Father and son see the world as professional athletes
Story by Blake Bernier, Staff writer
Bennie Purcell and his son, Mel, had stellar careers in their respective sports, but many around the campus of Murray State don’t know about these two legends.
THE LEGENDARY FATHER
Bennie spent his college career as a basketball player for the Murray State Thoroughbreds, and he became the first player in Murray State history to score 1,000 points. He was also the first to have his number retired. In his first season with the Breds, Bennie was an instant crowd favorite.
As described in the 1949 edition of The Shield, Murray State’s former yearbook, “The crowd always cheered and knew what would happen when Bennie Purcell came onto the floor, complete attention was commanded from the spectators by Bennie’s fast zig-zag dribbling.”
Two years later in his junior year, Bennie helped bring home the first OVC championship in school history in 1951. Bennie made the All-OVC Tournament team and received an honorable mention on the United Press All-American team.
Upon graduation, Bennie entered the NBA draft and the Baltimore Bullets, one of just 10 NBA teams at the time, selected him with the first pick in the 12th round. However, after missing the final cut for the Bullets, he decided to traveled with the Globetrotters full-time as a member of the Washington Generals.
“I had two choices, I could go into the Eastern league, which was the only other pro league besides the NBA or I could go with the Globetrotters,” Bennie said.
He traveled to 46 countries and helped entertain thousands, and the memories he has could fill a book. One such memory occurred during a game in Wembley Stadium in London.
Bennie said the Globetrotters had a routine where one of the players wouldn’t play on the defensive end and when they inbounded the ball, after a made shot, they would throw it the length of the floor to the player and he would wait for the defender to get there and let him jump a few times before he made the shot.
“The guy grabs the ball and threw it all the way down there and it went right in the goal,” Bennie explained. “They never even clapped. They thought it was part of the show. We about died because that’d never happened and we just about flipped out and they never even clapped.”
Another funny moment happened while playing in Iraq. During warm-ups, one of the players broke the backboard so they played the whole game without a backboard.
“I don’t know how many times somebody would dribble down there and forget and try to shoot a bank shot and the ball just went out in the grass,” Bennie recalled.
Once Bennie decided to stop playing basketball, he returned to Murray State and took over as the assistant basketball coach. Then in 1968 at age 39, he was given the job of head coach for men’s tennis. As a natural athlete, Bennie quickly picked up the game of tennis despite not playing much prior to his appointment. By the time Bennie was 45, he was ranked as the number one tennis player in the state of Kentucky and retained that ranking until he was 65 and retired from playing competitively.
One of the most amazing accomplishments in all of sports happened under the direction of Bennie. For 10 straight years the men’s tennis team won the OVC Championship. He won 11 OVC Championships in his 28 seasons as head coach and was named Coach of the Year eight times.
HEIR TO THE LEGACY
Mel showed excellent hand-eye coordination at an early age and proficiency at most sports, but by the age of 12 his father told him he had to choose one sport.
“I made the seventh grade basketball team, but I was coming back around 5:30 so it was dark and we weren’t playing any tennis, so he (Bennie) told me right then I had to make a decision on what sport,” Mel said. “So I stuck with tennis.”
This small decision shaped the rest of Mel’s life and professional career. Mel was elected to play tennis full-time and played for the high school team from the time he was in third grade until he graduated. Then he went to the state championships every year starting in fifth grade. Mel won the state title for singles in his senior year of high school after losing in the finals the previous two years ,and he knew tennis was in his future.
“The only thing I wanted to do was play college tennis and then go pro,” Mel said.
Tennis provided him with the opportunity to play all over the world, just like basketball did for Bennie. In his first year as a pro, Mel boosted his Association of Tennis Professionals ranking into the top 40 and earned the ATP Rookie of the Year award.
“Growing up hearing those stories, I wanted to travel and do stuff, too,” Mel said. “He just intrigued us with all these stories of playing with the Globetrotters.”
Mel’s career allowed him to collect stories as well. In 1982 during a semi-final match Mel trailed 5-1 in the 3rd set and Johnny Carson left the match. Mel went on to win the match and the next day at the award ceremony, after losing to Jimmy Connors, Mel said to Carson “I hear you counted me out yesterday. Thanks a lot,” and Carson replied, “You’re right, I left early. You got me on that one.”
One of Mel’s funniest memories is a match in Charleston, South Carolina, in 1987 when nuns booed him. He waved to the nuns in the stands before the match and won the first set. Then in the second set he got a little heated at some of the calls made by the line judge and decided to let him know he wasn’t happy with his calls.
“I sit down after I lost the second set and all of the sudden I just hear behind me ‘Boo! Boo Mel Purcell! You ought to be ashamed of yourself! Boo Mel Purcell’ and of course it’s those four nuns,” Mel said.
Looking back on his professional career Mel said he doesn’t have any regrets except one.
“I wouldn’t do it any different way,” Mel said. “I would’ve liked to have won a few more matches, but it was entertaining and I think I learned all my entertainment values and skill from my father, who learned it all from the original great Globetrotters.”
Mel continued to follow in his father’s footsteps when he was named the successor to Bennie and become the next men’s tennis coach in 1996 and in 2001 and 2002 he led the Racers to back-to-back OVC Championships and won Coach of the Year.