Dinner Bell Mel – RIP

Friday July 9th, 2010 – Lake Villa, IL

I heard on the radio today Mel Turpin committed suicide. He was 49. He was probably best known for his infamous nicknames of ‘Dinner Bell Mel’ and ‘The Mealman’ among others, but he was a basketball player for the University of Kentucky who was drafted the same year as Michael Jordan. He’s considered one of the biggest NBA busts of all time.

He was about 6’10” and always seemed to struggle with his weight, hence his array of colorful monikers, but I remember meeting him not long after he was drafted. I was just getting started on the road and was working in Lexington, KY, probably for the first time.

I don’t remember exactly where or when, but it was in some sports bar complex where the comedy show was. I was in my early twenties and after the show I was hanging at the sports bar with some comics and club people and there was Mel Turpin hanging out too.

It was hard to miss a 6’10” black guy in a crowd of twenty something Caucasian college kids, but what stuck out more than that was his very calm demeanor. He was just a guy at a sports bar, minding his own business. He wasn’t bothering anyone or trying to scam free drinks or anything other than being a customer. Nobody bothered him and he blended in.

At first I didn’t know who it was, so I asked one of the comedy club workers. I’ve been a huge sports fan all my life and knew since we were in Lexington, KY which is a college basketball haven and a large black man sitting in a sports bar is allowed to stay there with no hassle it had to be a basketball player of note, not just the security guard. I was right.

Mel Turpin was a celebrity name back then. Like I said, I don’t know the exact date, but it was right around when he was drafted, and his future was very bright. He could’ve been  an arrogant  prima donna and I bet he could have gotten away with it, especially in a place like Lexington where basketball is a religious experience. The world was his oyster then.

As the night went on, we were shooting pool and hanging out and as fate would have it, Mel was sitting at a table near the pool tables. I was standing next to where he was sitting and he was still taller than me, but we struck up a conversation for a few minutes. I don’t even remember what it was about, but I know it wasn’t about basketball. We just talked.

He was a very decent, laid back down to earth guy. We had our exchange and at the end of the night as we left I caught his eye and waved and he waved back and that was it. But  after that I was always a big Mel Turpin fan and was very sorry to see how his life played out. I’ve met a ton of full of themselves divas in my day, but not Mel Turpin in the least.

At the time, I had a brush with a celebrity. He was a hot name and life looked to be rosy for his infinite future. Not long after that he flamed out in the NBA and it spiraled all the way down to the point where he shot himself in the head before he was 50. That’s not the way any of us expect life to be, but all too often it is. I sure hope he’s in a peaceful place, being able to be the Mel Turpin I met way back when – a friendly easygoing nice person.


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