Vaught's Views: Turpin, '84 Cats reunite at Rupp

January 19, 2004|LARRY VAUGHT

LEXINGTON - It has been 20 years since Melvin Turpin showcased his offensive prowess on the Rupp Arena court, but to him it doesn't seem nearly that long.

He had not even been to a game in Rupp Arena until the University of Kentucky celebrated its 100th season of hoops last year by inviting all former lettermen back. He made his second appearance at Rupp on Saturday when his 1984 Final Four team was honored before Georgia upset Kentucky 65-57.

"It was just kind of hard to go back down there when you can't play," said Turpin, UK's 15th all-time leading scorer with 1,509 points. "The fans hollering just gives you a chill you don't forget. I was afraid if I went to games, I would tear my clothes off and head back out there to play."

After laughing a few minutes at the thought, Turpin added, "Then maybe the cops would get me, so I thought it was better to stay away and just watch on TV. But I am a good fan. I still love the Cats."


Kentucky fans used to love "Dinner Bell Mel" just as much. He was almost unstoppable when he got the ball inside, as shown by his career 59.1 percent accuracy rate from the field.

But he was also the Jared Lorenzen of the basketball court. He loved to eat and was legendary for finding ways to sneak food into Wildcat Lodge no matter what Kentucky coach Joe Hall tried to do to stop him.

"Those were the old days," said Turpin, who earned All-America honors in 1984.

His weight once reached 405 pounds, but now he's "down" to 345 and hoping to lose more weight because he's a diabetic.

However, he still has breakdowns - like when he comes to Danville and stops at Burke's Bakery, one of his favorite eating spots.

"I help my wife sell Home Interior (products) and I do security work, but that's about it. Mostly I sit around, but I had to lose weight or go to a hospital," Turpin said. "But when we go to Danville, I have a problem.

"My wife says, 'You go in and get you a couple of things. That's all. Just a couple.' Then I go get a couple of boxes of stuff. Some things are just hard to change."

That includes wiping out the painful memory of his final college game - a 53-40 loss to Georgetown in the Final Four when the Cats went 3-for-33 from the field the second half.

Ironically, Kentucky's shooting Saturday was not much better - 19-for-52 from the field overall and 10-for-30 in the second half - when Georgia ended UK's 21-game SEC winning streak.

Still, even Saturday's dismal UK performance was not as stunning as the second-half collapse the 1984 team had against Georgetown. That Final Four team not only had Turpin, but it also featured Sam Bowie, Kenny Walker and Jim Master. Walker is UK's second all-time leading scorer, Bowie ranks 26th and Master 27th. Among others on the team were Winston Bennett, Dicky Beal and Roger Harden

The team was 29-4 going into the Georgetown game. It had lost only on the road at Auburn, Florida, Alabama and Tennessee. The Cats beat Houston, the favorite to win the national title, 74-67 in a regular-season matchup in Rupp Arena.

"I still think about that game," Turpin said. "When I came back to Lexington five years ago, people still were bringing the game up to me. It was just one of those things where the ball wouldn't fall. We couldn't hit nothing."

Turpin remembers Hall trying everything and everyone to find a way to score the second half - much like Tubby Smith did Saturday when he tried Josh Carrier at point guard.

"Coach Hall took me out. A little later Sam hollered, 'Turpin, get back in there!' But there wasn't anything I could do. Coach Hall was trying everything, but nothing worked," Turpin said.

"We had great players, but no matter how talented you are, you can still get beat on a given night. I think we might already have been looking forward to playing Houston for the national title instead of worrying about Georgetown. Then Georgetown came out and tore us up. I'll never forget it."

Probably no one on that team ever will, and that was one of many topics team members discussed at a reception Friday night at the UK Basketball Museum and again Saturday during reunion festivities.

Every player on the team returned for the 20-year reunion of their Final Four berth.

"I think that just shows how much we all liked being here," Master said.

Reserve Tom Heitz now lives in the Chicago area, but he came with his wife. Paul Andrews, who hit that midcourt shot to win the 1983 state championship for Laurel County, is now a hospital administrator in Jacksonville, Fla., but he was here.

Bennett, who lost his job as Kentucky State's head coach earlier this season following an altercation with a player, said he never considered not coming and received a huge ovation at halftime of Saturday's game.

"It still sends chills up and down my spine to think about playing here," Beal said. "That's why we all are here."

Hall was there shaking hands and smiling. He spent part of Friday night talking about everything from recruiting to game situations to player motivation to current Morehead State assistant Wayne Breeden, who was a manager on the Final Four team.

"Everybody likes me now because I haven't lost a game in a long time," Hall joked.

Harden still chuckled as he recalled getting thrown out of practice before UK played at Vanderbilt that season because he threw a lob pass over the 7-1 Bowie to 5-6 Leroy Byrd.

"Coach Hall didn't have much of a sense of humor about that then," Harden said.

Turpin said those memories are what made playing at UK special because not only do the players recall the special moments, but so do the Big Blue fans.

"I still sign autographs and have people ask me to come speak. I'm always doing something," Turpin said. "The fans never forget you and that's the one thing I liked most about playing for Kentucky."

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