now there are really only two rules. One, it has to make me laugh. Two, no death. It's a little twisted that I even have to explain that no-death thing to people, but I do."

In the beginning, it wasn't all comedy all the time. He says it happened a little at a time but then took over nearly completely. "I have strong opinions about certain things, but I realized at some point that there are a lot smarter people out there than me commenting on that stuff, really. People with political science degrees and politicians and doctors and lawyers. All the stuff that I think I have a strong opinion about doesn't matter. They don't want to hear that from me."

They want laughs. But they also want to feel good. That's the sneaky best part of the Rex Chapman feed. For every tickle of the funny bone, there are also punches right to the heart. Set to his trademark lines of "Dogs, bruh" and "This is the Twitter content I'm here for," there are scores of canines making babies giggle and dozens of clips to restore our faith in humanity, from the kid who visits a nursing home to hand out free hugs to the high school senior with Down syndrome scoring points on senior night.

"I just think that everybody likes good things. Everybody likes dogs, everybody likes to feel good and believe the best in people. I think right now, if it's providing anything, it's just a little laugh during the day, just to remind yourself that we all just have thoughts in our heads out here. We think, we write and we're all people just trying to get along out here. So let's laugh a little bit."

Chapman spoke those words in an interview on March 3. Ten days later, the COVID-19 pandemic canceled the SEC tournament, then the NCAA tournament, then seemingly everything everywhere for an undetermined amount of time. Chapman's Twitter feed changed a little to adjust to that new world, with videos that informed about the coronavirus threat (an animated matchstick cartoon demonstrating the benefit of social distancing), provided social distancing laughs (a guy in a coffee shop using a makeshift face mask of a Puma sneaker strapped around his head) and showcased feel-good stories amid shelter-in-place chaos (Spanish police enforcing lockdown through entertainment).

This week, he used his ever-expanding platform to promote a fundraising campaign to help those economically affected by the pandemic. On March 22, after thanking his followers for his "fun and awesome and cool" Twitter experience, he announced the Rex Chapman COVID-19 Relief Fund, explaining that his already-established charitable foundation was teaming up with the Bluegrass Community Foundation to raise funds to help people around the nation as they try to cope with coronavirus-related financial hardship. After three days, it had raised more than $150,000.

Before the virus crisis, when Chapman was asked whether he had been approached by corporations with sponsorship opportunities, ร  la Kardashian product placement, he rolled his eyes and said that wasn't really his style. He even joked about his newfound power, that he was going to start his own Jonestown cult but only "if I decided to apply myself, but I think we both know I'm not going to apply myself."

But now, he is. And he hopes that his followers will, well, follow.

"I think this group of people I have gathered, these are people who are looking for some good in the world," Chapman said from his home the night after announcing his initiative. "So it would only seem natural that they would also want to do some good in the world, right? It wasn't so long ago that I was sleeping in my car. If it hadn't been for the kindness of other people, willing to help me, I don't know where I would be. I might be in the ground. So let's make the most of a terrible situation and let's show some of that same kindness."

His already-established charity is the Rex Chapman Foundation, formed to support the fight against opioid addiction. That's a fight he knows entirely too much about. Despite an injury-marred NBA career that resulted in 10 surgeries, including seven over his final three seasons, he rarely allowed doctors to prescribe pain medication. "I wanted to know how the injury felt because then I would also know when it was feeling better," he says. But as his career was ending, he had an emergency appendectomy. Doctors prescribed him OxyContin.

"After two days, I was in love. I had never felt that good," he says. "I was at ease in social situations. I was having a good time all the time. Really, for the first time ever. But it was all a damn lie. Pretty soon I was taking 50 pills a day. Just crushing up bottles of it, keeping it hidden under my mattress at night. When I woke up needing it, I would throw down that bottle and the powder would get into my system quicker. My wife didn't know. My four kids didn't know. And that led to all of that falling apart."

In the years after his playing days, Chapman made two unsuccessful trips to rehab. He slept on the couches of friends. He did indeed live out of his car. He lost touch with everyone back home in Kentucky. He'd held various NBA front-office jobs and in 2013-14 had settled into a new role as a TV analyst for Grand Canyon University. Then, in the fall of 2014, he was arrested near his home in Scottsdale, Arizona, after stealing merchandise from an Apple store and trying to pawn it for money that he says was to pay off gambling debts. He says that he can't remember it, his mind in a fog from his addiction, and that he still has never brought himself to look at the surveillance video from the store. Less than two weeks later, he went into rehab again. This time it was back in Kentucky, admitted to Louisville's Brook Hospital, run by former Wildcats teammate Paul Andrews.

Five years on, Chapman says he's clean and drug free. He has worked hard to rebuild connections with his ex-wife and four children, one of whom lives with him in Lexington. A big part of his new lease on life has come through his rebuilt connection with an outside world that seemed to have given up on King Rex when he became the guy in that Googled mug shot -- a connection built through @RexChapman.

"I think he is a messenger that there is life after opioid addiction, that there can be good times and that you can be successful," says David Helmers, Chapman's best friend since third grade. Now they co-host "Block or Charge," a show inspired by Chapman's Twitter account that streams on AdultSwim.com.

"And I don't mean have an NBA contract," Helmers continues. "This is a state that was ravaged by opioids. This is a state that has a long history in Appalachia, in eastern Kentucky, particularly, of drug addiction and dependency. And now there's an affliction that literally affects everyone in the world. We've never needed a laugh or a warm feeling more than we do right now. Rex was the one who needed a reason to smile, and I think this had a big part in saving his life. Now we all need a reason to smile, and he's helping us deal with all of our lives."

Chapman rolls his eyes at such talk. But you get the sense that he is well aware of what he's doing. He doesn't have market research or deployed algorithms or concern over best "peak social hours" or a team of social media experts searching the globe for the best material. He's just a retired basketball legend with a drafts folder overstuffed with tweets that he'll unleash whenever he feels like it.

"Look at this, it's ridiculous," he says, scrolling through the responses to his latest post. One is from comedian Tommy Chong. Another is from singer Richard Marx. He just got a follow from lawyer and author Preet Bharara. Chapman can't even remember what it was that he posted, though it has 3.5 million impressions in six hours. He goes back and looks. Oh yeah, it's a government official warning Americans not to put their hands on their faces or in their mouths to help stop the spread of coronavirus. She then licks her finger to turn to the next page of her speech.

"We're bringing people together, man. One stupid video at a time."