Fab Melo Deserved More

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Death strikes us in different ways. Shock is common when news first hits.

“Holy shit,” I said to myself when I read the report by Adam Zagoria that former Syracuse center Fab Melo died in his sleep in his home in Brazil. The center had been playing in Brazil and Puerto Rico for the last couple of years after having been drafted by the Boston Celtics in 2012. Melo was only 26.

Reminiscing comes next. A lot of it.

My involvement with Melo was very much from afar. A freshman in the student section watching the prized center struggle in his very first season with the team was easy to make fun of. Melo’s 7’0 size made him a behemoth that seemed destined to protect the rim for years under Jim Boeheim’s 2–3 zone. The thought was that a freshman of his prized reputation should pay immediate dividends, but those dividends seemed to be cashing out at a very slow pace. The lumbering big man actually started 24 of the 33 Syracuse games that season, but it was more a symbolic gesture of trust and protection of a player’s ego than deservedness.

The struggles Melo faced were more than just on the court. He had been recruited out of a Florida high school but he had only been in the country for a couple of years before Syracuse was able to bring him aboard. The cultural transition was still in effect, a language not primarily known to him was needed for high-end classes he probably was not prepared for. He had a dispute with his then-girlfriend that led to him being charged with fourth degree criminal mischief. Things were not going well.

Improvements are typically made from gifted 21-year-old players and that’s what happened during his sophomore year. From token freshman to leader of the defense is a mighty jump, but one that is an accurate description of the turn of events for him during that season. Melo averaged 7.8 points, 5.8 rebounds and 2.9 blocks throughout the 2011–12 season leading the Orange to one of their best years ever. The team was stacked with senior leadership and they were set for a tournament run, but it wouldn’t play out in quite that fashion.

During the season Melo was ruled academically ineligible and missed three games in January because of it. The undefeated streak would end at 20 in South Bend when Melo was unable to play, but he was soon reinstated and things seemed fine until it was revealed someone had written a paper for him in order to get a grade changed for the previous semester. That forced the NCAA to make Melo ineligible for the NCAA tournament, as Syracuse forced themselves to the Elite 8 before losing to Ohio State.

Looking back during this time I realize I didn’t have all of the facts put in front of me. As a general rule of thumb I view the NCAA as part of a large mountain of garbage that continues to make life around it very, very difficult. I blamed Melo for not being able to do something I viewed as simplistic. Taking a step back during this time it’s easy to see Melo got a raw deal. He was pushed into a system for the sole gain of his athletic skills while he wasn’t prepared for some of the rigors of college. Sean Keeley goes into excellent detail about the system getting all it could out of Melo.

It’s easy for me being a Syracuse fan to continue bashing the NCAA for how it has handled the school’s punishment over the past couple of years, and I do think that bashing is deserved. But in all of this I hope they learned that with all of their players, especially Melo, that the system shouldn’t allow them to suck a player dry of his athletic abilities to force him to flop in the classroom. Players should get a piece of the monetary pie, but because of a lot of different reasons we won’t get into they don’t have that availability. So when people point to the “free” education they are getting, let’s remember to give them a damn education. Melo deserved more than he got, let’s make sure we remember that.

From this alumni I wish the best to Melo’s family. He gave me some fantastic memories that I shared with my friends during one of my favorite seasons ever. I never got the chance to meet him, but from all accounts he was a lovable man and for that he’ll be missed dearly.