Dateline: January 22, 1984
As I anxiously sat in a near empty Rupp Arena watching the No. 4 ranked Houston Cougars warming up for their contest against the third-ranked Kentucky Wildcats, I turned to my friends and said, "We have NO chance."
The sight of Hakeem Olajuwon, Michael Young, and Alvin Franklin sent shivers down my spine at the thought of the felonious assault they were about to perpetrate on my favorite team. The Cougars lineup simply seemed uniquely gifted, in an other-worldly kind of way. Houston seemed to not run as they warmed up, rather, it seemed as if they glided toward the basket with extraordinary ease. Making matters more grave, the visiting Cougars' readily apparent agility was magnified by the pure size of the roster ... Olajuwon seemed to me to be eight-feet tall, and as nimble as Baryshnikov.
Not that Kentucky's roster wasn't filled with talent, on the contrary, the 'Cats sported an impressive array of players, ranging from Sam Bowie, to Jim Master, to Winston Bennett, to Kenny Walker, to Dicky Beal, to Roger Harden, and finally, the anchor that grounded the team and made them great, leading scorer Melvin Turpin (6-11, 260 lbs).
But the Kentucky roster put together by Joe B. Hall, at least an hour before the epic contest, seemed to me and my friends to be lacking. And then the game began ...
... and my worst nightmare came true. Over the first few minutes of the game the Cougars shot, dunked, and pilfered their way to an 11-1 lead. Rupp was a museum, and we, the wax figures, sat still and quiet as we took in what a pro team surely looked like.
But as some are apt to say, "Not so fast my friend!" For after UK coach Joe Hall replaced James Blackmon at the point guard position with Roger Harden, the 'Cats, led by Turpin and Kenny Walker crushed the Cougars into a fine powder, 74-67.
Turpin, in one of his many great games wearing a Kentucky uniform, was simply magnificent. He made 8 of 10 shots from the floor, and 3 of 6 from the free throw line; good for 19 points, to go along with 11 rebounds, two blocked shots, and two assists. Turpin and Bowie so frustrated Hakeem Olajuwon on the defensive end that after the game the future NBA superstar blamed the officials for the loss.
If one wasn't a true believer in Turpin's considerable skills before that contest, one was left with no alternative but to call No. 54 one of the great big men to ever wear a "Kentucky" jersey, after witnessing Turpin have his way against the Cougars. For, on one Sunday afternoon in January, Turpin displayed all the skills which made him great: An unbelievable ability to catch anything thrown his way; a shot so sure the scoreboard would light up before his attempt even reached the rim; an ability to defend the paint like few others; ferocious rebounding; and a light-on-the-feet feel to his game most players much smaller in stature pine for.
Dateline: January 31, 1983
But, it's not as if Turpin's skills were suddenly granted to him by the basketball gods for that one game. No, Kentucky fans over the previous three years had witnessed Turpin abuse many an opponent. Probably most significantly the Tennessee Vols in a game played in Turpin's junior year. The Vols, led by sharpshooter Dale Ellis, hosted the 'Cats in a contest won by UT, 65-63.
But the loss could not be blamed on Turpin; In one of the most outstanding individual games in Kentucky basketball history, Turpin made 18 of 22 shots (81.2%!), snagged 12 rebounds, blocked four shots, and scored 42 points. He was as unstoppable as a freight train going down hill in an ice storm. But that game only served to portend that which was to come.
Dateline: March 8, 1984
Not satisfied he had convinced everyone in the country he was the "Real Deal" (long before Holyfield), Turpin, only weeks after his outburst against the Houston Cougars, made the Georgia Bulldogs the recipient of Turpin Domination, Part II. In the first round of the SEC Tournament in Nashville versus Georgia, Turpin proved once again to be a machine. Putting up a stat line eerily similar to the gaudy numbers he piled-up against the Tennessee Vols the year before, Turpin scored (once again) 42 points on (once again) 18 of 22 shooting from the floor, making 6 of 7 free throws, and snatching 10 boards in Kentucky's 92-79 victory.
All one was left to do was shake ones head in disbelief: The purity of the shot, the aggression on the boards, the seemingly innate ability to block shots; Turpin was the complete package, the "Twin Tower" most likely to "posterize" an an opponent, and steal his lunch money.
But, as unmerciful as Turpin was on the court, his off-court personality was as soft and welcoming as a cool bed on a sweltering July night.
Dicky Beal Talks Turpin
Although I never met Turpin, I did know he was considered to be an extremely friendly, jovial person. Turpin and I were on campus at the same time, and I would see him from time to time, mostly at Tolly Ho, a popular campus eatery, and he always had a smile on his face, and a friendly word for anyone courageous enough to approach the UK star (the sheer magnitude of his body mass would make most black bears skittish). But his size belied his good-natured ways.
To get some proper perspective into Turpin's personality, as well as what he meant to his team on the court, I enlisted the help of the "human blur," former UK guard and Turpin teammate, Dicky Beal.
When asked for some insight into what type of person Turpin was, Beal had this to say:
"Melvin ... the first thing that comes to mind is that he was a gentle giant; always smiling, always funny, and he wouldn't hurt a flea. He was just an all-around wonderful person and great guy."
"Melvin always had a big smile on his face, he was always laughing, and just very jovial. He was always in a good mood. He didn't have a mean bone in his body, and anybody who ever met him liked him. This is just a very sad day for his family, and the (Big Blue) Nation."
Even though Turpin was roundly adored my those who knew him, his game on the court is what most of the Big Blue faithful will remember. Beal, when talking about Turpin's talent, wasn't shy with the superlatives:
"What people didn't notice about Turpin was how light on his feet he was. He was really unbelievable. He had tremendous hands also, whether he was posting up, or running the floor; he made my job much easier because he caught anything thrown near him."
Beal continued; now talking about Turpin's great shooting ability:
"Melvin was a tremendous shooter. I believe he has the third highest career field goal percentage in Kentucky history (Dicky was close, Turpin ranks #5 at 59.1%). And he took a lot of shots; it's not like he was taking only three, four, five shots a game, either; he took some shots. All you had to do was get him the ball in the paint and he'd either score or get fouled, and he was really a good free throw shooter, so it was like automatic points. I mean, he made over 60% of his shots, that's just unbelievable."
Turpin of course, played on a couple of the most talented teams in UK history, including alongside his "Twin Tower" mate, Sam Bowie. One shudders to think about the numbers Turpin could have put up if he weren't surrounded by such talent, a thought Beal wasn't shy about bringing up:
"Another thing about Melvin is that he played with such great players; Sam Bowie, Jim Master, Kenny Walker ... if he played on a team with fewer great players ... I think he's 16th in scoring in team history ... imagine how many more shots he would have gotten, and points he would have scored if he didn't play with so many good players."
And finally, Beal pays Turpin the ultimate basketball complement:
"There is no question about it, Melvin was the best big man I ever played with. He was just a tremendous basketball player."
Former UK All-America Kyle Macy, who graduated one year prior to Turpin's arrival at UK, had this to say about Turpin's talent and good natured personality:
"Although I didn't have the opportunity to play on the same team as Melvin, I did get to know him a little during summer pick-up games. He always struck me as an easy going, fun living guy. I guess that is why I was so surprised by the news."
"On the court he was exceptionally talented, with one of the softest jump shots on any big man that has played at UK, while also being one of the biggest. Unfortunately, he always struggled with his weight, and that is probably the reason his NBA career was shorter than it should have been. Picked 6th in the draft by Washington (his rights were then traded to Cleveland) ... Cleveland lost two great players yesterday!"
"As you can imagine, I was saddened by the news of his passing."
Great players? They are what every college coach searches to the ends of the earth for, and every fan dreams of having. During Melvin Turpin's time at Kentucky, he was just that, a great player. And his ranking within the UK history book bears that out:
- #16 in career points scored with 1,509 (12.3 points per game).
- #21 in career rebounds with 730 (5.9 rebounds per game).
- #5 in career field goal percentage at 59.1% (626-1,059).
- #2 in career blocks with 226 (1.9 blocks per game).
Turpin is one of the building blocks, pillars actually, of what we now refer to as Big Blue Nation. Turpin, alongside Kyle Macy, Jack Givens, Kenny Walker, Rick Robey, Sam Bowie, and Rex Chapman controlled the late seventies and eighties for the 'Cats; a time of great growth for the program. In addition, the Bryan Station alum was the leading scorer on a Final Four team, an honor earned only 13 times in UK history. His teams' four-year record is a combined 96-27 (.780), winning three SEC regular season titles, and the '84 conference tournament. Turpin was twice named an All-America, three times All-SEC, and twice NCAA All-Regional. He scored over 20 points in his career 16 times, over 30 points three times, and over 40 points twice.
An outstanding career, using any measuring stick.
So, as a saddened Big Blue Nation bids farewell to a fallen comrade, we say; Melvin, may the peace which can be so elusive in life, be yours as you sleep.
I would like to thank ALLBLUCAT for facilitating my talk with Dicky Beal.
Thanks for reading and Go 'Cats!