Melvin Turpin, a talented and popular University of Kentucky basketball player whose promising professional career never quite lived up to its potential, apparently took his own life Thursday at his Lexington home. He was 49.
Fayette County Coroner Gary Ginn confirmed that Turpin, a 6-foot-11 center who played at UK in the early 1980s, apparently committed suicide.
Ginn, however, would not say how Turpin took his life or whether he left a note.
News of Turpin's death left many family members and friends in shock Thursday evening. Former teammates remembered Turpin's gentle spirit and big heart. If Turpin had problems, no one appeared to be aware of them.
The coroner said Turpin lived at the home in Masterson Station with his wife, Kerry, who was away for medical treatment.
According to Ginn, Turpin was discovered by a family friend who regularly checked on Turpin and his wife. Police responded to the call at 4:36 p.m.
Turpin's niece, Rosalind Turpin, refused to believe her uncle had taken his own life.
"He seemed ... everything was fine," she said.
Turpin's sister, Margaret Burrus, said she didn't know if Turpin had been depressed, and wasn't aware of any personal problems. She said she had not talked with him recently, but said he always seemed like a happy person.
According to Burrus, Kerry Turpin had been struggling with heart problems, and recently had undergone multiple surgeries. Friends said Melvin Turpin had been diagnosed with diabetes, but seemed to be managing the disease.
"He'll be missed," Burrus said. "He was the baby." Turpin had five siblings.
She said he'll be remembered most for his prowess on the court.
"Slam dunks," she said, fighting tears but managing to chuckle. "And that Tennessee game," a reference to his career-best 42 point night.
A gentle giant
Reached by telephone Thursday, former UK basketball coach Joe B. Hall, who coached Turpin from 1981 to 1985, said he ran into Turpin three weeks ago at a pancake restaurant.
"He was outgoing and feeling great and looking great; he was his jovial self," Hall recalled. "It's hard for me to realize that this has happened. We loved each other. He was one of my boys. It hurts very deeply to hear this. He was a young man that everyone liked and everyone liked being around."
Hall said Turpin had been working as a security guard and "seemed to enjoy his work."
Former UK teammate Kenny Walker said Turpin was "an outstanding basketball player. But he was a beautiful spirit."
Walker said that Turpin had been diagnosed with diabetes a few years ago, but seemed to be managing the disease well.
"Melvin was always a lovable giant," Walker said. "A guy that always had a smile on his face. Everybody who played with him absolutely adored him."
Turpin and Sam Bowie were dubbed the "Twin Towers." They grew close, playing the same positions and running the same drills.
"Melvin Turpin's name will forever be alongside of mine," Bowie said Thursday, "I'll be forever thankful for the contributions he made to make my game look better. There's no way I would have been the second pick in the NBA draft if it wasn't for Melvin Turpin. There's no way I'd be in the position I'm in today if it wasn't for Melvin Turpin's self-sacrifice for the betterment of Sam Bowie."
"Let the commonwealth know they lost a good human," Bowie said. "We were more than just teammates."
Both UK basketball coach John Calipari and UK Athletics Director Mitch Barnhart issued statements expressing sadness at Turpin's death.
"I want to express my deepest sympathy to all of Melvin Turpin's family and friends," Calipari said. "I also pray for their strength during this time of grief."
"We are deeply saddened by the passing of Melvin Turpin," Barnhart said. "Our hearts and prayers are with his family and friends as they mourn their loss. The University of Kentucky and the Big Blue Nation will forever remember Melvin and all his contributions to our basketball program."
Leroy Byrd III, a former teammate of Turpin's at Bryan Station High School and UK, said he saw Turpin five or six months ago while Byrd was waiting for food at a barbeque restaurant. Turpin was with his wife and asked her to take a picture of him and Byrd.
"It's a gut-wrenching feeling," Byrd said. "It's a major loss."
Byrd described Turpin as a "gentle giant" who loved to joke around.
"He'll truly be missed," he said.
Flashes of brilliance
Ginn said Turpin was employed by UK on the security staff at the university hospital.
Turpin, a Lexington native, was an all-state player at Bryan Station High School. The big man played a year at Fork Union prep school in Virginia before heading to UK, where he played center from 1980-81 to 1983-84.
Turpin was not an instant basketball star. He didn't go out for the Bryan Station team until his sophomore year, then quit or was cut from the team within two weeks. His coach, Bob Barlow, said he lacked discipline and maturity.
But during his junior year Turpin grew to 6-foot-9, played with more confidence, and made the Lexington All City team. A year later, he was 6-foot-11 and starting to get national attention, despite having played only two years of organized ball. In 1980, Street & Smith's, the basketball publication, put Turpin at the top of its list of the leading college prospects in the country. Schools like UCLA, North Carolina and Louisville tried to recruit Turpin, but he picked UK.
At UK, Turpin's skill and easygoing manner made him a favorite with fans. He showed flashes of astonishing talent and, at times, a steely toughness. In January 1983, with UK losing to Tennessee in Knoxville, Turpin poured in 42 points, a brilliant individual performance and the one bright spot in the game for Kentucky.
During his career, he recorded three of the best six single-season shooting percentages in UK history. His best — 61.7 percent in 1982-83, ranks third all time.
But there also were games when Turpin was badly outplayed by Auburn's smaller and less experienced Charles Barkley. Sportswriters said Barkley played "mind games" with the UK center. Turpin also played in two of UK's most painful losses: the defeat by the University of Louisville in the 1983 NCAA Tournament, and the Cats' devastating loss to Georgetown in the 1984 Final Four, when they shot 9.1 percent in the second half.
Turpin's struggles with his weight began at UK. One widely reported story was that Hall once assigned a student manager to keep Turpin away from fast food.
Turpin was drafted sixth in the 1984 NBA Draft — the same draft in which Hakeem Olajuwon, Bowie and Michael Jordan were selected — by the Washington Bullets. He was immediately traded to Cleveland.
He showed signs of promise in his first year, but his career was undone by his inability to control his eating and weight. By 1987 his coaches were complaining about his weight, and some TV commentators started calling him "Dinner Bell Mel."
Cleveland traded Turpin to Utah, which later traded him to a Spanish team in exchange for Jose Ortiz. Turpin's professional career then faded away.
Turpin acknowledged his struggles during an interview in 2003, when he weighed 395 pounds.
"I can still shoot," he said, "but I don't know about dunking. I'm heavier."
"I've got no one following me around anymore," he added with a laugh. "I miss that."
In a Herald-Leader article in 2004, Turpin said he had two sons, Kiel and A.J., and a daughter, Melissa.
Turpin's son, Kiel, was a freshman basketball player last season at Lincoln College (Ill.). The 7-footer helped lead Lincoln to a junior-college Division II championship and received interest from several major college programs, including Kentucky. He said he wants to join a Division I school before this coming season, but he has not yet picked a school.
Herald-Leader reporter Shawntaye Hopkins contributed to this story.