The 1982-83 Kentucky Wildcats are the first basketball team I can remember.
When you grow up in a basketball family like I did, memories of your team are a part of the family lore. They become a part of the conversation, a way of establishing each member of the family along the team’s timeline—sort of a generational link to the team’s history. Memories of big games or favorite lineups are woven into the family history.
My father recalls being a high school basketball player in ’66, catching the infamous loss to Texas Western over his transistor radio. My brother claims that the Laettner stomp of ’92 is his earliest memory (perhaps a bit of revisionist history, but we’re willing to overlook it for the sake of a great story). My own very first memories of UK basketball include the names Dirk Minniefield, Kenny Walker, Bret Bearup, Dicky Beal, and Melvin Turpin. I was in the early weeks of second grade when Coach Hall’s team began their season with a revolutionary midnight practice session in Memorial Coliseum.
I can remember my daddy and granddaddy analyzing those players’ performance after every game. The conversation around me was so impassioned that it seemed quite important that I form my own opinions. My favorite player, I decided, was Melvin Turpin. Mel wasn’t my favorite because of the SEC scoring records he’d go on to break, but for a far simpler reason: he had a kind face. As a kid who was learning the rules of the game as well as what it meant to be a fan, I simply saw that this was a player that I could look up to.
Several years later, I had the privilege of sitting behind Mel during a UK game. My lower arena tickets at the UGA game were already a fantastic birthday present from my cousin. When we took those seats, however, that present became exponentially better. We were not only sitting behind a bona fide UK star, but behind my favorite player! My 20-something birthday celebration now included an appearance from Melvin Turpin!
Sitting behind the big guy was, perhaps, a little obstructive. He filled the seat in every imaginable sense. Not only was he too tall and too wide for the seat, but his personality filled up the surrounding rows. Everyone in the adjacent area was gawking at the sight of a star Wildcat alumnus. And, truth be told, it was hard to see around him. But, at halftime, I introduced myself by saying “I was a huge fan when I was a kid.” It more than made up for any missed viewing opportunities when Mel was gracious and humble and charming in response. He didn’t have to be so kind to the silly girls who wanted to talk about their own childhood memories of his college sports career. But he was kind, and he confirmed my earliest belief that he was someone to whom I could look up.
Over the years, I’ve had the opportunity to meet several Wildcats and to see many more play. I’ve met former players and those currently in uniform. I’ve encountered some players of my own age in social settings, and I’ve sat in Rupp Arena knowing that the player who just scored two points for our team would soon be taking his game to an impressive professional level. But my favorite UK basketball experience will always be the day Melvin Turpin was nice to me on my birthday.
Last Thursday, as I fulfilled an evening obligation, I attempted to surreptitiously check Twitter for a quick update on the LeBron James Media Circus. My feed brought me far sadder news, as I learned the Favorite Player of my youth had passed. In subsequent days, I have studiously avoided the blogosphere and the sports papers. I don’t want to read speculation into the details of Mel’s untimely demise, nor do I want to rehash his NBA years. I want to hold on to the simple memory that he was my favorite player. I want to remember the kind man who graciously accepted the ridiculous rants of a fan. I want to recall one of the sports legend of my youth.
Goodbye, Mel. You’ll be missed. And you’ll always be my very first Favorite Player.