LANDOVER -- The weight of great expectations can be a big burden for a gifted, young athlete.
No one knows this better than Rex Chapman, whom the Washington Bullets acquired Wednesday from the Charlotte Hornets for forward Tom Hammonds.
Yesterday the acrobatic fourth-year shooting guard seemed relieved to have been traded to a major metropolis.
"When I played two years at the University of Kentucky in Lexington, all anyone cared about was Wildcats basketball," Chapman said. "And it's the same thing with the Hornets in Charlotte -- the only game in town. I always wanted to play in a major city like New York, Los Angeles or Washington where sports fans have more choices."
And, perhaps, more realistic goals for a young professional who has been labeled a basketball prodigy since being selected a consensus prep All-American at Apollo High in Owensboro, Ky. Deemed a natural state resource, he gravitated to UK where his No. 3 jersey remains the best seller in the gift shop.
When "Rex, the Boy King" opted to turn pro after his sophomore season, he already was being compared to NBA legend Jerry West.
As Marty Blake, head of the NBA scouting bureau, noted before the 1988 draft, "If I had $100 for every 'next Jerry West' I've seen, I'd have retired long ago. I think Chapman will do just fine in the NBA if he becomes another Danny Ainge."
But the expansion Hornets wanted much more than "another Ainge" when they made the 20-year-old Chapman their first draft choice, and the eighth pick overall. They rated the flamboyant guard a superior player and area drawing card than 6-foot-11 center Rony Seikaly of Syracuse, who was the next player chosen by the Miami Heat.
"People don't realize that the first NBA game I ever saw was the first one I played in with the Hornets in 1988," said Chapman, who became an instant starter.
"I had to learn what the NBA was all about. I quickly discovered that almost everyone in the league was quicker, stronger and more talented than guys I played against in college.
"I took a lot of lumps and played horribly the first 20 games before I started feeling comfortable. But I believe I played solid basketball my last 2 1/2 years in Charlotte."
Even though he has missed the last 31 games while nursing a painful heel injury, Chapman ranks as the all-time Hornets scorer (3,574), averaging 16.3 points.
Still, rumors of trades to San Antonio, Boston and Atlanta surfaced early last summer before Chapman signed a four-year contract extension worth $8 million. "This should squelch any talk about us trading Rex," said coach Allan Bristow. "Rex is going to be here a long time."
"That was like the kiss of death," Chapman joked yesterday.
Team management began to view Chapman in a different light as Kendall Gill and Dell Curry proved attractive alternatives at shooting guard, and when his heel acted up, his Hornets days were numbered.
Through his agent, David Falk, of Pro-Serv in Arlington, Va., Chapman informed the Hornets he would prefer a change in scenery.
"I'd gone through a lot of chaotic changes -- three head coaches and front-office coups," Chapman said. "I really thought I needed a change of atmosphere."
Falk's first stop was in Washington, where general manager John Nash has been a Chapman booster since his 76ers days.
"We talked to three or four teams about Rex," said Falk, "but the Bullets were a perfect fit as far as the salary cap was concerned.
"Rex is four years older than when he joined the league, and a lot more mature," Falk added. "I think [Bullets coach] Wes Unseld will ring out his full potential as a player."
Unseld and the Bullets will have to wait at least several weeks before auditioning their new guard. Chapman had his sore foot examined by team physician Steve Haas yesterday and will undergo more tests today.
"I'd like to be able to play in two weeks time, but right now the heel is still hurting," Chapman said.
Said Nash: "The worse case scenario is that Rex won't be able to play the rest of the season. But we made this trade with an eye to the future."