Op-Ed

Magic ends for athletes but not fans

Former Wildcat Melvin Turpin showed off his new Cleveland Cavalier jersey after being chosen in the first round of the 1984 NBA draft.
Former Wildcat Melvin Turpin showed off his new Cleveland Cavalier jersey after being chosen in the first round of the 1984 NBA draft.

I don't know why Melvin Turpin killed himself. No one really does. Suicide is never that simple.

I do think I understand why so many people were both stunned and moved on learning that his death was self-inflicted.

Turpin represented a cherished ideal. A young man from a large family, he didn't even play basketball until his junior year in high school. He went on to play extremely well on a very successful team at his hometown university, one of the great college basketball powerhouses of all time.

Over and over since his death, we've heard that he was the kind of kid people liked. "He was just a good kid," "a happy-go-lucky guy," "he never met a stranger." His ex-wife said he "had a giant heart." As a player he earned affectionate nicknames, he was one of the "Twin Towers" with teammate Sam Bowie; he was "the Big Dipper." He seemed to live with a smile on his face.

And isn't that what we sports fans always want to see? A natural talent, an easy-going, unassuming person, no hint of nasty drive or naked ambition or even calculation.

This isn't unique to sports. I covered Wal-Mart in its early years when Sam Walton was still alive and running the show. People loved "Mr. Sam," driving his battered pick-up truck, pinching pennies, being an ordinary guy. Politicians, famous actors, even lottery winners — we crave the stories about how they are somehow not touched by the complications that plague the rest of us.

What's unique about sports is that this adoration and expectation is applied to very young people whose spectacular careers may end about the time the rest of their generation is getting started.

Of course, it never ends for the fans. The players are ever young. We adore these people of 19 or 20 or 21. "One and done" has pushed the cycle into warp speed. Each year a new crop of youthful sensations takes the court to entertain us anew.

With few exceptions, former players, old at 30, are invoked only in comparison to the new ones, if then.

In the introduction to Killings, a collection of essays on unexpected deaths, New Yorker writer Calvin Trillin said he chose his topic because, "when someone dies suddenly shades are drawn up."

Melvin Turpin's surprising suicide made us see what happened to at least one player after the cameras turned away.

He was the No. 6 pick in the 1984 NBA draft and earned, according to Basketball Reference.com, $450,000 in 1985-86 and $1 million the next season. When he died he was working as a security guard at UK.

His pro career fizzled as his weight ballooned. "Dinner Bell Mel" was the nickname he earned in that era.

His first wife, Lisa Nichols, said he struggled after his days on the court came to an end. It's a "huge adjustment," she said, to go from "being a star to being a regular person." He never had a relationship with their three children, she said.

Nichols referred to "issues" Turpin had. Jim Master told the Herald-Leader's John Clay that his teammate was "a good guy who never did anyone harm, and you just always hoped he had good guidance. "I think people at UK tried, with his academics, and to make him be a better person and to grow up the right way."

But perhaps he wasn't prepared for life outside the confines of Big Blue Nation. "When you get to the pros, other things can happen there," Master said.

This isn't a shot at ladling guilt upon Turpin's coaches, family or teammates. Anyone who has ever been close to a suicide — and I have — knows the living are left staring down a long, dark hallway lined with guilt, confusion, what-ifs and heartbreak. They will walk it and, I hope, come out into some sort of light at the end, but likely with very few answers.

This is really for the rest of us, the public who loved John Wall's smile and his dance, who posed next to the Big Cuz posters, who reveled in the stories about their brilliant play and lively antics and those of their teammates.

And are ready to do it again with the next group of brilliant young men.

Anyone who has ever been on the inside of a news organization seriously covering big-time college sports knows how violently fans object to stories that present the players and their entourages as existing for any reason other than pure love of the game. Don't expect fan mail if you write about academic shortcomings, recruiting violations, sexual misconduct, legal dust-ups, greedy or otherwise unsavory hangers-on or the economics of this so-called amateur sport.

We cover our eyes and ears to preserve our fantasies; don't give us real people with real, flawed lives.

For us the players are always magical. But eventually each of them has to move on to a life outside the glow of adoration, without powerful people to fix problems, where there's no thundering applause when you walk into work. For some individuals it may simply be too hard. Leading a life shrouded by our fantasies may make it unbearably hard to adjust to the real world.

Melvin Turpin's suicide parted the shades. We have an obligation to look through them and pay attention to what we see.

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