UK Men's Basketball

Family, friends remember 'Big Dipper's' big heart

Former University of Kentucky player Winston Bennett, left, and former coach Joe B. Hall talked to the media after the visitation Monday evening for former UK star Melvin Turpin.
Former University of Kentucky player Winston Bennett, left, and former coach Joe B. Hall talked to the media after the visitation Monday evening for former UK star Melvin Turpin. HERALD-LEADER

Coaches, teammates, family and friends of former University of Kentucky basketball star Melvin Turpin remembered him Monday as a carefree man with a warm and friendly disposition.

"Melvin, he'll forever be known in my mind as a happy-go-lucky guy," former teammate Sam Bowie said at a visitation for Turpin, 49, at Kerr Brothers Funeral Home on Harrodsburg Road. "He didn't get jammed up about anything. Melvin Turpin never showed stress."

That's why Bowie said Turpin's death at his home in Masterson Station on Thursday came as such a surprise.

"It was shocking," Bowie said. "It's easy to get down ... and try and say 'why?' "

Fayette County Coroner Gary Ginn said Monday that evidence made it apparent Turpin took his own life.

Ginn said the coroner's office and the Lexington Division of Police investigated the death.

"We've both come up with conclusive evidence that this was a suicide," he said.

Friends and family had raised questions about whether Turpin's death was a suicide, saying he was happy and did not seem to be having financial trouble.

Turpin's wife, Kerry, recently had a stroke. A spokeswoman for Cardinal Hill Rehabilitation Hospital verified Kerry Turpin was a patient at the facility but declined to comment on her condition.

Ginn said further comment would come from Turpin's family.

At Monday's visitation, a metal urn sat at the front of the funeral chapel, flanked by a portrait of Turpin in his UK uniform and a heart-shaped arrangement of roses. Footage of Turpin's collegiate basketball career played on two television screens.

(A funeral service is scheduled but not open to the public.)

Former UK Coach Joe B. Hall said his best memories of Turpin were the times after his college career when the two men would run into each other.

"It always started with a hug and a big smile," Hall said. "He was just such an outgoing, good-natured friend to everybody who knew him. He was a ray of sunshine in your life. ...It superseded the respect I had for him as a player."

But Hall and others said they had plenty of respect for the 6-foot-11 center known from his high school days as "Big Dipper."

"Melvin Turpin shot the ball better than any of us," Bowie said. "He should've got much more credit than the commonwealth realizes."

A Lexington native, Turpin played for UK in the early 1980s. He was picked sixth in the 1984 NBA Draft by the Washington Bullets and immediately traded to Cleveland. Turpin later played professional basketball for Utah and Washington before his pro career ended after five seasons.

"It's a shame that something like this has to happen for us to recall his legacy," said former teammate Winston Bennett, now head coach at Mid-Continent University in Western Kentucky. "It's the smile that he wore on his face, his zest for life, his passion for playing ... his passion for people."

P.G. Peeples, president and CEO of the Urban League of Lexington-Fayette County, was Turpin's teacher for one semester at Douglass Elementary School.

"He was tall then," Peeples recalled. "Quiet demeanor ... he was just a good kid."

Mike Ballenger, who played for one season at UK, said he hadn't seen or spoken with Turpin since their college days. He still drove from Columbus, Ohio, to pay tribute to the man who "never met a stranger" and "never complained about anything."

"He had a great laugh," Ballenger said. "You remembered it."

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