Every part of Fab Melo’s life was complicated. Every chapter was a twist or turn. There was nothing easy or simple about the big man’s journey, even when it appeared all was well on the outside. When Fab passed away over the weekend from an presumed heart attack at just 26 years old, it seemed (in the most depressing way possible) almost appropriate. Because if anyone would be taken from the world this quickly, just a few years after college, it seemed to be the 7-footer from Brazil that was always a Paul Bunyan-type story anyway.
I was working in Miami at Sportsradio 560 WQAM when I first heard about Fab. That name just seemed like an action hero – Fab Melo – and he was quickly becoming a legend of a player at Sagemont High. South Florida isn’t usually where hoops icons are randomly discovered, but Fab had everyone interested. How good was he, and how raw was he? And could you really trust the hype of a 7-footer from Brazil who landed on shore in Florida and was mostly a mystery? Those are the types of recruiting stories that usually fizzle out.
I was in contact with his coach Adam Ross for a number of months. I was trying to get traction for my relatively new website, The Fizz, in ’09. Here was a major SU recruit in the region I was living in, and the type of player who could potentially push Syracuse to the next level. I documented every stage of the recruitment, constantly kept in contact with Ross. I visited the school. I had Ross on my radio show. I called and emailed him all the time. But talking to Melo was another matter. He didn’t know English, and wasn’t comfortable doing interviews. So again, the story took a mystery/thriller vibe. I could track his interest in schools, but I 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 to hoof it upstate to Central New York. But hey, when you beat UConn and Louisville to a recruit, SU fans don’t normally ask many questions. And the optimism reigned. 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 a quiet downtown Syracuse at night knows it feels like a million miles from Manhattan.
But everyone wanted to believe, because Wes Johnson appeared out of the Iowa cornstalks to lead SU into the top 5, and Devo and Paul Harris had finally moped their way off campus, and this was the Era of Good Feelings. As we wrote at the time: “No recruit dazzles the senses and raises the bar of expectations quite like Brazilian big-man Fab Melo.”
He got to campus, donned a jersey, and immediately became the focus of fan frustration. He was brutally unpolished, dealt with injuries constantly, and Jim Boeheim refused to play him in important situations. Our own Mike Couzens (yes, the rising star broadcaster you hear calling college basketball for ESPN), reported on his microtear injury, just the latest pothole, and asked whether Fab should just shut it down.
There were moments of terrific play from Fab, but always a nagging feeling he would never live up to the hype. While he could be an easy going guy to interview (as he finally felt more comfortable with English), and a popular student on campus while chugging beers at Chuck’s, there also seemed to be a dark side. Allegations of domestic violence crushed him, causing him to miss time in the middle of the season. The noise started to boom around him. In perhaps The Fizz’s most notable story ever, 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?
Syracuse and Fab went silent. Would he be dismissed? Would he leave for the pros? And somehow, he actually returned to the team and began living up to the expectations. 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 deemed ineligible on the eve of the tourney (we sarcastically headlined it FML, with “Melo” being the M. That now in retrospect seems ominously dark). The 31-2 Orange were knocked off before their presumed Final Four appearance, and Melo was the center of the angst. One of the best teams in Boeheim’s history lost its defensive player of the year because of schoolwork apathy, it seemed. Fab would enter the NBA Draft, and the cloud of uncertainty followed him. Boeheim added fuel to the fire by saying Fab was not suspended because of academics. I was working in Boston at 98.5 The Sports Hub by this time and predicted on my radio show the Celtics would take Fab and Jared Sullinger. They did (I had some good intel on it and understood the C’s roster needs). But I immediately also knew Fab would likely not work out for Boston. If you knew his story like I had, you knew his life always seemed to drive into a quagmire.
Fab was essentially an instantaneous bust and punchline. The Celtics themselves thought Fab’s education at SU was a joke. Fab was demoted to the Celtics’ D-League team (perfect) and sustained a concussion after hitting his head on a hotel door (even more perfect). Doc Rivers compared him to the air-headedness of ManRam. That’s just Fab being Fab, he laughed.
He actually made the D-League’s All-Rookie team but the story was always slipping sideways on Fab. He quickly flamed out of the NBDL and bounced around for lesser leagues internationally. 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. And Saturday night when I learned of his passing I wish I could say I was surprised. But 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.
He was a folk hero, living a tall tale, from start to a very early finish.