Washington Bullets Draft Demons of the Past: Dinner Bell Mel Turpin
See that fella above? That’s “Dinner Bell” Mel Turpin, a member of the cursed Washington Bullets/Wizards draft history … sorta.
Turpin was taken by the Bullets with the 6th overall pick in the famed 1984 NBA Draft … the Hakeem Olajuwon, Michael Jordan, Charles Barkley, and of course, Sam Bowie draft. Bowie was a teammate of Turpin’s at Kentucky, and while both are known as busts, it’s Bowie’s name that most often gets mentioned amongst NBA basketball infamy.
With Rick Mahorn and Jeff Ruland already holding down the paint, Turpin was immediately traded by then GM Bob Ferry to a team currently generally managed by his son Danny, the Cleveland Cavaliers. In exchange, the Bullets received Cliff Robinson and Tim McCormick, who was promptly sent to the Seattle Sonics, along with Ricky Sobers, for Gus Williams.
Williams lead the ’84-85 Bullets in scoring (20.0) and assists (7.7), while Robinson was fourth on the team in scoring (16.7) and second in rebounding (9.1). That Bullets team improved by five wins over the previous season’s mark to finish 40-42, but still lost to Barkley, Julius Erving, and Moses Malone in the first round of the playoffs.
Williams only played one more year with the team before signing with Atlanta, spending a single season there before retiring. Robinson also spent just one more season in Washington before being traded to Philadelphia, along with Ruland (who would only play 18 games for the Sixers over two seasons), for Moses Malone, Terry Catledge and two first round picks.
The Bullets used one of those first rounders to select DC’s own Anthony Jones, out of Dunbar High, with the 21st overall pick in the ’86 draft. Scott Skiles was taken immediately after Jones, and Arvydas Sabonis two picks later. That same draft also produced Mark Price, Dennis Rodman, and Kevin Duckworth in the second round. Jones only appeared in 16 games for the Bullets before being waived in late November. He was picked up by the Spurs on a couple 10-day contracts, and would later make stops in Chicago and Dallas before being out of the NBA after the 89-90 season.
The other first rounder the Bullets received in the Malone trade was actually their own. In 1984, they traded their 1988 first rounder to Philadelphia for Tom Sewell. The stipulation in the Malone trade was that Philadelphia would get the lower of the two ’88 picks (Washington’s and their own). When the Sixers did not make the playoffs, they ended up in the lottery with the sixth pick, and selected Hershey Hawkins. The Bullets, making the playoffs that year, used their own pick to select Harvey Grant at 12.
So you see, when the likes of Tony Kornheiser and Michael Wilbon use Mel Turpin’s name in association with the made up “Curse O’ Les Boulez,” it’s slightly misinformed. Sure, Turpin was a bust, but trading him beget both Gus Williams and Cliff Robinson, who in turn along with a crippled Ruland, beget Moses Malone, Terry Catledge, Anthony Jones and Harvey Grant. Not the worst GM maneuvering in the world, but not the best either.
As for ‘Dinner Bell’, he spent three unspectacular seasons in Cleveland, during which his lack of work ethic drew much ire from then Cavs coach George Karl, whom Turpin once referred to as a “strange coach.”
At once point late in the ’86-87 season, Turpin’s body fat ballooned to 17-percent and his weight to 273 pounds. Teammate John Bagley also gained a whopping 22 pounds after missing two weeks due to an ankle injury.
Mark Vancil of the Chicago Sun-Times wrote, “Cleveland’s John Bagley and Mel Turpin appear to have invented their own diet. Call it ‘eating to lose.’” That Cavs team finished 31-51 during Lenny Wilkins’ debut season in Cleveland.
In October of ’87, Turpin was traded to the Utah Jazz as part of a seven-player, three-team deal also involving New Jersey. Darryl Dawkins was also sent from the Nets to the Jazz. In return, Cleveland received Kent Benson, Dell Curry, and James Bailey from Utah, and sent Bagley and Keith Lee to the Nets.
Upon arriving in Utah, coach Frank Layden discovered that Turpin has “bulked up” to 280 pounds, 20 more than was reported by Cleveland. When asked about the weight gain, Turpin jokingly responded, “I like airplane food.”
Turpin lasted one season with the Jazz, appearing in 79 games and averaging 12.8 minutes per before being “traded” to a Spanish team for Jose Ortiz in September of ’88. That’s right, the Jazz so miffed with Turpin’s weight problems that they sent him to Spain. A report from the True Hoop archives relates that the Turpin-Ortiz exchange wasn’t really a trade.
Ortiz, a Puerto Rican who played at Oregon State where he teamed up with Gary Payton, was the ’87 Pac-10 player of the year and actually Utah’s first round pick (15th overall) in the ’87 NBA Draft. Ortiz’s Spanish team, Zaragoza, was apparently impressed enough watching a heavy Turpin play against JUCO players that they were willing to accept him as compensation for Ortiz using an NBA opt-out clause from his three-year contract with Zaragoza.
After spending a year in Spain, Turpin returned to the U.S. and was invited by the Bullets to participate in training camp in July of ’89. Turpin knew it was probably his last chance to make it in the league, yet showed up weighing 280 pounds, and could barely make it through a 10-minute scrimmage.
GM Bob Ferry and coach Wes Unseld still aimed to turn Turpin around with a strict regimen of training and a monitored diet. The exhaustive program, run at the University of Maryland and assisted by an associate professor with a degree in exercise science, actually was successful in getting Turpin to shed 22 pounds over eight weeks.
Turpin stuck around for the ’89-90 season, appearing in 59 games, starting 12. His stats, however, were not impressive, averaging 13.9 minutes, 4.7 points, 3.7 rebounds, and a mere 0.8 blocks per game. Dinner Bell was gone by July of 1990, cut by the Bullets after they drafted center Greg Foster and traded for Pervis Ellison.
Turpin was done. No other NBA team wanted him. Deals to play overseas fell through. He faded into retirement, forever relegated as “Dinner Bell” Mel.
Turpin seemed to be the happy-go-lucky guy without a care in the world about the game of basketball. He once moved to a rural farming community in Illinois because his wife wanted to live in the small town where she grew up, yet complained that he couldn’t find anyone to play against, and thus usually did not play basketball at all in the summer. Not many people with the opportunity to make over a million a year in the late-80s would have taken the same course of action.
While likable, Turpin represents the classic case of someone with natural talent and unteachable height, yet without the love or desire to expand upon those skills. Frustrating for many non pro-caliber athletes, those who still sacrifice bodily harm for nothing more than the love of the game.
Justified or not, Turpin will always be associated with a history of Wizards/Bullets franchise draft gaffes. Although, as mentioned, Bob Ferry was able to gain a great deal of assets using Turpin as a bargaining chip.
Here’s to exorcising the demons of a guy who simply preferred to eat than exercise.
Mel Turpin Quoteables from the Archives
About the time the Cavs were fading in February, Mel Turpin was unhappy with something I wrote and kept telling me, “I ain’t gonna be no scape BOAT for this team!” Turpin was such a good-natured guy, but he had weight problems and often seemed overwhelmed by all the travel, the plays and everything that is a part of everyday life. His good friend from Kentucky, Cavs guard Dirk Minniefield, once told me, “Poor Melvin was the kid who they always made stand in the corner when we were in elementary school.”
“1986: Pro basketball arrives: Draft by GM Embry brings Price, Daugherty, Harper into the fold.“ Akron Beacon Journal (Akron, OH). HighBeam Research.
Mel Turpin is a beauty. A big beauty. Two-hundred-eighty pounds worth. “I haven’t seen Mel for three or four weeks because I was scouting the NCAA tournament and the postseason all-star games,” said Cavaliers GM Wayne Embry the other day. “Obviously, he has put on a few pounds since the start of the season, and I’m not too happy about that.” The Baby Blimp will be making $1.1 million next year.
Bob Ryan, “WAIL OF TWO CITIES: WHO GETS FLA. TEAM?.” The Boston Globe. Apr. 1987. HighBeam Research.
Coach Frank Layden has experimented with a front line of 7-foot-4-inch Mark Eaton, either 6-11 Darryl Dawkins or 7-foot Mel Turpin and the 6-9, 250-pound Malone as a frontcourt unit. Utah publicist Bill Kreifeldt has dubbed any such combos the “Wasatch Front.”
Bob Ryan, “MINUTES WERE MANDATORY.” The Boston Globe. Oct. 1987. HighBeam Research.
Utah Jazz Coach Frank Layden banished reserve center Mel Turpin to the locker room for much of the second half of the Jazz’s 101-93 NBA victory Wednesday night over the Cleveland Cavaliers in Richfield, Ohio.
“Mel was laughing with the fans behind our bench and they were beginning to chant `We want Mel,’ ” Layden said after sending Turpin to the locker room in the third quarter for the rest of the game. “I didn’t think it was a good situation for him. I wasn’t going to play him anyway because he missed this morning’s shoot-around. He’ll play in our next game.”
Layden’s explanation for his banishment was mentioned to Turpin after the game, and the 6-foot-11, 270-pound player said, “Is that why?” and refused further comment . . .
“BASKETBALL.” The Washington Post. Dec. 1987. HighBeam Research.
It was in front of a Houston hotel where Mel Turpin and Carey Scurry went fistic and pugilistic. Legend has it they were razzing one another about their ladies when suddenly trouble erupted.
Brad Rock, “Utah Jazz: Brad Rock’s all-time favorite Top 10 Jazz goofy moments.” Deseret News (Salt Lake City). 2008. HighBeam Research.
Washington big man Mel Turpin played in Spain last season and loved to bait the opposing fans.
“My coaches would beg me, ‘Please don’t say anything,’ but I liked to have a little fun,” said Turpin. “Then one night, the fans in Barcelona got so mad they had to rush us off the court before the game ended. They followed us out of the arena and started rocking the bus. They nearly tipped the damn thing over. It wasn’t until then I realized why they wanted me to keep quiet.”
Jackie MacMullan, “MCHALE: A STAR IS REBORN HE’S RETURNING TO THE FORM THAT MADE HIM NO. 1 SIXTH MAN IN THE NBA.” The Boston Globe. Feb. 1990. HighBeam Research.
The aptly dubbed Dinner Bell Mel Turpin, who was granted a personal trainer and nutritionist by the team in an attempt to beat back the bulge, showed up to the gym one day, stepped on the scale in private, then grabbed his things and left, never to be heard from again.
The team received the news from Turpin’s agent by telephone, as thusly: Mel did not make weight, knew there would be serious repercussions with Unseld and so he has decided to retire to Ohio.
Tom Knott, “WHAT A LONG, STRANGE TRIP IT’S BEEN; Wizards purge the bad karma of yesteryear.(SPORTS).” The Washington Times. Apr. 2005. HighBeam Research.
- Mark Vancil. “Draft will be tough to pick.” Chicago Sun-Times. Mar. 15, 1987. HighBeam Research.
- “Jazz Trades for Dawkins, Turpin.” The Washington Post. Oct. 9, 1987. HighBeam Research.
- Mark Maske. “Turpin: Center of Attention.” The Washington Post. 1989. HighBeam Research.
- Dave Sell. “Bullets Sign Turpin; Center to Battle Bulge; 275-Pounder to Enter Six-Week Program.” The Washington Post. 1989. HighBeam Research.
- David Aldridge. “Turpin Plays Weighing Game;Facing Last Chance, Free Agent Means Business With Bullets.” The Washington Post. 989. HighBeam Research.
- Marc Stein. “Hole at Center Grows as Bullets Cut Turpin.” The Washington Post. 1990. HighBeam Research.
- David Aldridge. “Club Championships May Lurk for NBA; Stern Says More International Play Possible.” The Washington Post. 1990. HighBeam Research.
- “6-11 Turpin stands out in Clinton.” Chicago Sun-Times. 1988. HighBeam Research.