Fab Melo’s life was complicated, and what to believe versus what was just fairytale was always murky. He was a 7-foot big man from Brazil who landed in South Florida carrying all sorts of crazy attention on the recruiting circuit. He was a defensive stopper who helped lead Syracuse to the top of the polls, but may have never gone to class. He had anger issues which flared up into domestic violence incidents. He had massive hopes draped on him, but was a punchline for clumsiness. He is the gravitational center of a Hall of Fame coach vacating more than 100 wins.
The 7-foot basketball big man passed away over the weekend from a presumed heart attack. He was just 26 years old. He had already lived a bizarre, intense basketball life. He roared into our world like a flaming comet, only to fizzle as quickly. The light was certainly bright at times, but more often you had to squint your eyes to find it. Was the comet really that rare or just lifted by the stories of people wanting to make it more than it was.
The 7-footer from Brazil. The Big East Defensive Player of the Year. The first-round draft choice of the historic Boston Celtics. The player that just seemed to appear out of thin air, and then vaporize into the mist just as quickly. I was working in Miami at Sportsradio 560 WQAM when I first heard about him. That name just seemed like an action hero – Fab Melo – and he carried the incessant whispers of the “next big thing” at Sagemont High. Have you seen this kid? He’s huge! He’s swatting everything! He’s a Brazilian Olajuwon. But get to know the basketball recruiting scene well enough, and these are popular sentiments. In football we have a pretty good handle on what’s out there. All the impeccable talent is being homegrown in our country. Basketball, though, carries a different kind of myth-making. Hakeem and Dirk and Kobe were all developed overseas. The reality was you could still find future basketball Hall of Famers by someone walking out of the mist.
I was in contact with his high school coach Adam Ross for a number of months. I was trying to get traction for my relatively new website focusing on Syracuse sports, Orange Fizz, in ’09. Fab seemed to walk out of the mist and directly into my one-bedroom apartment. There was only one Melo in Syracuse history, and that guy walks with legends. Now another one? A major SU recruit being courted by tons of major programs, in my backyard, and cloaked in mystery. I documented every stage of the recruitment, but sometimes even Ross seemed to lack information on his star that began attracting national attention for the school. I visited Sagemont. I had Ross on my radio show. I called and emailed all the time. But talking to Melo was just another level of enigma. He didn’t know English, and wasn’t comfortable doing interviews. I was tracking his interest in schools, but really had no idea what was real and what was myth. I couldn’t actually speak to the main character.
Eventually, Fab chose Syracuse, which seemed slightly bizarre for a Brazilian kid who landed in Miami. Central New York in the winter is about as similar to Juiz de Fora (his hometown) as I am to Gisele. We heard he was a city guy and NYC was close enough to Syracuse to lure him to the Hill. But that also seemed a tad bizarre, considering anyone who’s driven through quiet downtown Syracuse at night knows it feels a million miles from Manhattan. More mythology.
The scrutiny started to press on him as soon as he got to campus. He was brutally unpolished, seemed to always be dealing with small nagging injuries constantly, and Jim Boeheim refused to play him in important situations. A normal Fab line: 7 minutes, 2 points, 2 rebounds, 3 fouls. This was the mythical Brazilian big man? Getting eaten up by more rugged American centers who had grown up fighting for every scrap of their basketball lives, and fearing nothing about attacking a 7-foot center on rollerskates.
He could be an easy going guy to interview (as he finally grew more comfortable with English), and a popular student on campus while double-fisting beers at Chuck’s. But there was also a dark side. Allegations of domestic violence followed him, the authorities investigated, and he mysteriously disappeared for a few days in the middle of the season. The noise started to build. We were able to speak to someone close to the alleged victim. The details were fairly horrifying. Fab wiping his own blood on her shirt and asking if she wanted more? Who was this guy?
Syracuse and Fab went silent. This all-too-soft big man who was pushed around every night in the Big East actually had a fierce side? And he used it on his girlfriend? The mystery. Would he be dismissed? Would he leave for the pros? The storm blew over, he was charged with just misdemeanor trespassing. He admitted on Facebook he had made mistakes, but didn’t give specifics. We never really knew what to believe.
The next season Fab returned to the team and began living up to the expectations. Syracuse had fallen into a malaise in the seasons after the other Melo, Carmelo Anthony, left. But Fab began to dominate. He was an interior presence, rebounding, blocking shots, an intimidator helping make SU one of the best teams in the country. The Orange turned into a machine. And the rest is one of the most bizarre unravelings in program history.
Fab was suspended by the program twice during the season because of eligibility questions, the final one a punch to the collective stomach of Orange Nation. He was deemed ineligible on the eve of the tourney, and the 31-2 Orange just weren’t the same without him. They survived Wisconsin the the Sweet 16, but got picked off by Ohio State in the Elite 8. The march toward the program’s first Final Four since Carmelo’s run ended, and Fab’s seeming apathy toward school was the center of the angst. Why exactly was Fab suspended? Drugs? Classwork? Impermissible help on projects? No one ever seemed to know the truths of his life.
Fab would enter the NBA Draft, and the neverending cloud of uncertainty followed. Boeheim muddied the waters even more by stating Fab was not suspended because of academics. I was working in Boston at 98.5 The Sports Hub at this time and predicted on-air the Celtics would take Fab and Jared Sullinger. They did (I had good intel on it). But I also immediately knew Fab would be a mistake. If you had followed his story like I had, from the earliest days coming to the U.S., you knew he had a knack for driving into the ditch.
Fab was an instantaneous punchline. The Celtics thought Fab’s education at SU was a joke. He was demoted to the Celtics’ D-League team, the Maine Red Claws (perfect) and somehow sustained a concussion after hitting his head on a hotel door (more perfect). Doc Rivers compared him to the Prince of Air-Heads, Manny Ramirez. That’s just Fab being Fab, he laughed. Rivers viewed him as a big lunkhead who would never be in his plans. The Celtics were playing for championships. There was no time to babysit 7-foot softees.
He actually made the D-League’s All-Rookie team but the story forever slipped sideways on Fab. He quickly flamed out of the NBDL and bounced around to lesser leagues. Syracuse vacated 108 wins due to punishments handed down by the NCAA, and every asterisk and t-shirt printed in defense of Boeheim’s 1,000 wins has Fab at the center. The penalties weren’t just because of Fab’s poor studies, but he would always wear the biggest clown shoes because of it. Saturday night when I learned of his passing I wish I was surprised. I wasn’t. Not because you ever expect a 26-year-old to die in his sleep. But because his entire existence seemed haunted from the start. His life was one enduring mystery, and this was that type of epilogue. Fab was a folk hero, living a tall tale, from start to a very early finish.
D.A. hosts 6-10 p.m. ET on the CBS Sports Radio Network. He has hosted The D.A. Show (aka “The Mothership”) in Boston, Miami, Kansas City and Ft. Myers, FL. You can often catch him on the NFL Network’s series “Top 10.” D.A. graduated from Syracuse University in ’01, and began looking for ways to make a sports radio show into a quirky 1970’s sci-fi television series. Follow D.A. on Twitter and check out the show’s Facebook page. D.A. lives in NYC, and is a native of Warwick, NY.