FILE - This March 9, 2012 file photo shows Syracuse's Fab Melo (51), of Brazil, shooting over Cincinnati's Justin Jackson (5) during the first half of an NCAA college basketball game in the semifinals of the Big East Conference tournament in New York. Melo is a possible pick in the NBA Draft on June 28. (AP Photo/Frank Franklin II, File)
SYRACUSE, N.Y. — Maybe it was tough love from his college coach during a disappointing freshman year. Maybe it was playing overseas for his native Brazil. Maybe it was just wanting to please his mom.
Or maybe it was all that and more that transformed Fabricio Paulino de Melo into just plain Fab — the 7-foot center who made Syracuse an imposing team last season and now dons the famed uniform of the Boston Celtics hoping to leave his mark on the NBA. He was the 22nd pick in the NBA draft on Thursday night, a week after his 22nd birthday.
“Any time a guy only started playing basketball seriously about three or four years ago, there is some learning curve,” Celtics assistant general manager Ryan McDonough said. “But we’re encouraged by his ability to learn.”
Melo, who left Syracuse after being declared ineligible in March for the NCAA tournament, watched the draft from Florida with family and friends. He said he was happy to be a Celtic and will have a familiar face around when he takes the practice floor. Former Orange teammate Kris Joseph also was picked by Boston.
“He’s proud of where he’s at today,” said Adam Ross, Melo’s former coach at The Sagemont School, a small private institution in Fort Lauderdale, Fla. “It hasn’t been a smooth ride — he’s had some bumps in the road — but he’s managed to fight his way through all that stuff. He’s done well for himself.”
It’s difficult to fathom the journey.
Melo’s dad died of a heart attack when he was a toddler, and when Melo was a teenager his mother, Regina, decided that her son should leave his hometown of Juiz de Fora, an industrial city of about a half million people just north of Rio de Janeiro, and sent him to Florida with a dream to chase and not a dime to spare.
“Imagine as a 17-year-old you packed your bags and flew to Rio de Janeiro, Brazil to pursue your lifelong dream not knowing any Portuguese, not knowing what school or life in Brazil was like, and you did it without your parents or any kind of adult supervision,” Ross said. “How do you think you would have done? Personally, I would have folded.
“It’s just too much.”
Not for Melo, who eventually landed at Sagemont and moved in with his host family, Albert and Amy Gamarra and their three young children.
“My kids loved him,” Albert Gamarra said. “They look at him as their big brother. He’s very family-oriented. Once the kids met him, they took to him right away.”
So, too, did Melo’s teammates the instant he ducked through the door at Sagemont. Even though he had only started playing basketball in ninth grade after his soccer coach decided Melo and his size-18 shoes had outgrown the sport most dear to his heart, he was greeted with a resounding “Yes!”
“Everyone was obviously impressed with his size,” Ross said. “But once he was here, he was just another kid. He was clearly very talented. He needed some work, but he caught up very quickly. He was a soccer player and he was pretty good. You’d be shocked what he can still do with a soccer ball.”
After sitting a year because of rules regarding international transfer students, Melo’s budding basketball talent helped lead the Lions to a 24-7 record. He averaged 16 points, 12 rebounds and six blocks in his first full season in the United States and became a McDonald’s All-American and a Parade All-American, a portent of what lay ahead.
Despite its snowy reputation and his tropical roots, Melo chose Syracuse over offers from Connecticut, Louisville, Miami and Florida State, partly, he said, because the weather was the only bad thing anyone ever said about the upstate New York town.
Ah, but that name proved a curse at the outset. The other Melo in Syracuse lore — New York Knicks star Carmelo Anthony — had led the Orange to their lone national championship in 2003 and great expectations were placed on the new one.
When the Big East preseason rookie of the year struggled as a freshman, Ross blamed himself. Unable to pronounce Melo’s full name when the big Brazilian first arrived at Sagemont, Ross suggested an abridged version after mispronouncing it for six months.
“In some ways I felt responsible,” Ross said. “We shortened it to Melo not knowing he was going to end up at Syracuse. In hindsight, I don’t know if it was a good thing or a bad thing.”
At first, it seemed like a good thing. Coach Jim Boeheim inserted Melo in the starting lineup for the 2010-11 opener, and though he started 24 games, Melo was not prepared for the pace and physical nature of the Big East. Overweight and not in the best of shape, he often gasped for breath and was unable to get up and down the court fast enough.
More often than not, Boeheim made Melo his prized pupil on the bench. Melo also found it difficult to deal with Boeheim’s quick substitutions, missed two practices, and was benched. He ended his rookie season averaging 2.3 points and 1.9 rebounds and had only 25 blocks, then landed in City Court on a misdemeanor charge that summer after a fight with his girlfriend. (He was accused of breaking the turn-signal arm of his girlfriend’s car during an argument, pleaded not guilty, and his record was sealed after he underwent counseling and stayed out of further trouble).
“It was more the pressure that I had to be like Carmelo Anthony,” Melo said. “I will come in here and win a national championship for Syracuse. It was something I didn’t expect. I think that was the toughest thing for me. I’m still new to the game.”
Seemingly overnight, Melo morphed into a defensive monster. After playing last summer for Brazil’s national team at the World University Games in China, he returned to school more than 30 pounds lighter and in the best shape of his life.
Despite a three-game suspension at midseason because of academics, Melo shot 56.6 percent from the field, averaged 7.8 points and 5.8 rebounds, and registered 88 blocks, probably altering three shots for every block, forcing opponents to take the types of shots they were not accustomed to taking. His presence in the middle of Boeheim’s zone defense helped lead the Orange to No. 1 in the nation for six weeks and earned him Big East defensive player of the year honors. He also became adept at taking charges in the paint, which impressed the Celtics.
“Every rookie is unique,” said Danny Ainge, president of basketball operations for the Celtics. “I know he can block shots. ... He both blocks shots and takes charges. That’s unique for a big guy.”
“If he played another year here, he’d probably make a bigger jump. His future is very much upside,” Boeheim added.
Melo’s coming-out party came against Seton Hall in the Big East opener in December. He registered a school-record 10 blocks and scored 12 points for his first career double-double. Without him in the postseason, the Orange fell short of expectations, losing to Ohio State in the final of the East Region.
“The difference in their team when he was on and off the court was fairly significant,” McDonough said. “I think there’ll be a little bit of learning curve there with Fab, not only because he played zone at Syracuse but he played soccer most of his life. Their coaches gave him great reviews, said he was a very quick learner.
“That’s kind of what we saw, too, just from watching him as a freshman and his improvement this year.”