By Rick Bozich
Dirk Minniefield understands the emotions and anxieties that can quietly but persistently percolate inside an athlete when he returns home after the cheering has stopped and the basketball has been put away.
The odd looks. The awkward questions. The suspicions that some people who once adored you have reclassified you as a failure.
"At one time you were a celebrity, a pro basketball player, a star," Minniefield said. "Now people are asking, 'What happened to you? Why are you working in that job?'
"It can create issues and feelings of worthlessness. It's difficult, especially in your hometown."
Minniefield understands those issues because for the past 18 years, he has worked as a counselor in the NBA Player Assistance Program. He also discussed them with his boyhood friend, Melvin Turpin, who sometimes told Minniefield that people wondered how he could enjoy his second career as a security guard as much as he enjoyed his five seasons in the NBA.
On Thursday evening, Minniefield received the jarring news that Turpin had died of a self-inflicted gunshot in Lexington, the town where Turpin had played at Bryan Station High School. Minniefield had played at rival Lafayette and the two had played together for three seasons at the University of Kentucky. Born 20 days apart, Turpin, like Minniefield, was 49.
Minniefield cried. He cried again on Friday -- and then wished that his friend had told him if something was troubling him.
"I would have traveled there in a second," said Minniefield, who lives in suburban Houston. "A second. That was rough news to take. It really shook me up.
"It's sad. This didn't happen 2,000 miles from where he grew up. It happened in our hometown. The world is a lonely place when somebody commits suicide."
We don't know what thoughts were going through Turpin's mind.
However, Minniefield said that Turpin had told him several times that it had been difficult returning to their hometown as a former All-America center whose post-basketball career was as a security guard, including time Turpin spent as a prison guard in Illinois. That's not the life some expect from a guy taken three picks after Michael Jordan in the 1984 NBA draft.
"It can be little things," Minniefield said. "Instead of somebody asking you how you are doing, they might ask you, 'What are you doing?'
"As an athlete you feel like you have to tell people about a job that they think is below you. Turp would say, 'Why do I feel like I have to explain parts of my life that you feel are unacceptable to you?' That's how it would come across."
The fiercely protective friendship between Minniefield and Turpin was formed when they were 10 years old, Turpin growing up on the west side of Lexington, Minniefield on the south side, two guys looking out for each other while also looking for the best pick-up games they could find.
They played together against Indiana on the 1979 Kentucky high school all-star team. Turpin was 6feet11. While staying at the Executive West hotel, he bounced off the diving board into a pool of water only nine feet deep, and then staggered to the ladder. Waiting there was Minniefield, laughing.
"I told Turp he had to cut that out real quick and find something else to do," Minniefield said.
They were teammates at UK from 1980 to '83, when Kentucky was collecting the finest recruits in the game under coach Joe B. Hall. Their final game as Wildcats together was Kentucky's epic, 80-68 overtime loss to the University of Louisville in the Dream Game, the 1983 NCAA Tournament Southeast Regional final in Knoxville, Tenn. Turpin played one more season at Kentucky. He finished his college career with 1,509 points, leading the Wildcats to the 1984 Final Four and earning the sixth spot in the 1984 draft.
Minniefield and Turpin reunited a final time with the Cleveland Cavaliers from October 1985 through December 1986. Turpin insisted Minniefield live at his house with his wife and infant son until Dirk secured an apartment.
"That's the kind of guy Turp was," Minniefield said. "He'd give you the shirt off his back, and you wouldn't even have to ask him for it."
All those days together on the Lexington playgrounds, inside Rupp Arena and in the NBA forged a formidable bond. Minniefield was out of the NBA in 1988, unable to overcome a substance-abuse problem.
Turpin followed two years later. Weight was his issue. At UK, Hall assigned a student manager the task of stopping Turpin's late-night fast-food runs. It worked. On draft night, Turpin was listed at 240 pounds, 20 fewer than Charles Barkley, who was only 6-6 and was taken fifth.
In the NBA, Turpin grew to more than 300 pounds. That inspired the nickname "Dinner Bell Mel" and led the Cavaliers to hold back part of his $400,000 salary until he reduced his percentage of body fat to less than 10 percent.
Although Turpin usually tolerated the cracks about his size, he also privately bristled to friends such as Minniefield.
It was a nickname he was never able to shake. When questions were raised about the weight of UK freshman DeMarcus Cousins before the NBA draft last month, some analysts compared Cousins' situation to Turpin's.
"Turp didn't like being called, 'Dinner Bell Mel,'" Minniefield said. "Who would? He was sensitive to it."
Once, Minniefield said he summoned a writer who had repeatedly used the phrase to his locker. He asked him to stop.
"I didn't think it was fair to Turp," he said. "Melvin was misunderstood. I would work with him to try to control his weight. And he would do the work.
"But it wasn't so much that Melvin couldn't control his weight, he just liked to do what he liked to do. We'd have a great workout together, and then he'd say, 'Let's go get something to eat.' Turp didn't mean no harm. He'd just want to have some fun."
Minniefield, who said he has been clean for 20 years, said that he and Turpin talked regularly, the last time about a month ago.
If Turpin was depressed , Minniefield could not sense it. Neither could Hall, his former coach, nor Rosalind Turpin, Melvin's niece. Hall saw Turpin at breakfast in Lexington several weeks ago.
"He was just entertaining everybody and was outgoing like he always is," Hall said on his radio show Friday morning. "But Melvin could always have a brooding side to him, but you could always bring him out of it.
"That's what I regret, that somebody didn't notice his mood swing and let people know and get him some help in whatever he was facing."
"He wasn't sad. He wasn't depressed," Rosalind Turpin said. "People saw him the day of, and people saw him the day before. Then all of a sudden, this happened. It's just hard to believe. He was a good man."
Turpin was battling diabetes. Kerry, his second wife, is recovering from a stroke at Cardinal Hill Rehabilitation Hospital in Lexington.
Minniefield said that Turpin's finances were in order even though his five-season NBA career concluded in 1990. He said Turpin's agent had negotiated a deferred-money clause in his final contract that was scheduled to provide a fresh cash flow in 2013. His NBA pension was also scheduled to begin soon, according to Hall. He had returned to Lexington, the place that he and Minniefield had once ruled.
"Turp was a great guy, a great friend," Minniefield said. "But this is all just very sad."