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Jeff Eisenberg

None of Melvin Turpin's ex-teammates saw his suicide coming

Jeff Eisenberg
The Dagger

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The news that Melvin Turpin had committed suicide quickly traveled through Kentucky basketball circles on Thursday evening, so the former All-American center's teammates had all heard the details by dinner time.

Each of them had the same reaction: shock, sadness and bewilderment.

They knew a man who felt lucky to be alive after a diabetes-induced brush with death seven years ago. They knew a man who shook off criticism over an underwhelming NBA career with self-deprecating humor and grace. And they knew a man who had a loving family, a job as a security guard, a comfortable home in Lexington and an unfailingly upbeat demeanor.

"I'm heartbroken," said Tom Heitz, Turpin's teammate for four years and his roommate as a senior. "Melvin was pretty happy-go-lucky. It's shocking because you never expect this. Everybody loved Melvin. He didn't have an enemy in the world."

The legacy that Turpin, 49, leaves behind depends on whether his basketball career is viewed through a pro or college prism.

To NBA fans, Turpin was "Dinner Bell Mel," a notable draft bust who was taken with the sixth pick in 1984 but washed out of the league in five years as a result of bad knees and ballooning weight. To college fans, Turpin was "The Big Dipper," a beloved Kentucky star who averaged 15 points and six rebounds as a senior and teamed with fellow big man Sam Bowie to lead the Wildcats to the SEC title and the Final Four in 1984.

When former college teammate Dickie Beal spoke to Turpin by phone a few weeks ago, they swapped stories about each-other's families and made plans to attend a golf outing in Northern Kentucky together later this summer. At no point during the conversation did Beal think his longtime friend was unhappy, let alone considering taking his own life.

"We knew Melvin as a jovial, friendly gentle giant, so it's shocking to know what happened," Beal said by phone Thursday night. "I had no clue that he was feeling this way. There was nothing about the conversation that would make me think that there was anything wrong."

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It's ironic to Turpin's teammates that weight problems eventually derailed his career because they remember a time when Kentucky coach Joe B. Hall felt the 6-foot-11 center was too skinny. The Lexington native was very generously listed at a trim 240 pounds when he arrived at Kentucky as a freshman, so the coaching staff put him on a diet of protein shakes to help him gain weight.

Stories of Turpin's legendary appetite are still fresh in the minds of his Kentucky teammates and coaches all these years later. They recall him eating two large pizzas by himself for dinner, polishing off 12 McDonald's Big Macs in one sitting or devouring the half-eaten food that someone else had left on their plate.

"We had a manager planted outside the doors so that he couldn't get food after dinner," Hall told Kentucky TV station WTVQ. "We found out he was lowering a rope from his room and his girlfriend was tying bags from McDonald's that he picked up to his room. And it became a game with him I think we probably did more harm than good."

In spite of his unhealthy eating habits, Turpin excelled on the court at Kentucky, showcasing soft hands and surprising shooting range that enabled him to maintain a ridiculous 59.1 field-goal percentage.

The most memorable game of Turpin's career came when he made 18 of 22 shots in a 42-point outburst against Tennessee as a junior. He also converted 15 of 17 shots in a victory over LSU as a senior and later teamed with Bowie to outplay Hakeem Olajuwon of Houston.

"When he was on, he was on," Heitz said. "The thing about Melvin too was he was the most unassuming person. He had no ego. He just loved to play the game and loved to be around people. He was quite a different animal."

Concerns about Turpin's weight popped up even before Cleveland acquired his rights immediately after Washington selected him sixth in the 1984 draft. Turpin had declined an invitation to the U.S. Olympic trials a couple months earlier because he wasn't in good enough shape, not a good sign considering the college season had ended only two weeks prior.

Turpin actually put up a solid second season in Cleveland despite reportedly weighing about 300 pounds, but he never came close to matching those stats in his final three seasons in the league. Cleveland replaced him in the lineup with rookie Brad Daugherty the following season and then he spent his final two injury-plagued years coming off the bench with Utah and Washington.

Although Turpin traded the glamour of the NBA for the familiarity of his hometown, ex-teammates say he appeared happy when they spoke to him. He married one of his former high school teachers in 1998, his son just completed his first year of college and fans around Lexington routinely approached him to thank him for his contributions to Kentucky basketball.

"A father's lost, a husband's lost, a friend is lost, and a great person is lost," Beal said. "It's sad all the way around, and he'll be sorely missed."

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