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Original Issue

Light in Spirit

Wisecracking widebody Mel Turpin had soft hands and a softer heart

Cavaliers Nation lost more than one member last week. Only hours before LeBron James lit out for Miami, former Cleveland center Melvin (the Dipper) Turpin, who had been suffering from diabetes, died from a self-inflicted gunshot wound at his home in Lexington, Ky., where he learned the game on the courts of Douglass Park's "Dirt Bowl" and starred in the pivot for Kentucky. He was 49.

Despite its tragic end, Turpin's life seemed to be carried on an air of whimsy. After Turpin arrived on the Kentucky campus following a year at Fork Union (Va.) Military Academy, Wildcats coach Joe B. Hall was determined to keep Turpin's 6' 11" physique from waxing too convex. Hall assigned a student manager to round-the-clock supervisory duty over Turpin, whose weight was listed at 240. "How many times do I have to tell you?" Turpin famously upbraided a well-meaning undergrad who came bearing snacks. "You don't feed the Dipper!"

Turpin had a knack around the basket, shooting 59.1% over four collegiate seasons. Auburn's 6'4" Charles Barkley nonetheless had his number, impressing no one more than Turpin himself; with an admiring shake of his head the Dipper once likened the Round Mound to "a cartoon character."

Turpin played the foil to others beside Barkley. Patrick Ewing and Georgetown bested his 'Cats at the 1984 Final Four. Turpin went sixth that year in the NBA draft. In Cleveland coach Gene Littles assessed him tens of thousands of dollars in fines for poor conditioning. Turpin's pro career lasted five seasons. Even if his biggest foil might have been life post-NBA, Turpin seemed comfortable in his own ample skin, as drum major at Fork Union or, friends and family said, in his recent work as a security guard. As the Dipper told SI in 2004, there's a word for the notion that a big man must be thin: "Medieval."


The Knicks' representative for a last-second appeal to free agent LeBron James: ruthlessly maligned former G.M. Isiah Thomas, who was fired by the club in April 2008.



A REAL GRABBER Turpin's pivot presence aided the Wildcats in their '84 run.