Looking Back: Mel Purcell


From 2009...

Mel Purcell has been a Racer from the moment he was born. His father, Bennie Purcell, was an All-American basketball player at Murray State in the early-50's and shortly after Mel was born he came back to MSU as an assistant coach under Cal Luther. So, Mel's childhood was spent in Racer Arena, watching practice, cutting up with players or watching games.

“I was around Racer basketball every day of my life,” he said. “It was all I knew. I can still remember Cal Luther taking his coat off and throwing it. I can remember people waiting in line for the freshman game against Western. People would just charge down the steps to try to get front row seats. I've seen people fall because they were in such a hurry to get a good seat. They would even sit on top of the press box.

“During the games I sold Cokes and we made $30-$50 a night. At halftime we would go to the North Gym and shoot. One night I came back to watch the second half and brought a basketball with me. Unfortunately I dropped it and it bounced all the way down the steps and shot out on the court. They had to blow the whistle and stop the game. I took off running as fast as I could but my dad knew it was me.”

The players were his childhood heroes.

“There was a guy named Steve Bowers that we called Pistol Pete,” he recalled. “Then there was Herb McPherson and Hector Blondette. Herb was always flying into the stands going after the ball and Hector would dribble between his legs and shoot 30-footers.

“And you can't forget Jimmy Young. He was an incredible long range shooter. If they'd had three-pointers then he would have scored 3,000 points in his career.”
In the mid-60's Purcell and his father started playing tennis with Ron Underwood, a local instructor. Underwood had played at Southern Illinois University and ran tennis camps in Granite City, Ill. Jimmy Connors was one of the youngsters who attended those camps.

“My dad was a great basketball player,” Purcell noted. “I didn't realize until I got older how good he actually was. But as he got older it was harder for him to compete. He was playing three-on-three and getting his nose bloodied. So he turned to tennis and he picked it up right away.”

The younger Purcell also had a knack for the game. But he awanted to play basketball too.

“I played basketball until seventh grade,” he said. “I was going to be one of the starting guards on the seventh grade team. But I didn't have time to play tennis after practice and my dad told me I had to do one or the other. I could dribble and pass and I was quick. But I had a bad jump shot and I enjoyed tennis more so the choice wasn't that hard to make.”

In third and fourth grade Purcell played for the College High tennis team. And then from fifth grade through his senior year he played for Murray High.

“I was beating guys when I was in fourth and fifth grade but every once in a while I would run into someone who was just too big and strong,” he said. “That's how I learned to be tough though.

“Ron had gotten us started but my dad really taught me how to play. My strong point was my quickness and hand-eye coordination. Dad tried to get me to serve and volley more but I wouldn't do it because I was hardheaded. I was quick enough to stay back and win the point from the baseline.

“Even after I got on the tour my dad was still my coach. He'd come and watch me play and say, 'Your backhand looks really bad. You're dropping your head.'”

When Purcell was 10 his father took him to Nashville to take lessons from an instructor named Bill Luffler. And every winter they went to Florida to play in the Orange Bowl tournament where he took lessons from Jimmy Evert, Chris Evert's father.

“When we played each other my dad and I always bet,” Purcell said. “Of course I was betting with his money. One time we were going to play and he brought a bag full rackets and I just brought one. I bet him he wouldn't win five games.

“I beat him 6-2 in the first set but in the second set I broke a string. Well I walked over to get one of his rackets but he made me play with mine, broken string and all. You just can't keep it in play with a broken string. He came back to win and I stormed off the court. I didn't beat my dad until I was about 15. He was 45 at the time.

“He was ranked #1 at 45-and-under, at 50-and-under and at 60-and-under. And he'd only play one tournament a year. He was just a great athlete.”