Men's Basketball

Fab Melo, former Syracuse big man and 1st round NBA Draft pick, dies at 26

Daily Orange File Photo

Fab Melo, a native of Juiz de Fora, Brazil, and former SU center, was selected with the No. 22 overall pick in the 2012 NBA Draft. He died in Brazil on Saturday at age 26.

Fab Melo first went to Friendly’s with a group of teammates, including Baye Moussa Keita and walk-ons Nick Resavy and Matt Tomaszewski. His three friends told their waitress it was Melo’s birthday, even though it wasn’t, and a group of Friendly’s employees surprised an unsuspecting Melo when they serenaded him with the happy birthday song.

“Aside from the first initial shock of, ‘What is going on here?’ it’s just a real funny time with a lot of laughs,” Resavy said. “… Beyond basketball, he was just a guy who loved life, loved to have fun.”

Melo was found dead Saturday morning from an apparent heart attack in Juiz de Fora, Brazil, per Brazilian authorities. He was 26.

For all the controversy that accompanied the 7-footer off the court, Melo remained carefree of the expectations that came with the tag of a top-15 recruit in the country.

Melo’s freshman season didn’t live up to the hype, but in 2011-12 he mastered the 2-3 zone intricacies, started all 30 games he was eligible for and won Big East Defensive Player of the Year. Melo declared two years early for the NBA Draft in 2012, when the Boston Celtics selected him 22nd overall.

His NBA career lasted 36 minutes over six games. Stints with three different NBA teams eventually led to a career in his home country of Brazil.

“I’m very sorry to hear about the passing of Fab Melo,” Syracuse head coach Jim Boeheim said in a statement Saturday night. “He was a kind, genuine person who was committed to doing his best while he was at Syracuse. Our staff and his teammates were fortunate to have had the opportunity to know Melo. Our thoughts and prayers are with his family.”

Melo was a key part of the NCAA’s investigation into Syracuse athletics and a revised paper that led to eligibility challenges in January 2012.

“He was a really good kid, and it’s not fair that he will be defined by one thing: a 10-page paper,” Boeheim told ESPN Saturday night.

Melo wasn’t solely responsible for the academic impropriety, according to the NCAA’s report, which found that then-basketball facility secretary Debora Belanger and former Director of Operations Stan Kissel added citations to Melo’s paper.

After the NCAA had deemed Melo ineligible during the regular season, Syracuse filed for a waiver that would’ve reinstated him. The NCAA turned down Syracuse’s request, which led to an SU appeal. After that too was denied, members of the athletics department turned inward to try to restore Melo’s eligibility, according to the NCAA report, leading to the academic integrity problems.

Melo returned to action Feb. 4, 2012, after missing three games.

Syracuse, which compiled a 31-2 record before the 2012 NCAA Tournament en route to earning a No. 1 seed, lost Melo for its national title push anyway. He had failed a class in the meantime, which made him academically ineligible.

“I truly believe his sophomore year, if the NCAA didn’t bother us or bother him, I believe we would’ve won a national title that year,” said Dion Waiters, a Miami Heat guard and Melo’s former roommate. “That’s how good he improved and made us that much more better.”

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Daily Orange File Photo

Melo, the 14th-best recruit in his class, according to ESPN, and Waiters, the 15th, shared a room in the summer leading up to their freshman year. Waiters poked fun at Melo because his Brazilian accent sounded funny.

The two endured a first season during which they scored a combined 8.9 points per game on a team that fell in the second round of the NCAA Tournament. Both improved over the next year, setting up Waiters as the country’s best sixth man and Melo as an imposing defensive force on one of the nation’s best teams.

“He came back a different person, completely,” Waiters said. “He was dominant, real dominant. NCAA came back with the BS. … just trying to find ways to get him out, I don’t know what the case may be, but that whole year we went through a whole lot.”

When Melo forewent two years of eligibility for the NBA Draft, he worked out with NBA trainer and Syracuse graduate Rob McClanaghan in Miami. They developed a “very good relationship,” and McClanaghan recognized Melo’s agility despite his size. The quick, defensive skill set hinted at a promising NBA career, McClanaghan thought, with all off-court controversy in the rearview.

“I think Melo didn’t change who he was for anybody,” McClanaghan said. “Just a genuine guy, just a normal guy that just lived life to the fullest, I think … just always to me, he never took anything too seriously. He worked very hard for me. At the same time, he enjoyed it.”

On Saturday night, pictures and memories of Melo poured out from Boston Celtics General Manager Danny Ainge and Paul Pierce to Jamal Crawford to countless members of the Syracuse basketball community.

Melo may be regarded as the focal point of one of the darkest hours in Syracuse basketball history, but he’s more than “student-athlete 7,” as the 94-page NCAA report branded him. He imparted a natural appreciation for life to those he encountered.

“No matter what people said about him, if you didn’t know him, you didn’t know you was missing out a lot,” Waiters said. “… He went too early, gone so soon, so young.”

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