John Clay

Teammates remember Turpin as sweet man with sweet shot

Fans and teammates remember Turpin as a big threat to score when he got the ball near the basket.
Fans and teammates remember Turpin as a big threat to score when he got the ball near the basket. Lexington Herald-Leader

It's not fitting that Melvin Turpin, the lovable teddy bear with the big smile, could leave those who knew him so sad, and at such a loss.

"I've heard talk about money or that he lost his dream," Tom Heitz, his former teammate, said Friday. "Melvin wasn't money-driven, or fame-driven. That wasn't Melvin."

Melvin Turpin, the former Kentucky basketball star who took his life Thursday at age 49, was the gentle giant with the comic "Dinner Bell Mel" nickname. He was the man with the sweet shot and sweeter disposition, whose life, much like his basketball career, ended prematurely, unfulfilled.

"He was a good guy who never did anyone harm, and you just always hoped he had good guidance," Jim Master, Turpin's teammate at Kentucky from 1981-84, said Friday. "I think people at UK tried, with his academics, and to make him be a better person and to grow up the right way. When you get to the pros, other things can happen there."

In his hometown of Lexington, both at Bryan Station High School and then UK, Melvin Turpin was a beloved soul, one with a knack for putting the ball in the basket.

"He was a scoring machine," Master said. "He was one of the best scoring centers I've ever seen."

"Everybody knew what a great shooter he was," Dicky Beal, then UK's point guard, said Friday. " But people didn't realize how nimble he was for a guy his size. He could really get up and down the floor. And he had great hands. In the post, or on the break, you could throw him the lob, and he'd get it. And when he got it, it was over."

"When he came in, Melvin was a project," said Heitz. "But with Coach (Joe) Hall and his system, and the family at UK, he was nurtured and brought along. I got to see him grow, literally, from a 200-pound freshman into a 300-pound great player."

Yes, in Turpin's case, points were accompanied by pounds.

"He came in skinny, and left fat," Master said. "His ability was great, and his work ethic was suspect. His eating habits were legendary, and all true."

As humorous as those habits seemed in college — campus lore included tales of student managers sneaking McDonald's cheeseburgers through the open windows of Turpin's room at Wildcat Lodge — they did not go over as well with clubs that pay for play.

Turpin was the No. 6 pick in the 1984 NBA Draft, but he was quickly dealt to the Cleveland Cavaliers, whose coach, George Karl, did not look kindly on his rookie center's lack of focus.

"After being traded to the Cavs in a draft-day deal, he signed a three-year, $1 million contract," Burt Graeff, who covered the Cavs for the Cleveland Plain Dealer, recalled in an e-mail Friday. "He paid $90,000 in fines for not making weight in his first season with the Cavs. It reached a point where he did not go near the scale — he just paid the fines."

In fact, in 1985 a pair of Kentucky sportswriters made their way to Boston Garden to see Turpin's Cavaliers play the Celtics, only to witness 48 minutes of Turpin never leaving the bench. Afterward, Karl blasted Turpin's work ethic. Turpin blasted Karl back.

After starting 69 games in his second year in the league, Turpin started just one of 143 games the next two seasons, during the latter of which he had been traded to the Utah Jazz.

The story goes that when traded, Turpin told the Salt Lake City writers he weighed 265 pounds. The next day, the center arrived in Utah weighing 282.

"I like airplane food," Turpin said.

Jazz Coach Frank Layden, no tiny tot himself, often joked about Turpin's girth, especially when Utah acquired Darryl "Chocolate Thunder" Dawkins, a 7-footer with an expanding waistline.

"They give us a lot of balance on the bench," Layden once said. "I was tilting the bench one way. If we keep one in the middle, one at the end, and one in the game, our bench won't fall apart."

The Jazz traded Turpin to a team from Spain in 1988, though Melvin never made it to Europe. He was waived, and sat out the 1988-89 campaign.

He signed and played with the Washington Bullets in 1989-90, but he retired after just five seasons in the NBA when he failed to make his required weight, despite the fact coach Wes Unseld had afforded Turpin a personal trainer and nutritionist.

Graeff said that in a recent poll on the all-time characters in the 40-year history of the Cavaliers, Turpin came in No. 6.

"He was a very nice man, who was a complete underachiever," Graeff said.

"It's all just speculation, of course," Master said, "but if he'd taken care of himself, he probably could have played 10-12 years in the NBA."

If he had regrets, Turpin rarely let on. He kept ties with his former college teammates, before and after he returned to Lexington. Heitz said that Melvin was a dedicated Facebook friend, sending friends suggestions, Farmville crops or guns for Mafia Wars.

"He didn't realize it could be annoying," Heitz said. "It was just Melvin being Melvin."

"We had been talking on Facebook about him coming up for an alumni golf outing July 26," Beal said. "He seemed fine."

They prefer happier memories. Blue-and-white ones. There was the game Turpin made 18 of 22 shots on the way to scoring 42 points at Tennessee. There was 1984, when he led the Final Four team in scoring, averaging 15.2 points per game. There was always the sight of him smiling.

"He was always in a good mood," Beal said. "The only time you'd get mad at him is when he played a practical joke on you. And then you'd laugh. It made you feel good being around him."

"Sam Bowie and I used to always say that Melvin was so laid back, sometimes he didn't realize how good he was," Master said. "We'd come back on the plane after Melvin had a big game, and we'd wonder if he knew what he had done."

After Thursday, they wonder why Turpin did what he did.

"This thing that's happened, no one understands, no one knew," Heitz said. "There has to be a story behind this. But we may never know that story."

"It really hits hard," Beal said, "and it hits home because you never know what people are going through. I know he's in a better place. That doesn't bring solace to those of us who are living, but for him, he's in a better place."

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