Rich Barnes/Getty Images
February 15, 2017
There are so many memories Adam Ross wants to share, so many stories. One, though, stands out most among them all.
It was winter 2010. Eighteen months earlier, Ross had been introduced to a 7’0″, 255-pound Brazilian named Fabricio Paulino de Melo. The teenager had recently enrolled in Sagemont School in Weston, Florida, where Ross was the basketball coach.
Melo had come to the United States without any parents—and without knowing much English—at the behest of some coaches and agent-like figures from Brazil. They believed the NBA was part of his future, even though he had only been playing basketball for a few years. A heart attack had killed his father when Melo was just a boy, and Melo’s mother wanted her son to receive an education in the U.S. and to be able to continue playing basketball, too.
Melo had family in Miami. They sought out Sagemont and set up Melo with another family in town to serve as his host. He sat out his junior year of high school because of Florida’s transfer rules but was permitted to practice with Ross, who had trouble pronouncing his name and began calling him Fab instead. Fab also linked up with an AAU team to continue honing his skills. He studied English by watching ESPN.
As a senior, Melo emerged as a dominant basketball force. The big schools came calling. In time, Ross himself received a call. Melo, the kid not even two years removed from living in Brazil, had been named a McDonald’s All-American, an honor reserved for the top high school players in the country. Ross couldn’t wait to share the news.
“(Melo) became so emotional afterwards,” Ross recalled over the phone this week to Bleacher Report. “I don’t think it’s something that in a million years he ever expected, and it showed that he had made the right decision to come over.”
Melo told Ross he needed a moment to himself. A few weeks later, he committed to Syracuse.
Seven years later, on Feb. 11, 2017, Melo’s lifeless body was discovered in the Juiz de Fora home of his mother and his two sisters. A heart attack reportedly killed him, according to Bud Poliquin of Syracuse.com. He was only 26.
He never reached the heights his family and his friends assumed he would. He made it to college but spent two scandal-ridden years at Syracuse before leaving school. He made it to the NBA as a first-round pick but appeared in just six total games.
Yet those who knew him best don’t consider his career a failure.
Nate Shron/Getty Images
“Everyone is quick to label him a bust or a flop,” Ross says, “but the truth is: put yourself in his shoes. Imagine that you’re 16 and dropped in a foreign country without your parents and you’re basically on your own, and if you don’t become an NBA All-Star, we’re going to call you a bust.”
Less than a week has passed since Melo died. Ross pauses a moment, then continues.
“If you look at it that way, I’d say Fab was an overachiever. That’s the story I’m still waiting for someone to write.”
This story won’t be that one. But it won’t be about how much of a bust Fab Melo was either. Life, after all, isn’t black or white.
To understand Fab Melo’s life, you have to be willing to view it in gray.
Melo barely spoke English the first time he visited Syracuse. “All he wanted to do was stay in the hotel,” says former Syracuse guard Scoop Jardine, who hosted him on that visit. Melo was just a high school junior at the time, still new to America and its big-time college basketball scene.
But as he grew more comfortable with the language and himself, Melo came out of his shell. A year later, he returned to campus, officially a member of the Orange. He became one of the more gregarious players around the locker room, where he was always flashing his large gap-toothed smile.
He loved dirty humor and rapping out loud to Lil’ Wayne. He’d exchange jabs with Dion Waiters, who enjoyed poking fun at Melo’s thick Brazilian accent. He’d greet friends with warm bear hugs and often short-circuit his own jokes by laughing before the punch line.
Jim McIsaac/Getty Images
“He was such a people person,” Jardine says. “He had such a big personality.”
Nolan Hart was another teammate at Syracuse. “He just had a thirst for life,” Hart says. “He was just this vibrant person. And the best teammate you could have.”
“Fab was a happy go lucky guy who enjoyed the daily journey with his teammates and friends,” Nick Resevy, another Syracuse teammate, says. “If other people was happy he was happy.”
Melo struggled on the floor as a freshman but kept working. He battled senior center Rick Jackson in practices, taking issue with foul calls he deemed weak.
As a sophomore in 2011-12, he morphed into the beast the Orange hoped they had recruited. He averaged 7.8 points, 5.8 rebounds and 2.9 blocks in 25.4 minutes per game, but his presence on the floor outshone his numbers. He was a defensive force, a house in the middle of head coach Jim Boeheim‘s stifling zone defense.
“That year, he was probably the best defensive center Syracuse has ever had,” Hart says. “I don’t think a lot of people, unless they’re basketball junkies, realize how valuable he was on that end.”
The on-court success enabled Melo to become more comfortable off the floor. He grew close to his teammates, especially Resavy, Matt Tomaszewski and his freshman-year roommate, Baye Moussa Keita. They’d kill time playing FIFA and watching Melo down heaping plates of chicken wings.
They’d pile into Resavy’s black 2013 Toyota Corolla and, as Resavy described it, “go for an adventure.” Sometimes, they’d try to drive uphill following snow blizzards; other times, they’d go to the mall or drive around Erie Boulevard. Once they went to a Friendly’s and told the wait staff it was Melo’s birthday (it wasn’t). On the road, they’d always eat at a Cheesecake Factory or pull pranks on each other, like the time they got Melo to try on a Chinese finger trap.
“He thought his fingers were stuck,” Keita says. “He thought he was going to pop them out.”
When he didn’t feel like going out, Melo would sit on his Target-bought sheets with Keita and talk. They’d reminisce about their respective home countries (Keita is from Senegal). Melo would brag about Brazil’s weather and beaches. Sometimes, he’d mention how lucky he was to have chosen basketball over soccer.
“If not, I wouldn’t be where I am today,” Keita recalls Melo telling him. “But he didn’t really bring up anything deeper about his home than that.” He preferred to spend his time poking fun at his Muslim friend for not eating bacon or explaining to him why The Da Vinci Code was a great read.
Patrick McDermott/Getty Images
He had good friends and was skyrocketing up NBA mock draft boards, and Syracuse was winning too. Melo was happy.
“Fab was a pleaser,” Ross says. “He wanted everyone to be happy and proud of him.”
But what happens to a pleaser when he stops pleasing?
“I really think we would have won the national championship if Fab hadn’t gotten suspended,” Griffin Hoffman, a former Syracuse teammate of Melo’s, says. “He was the anchor of what I think is one of the best Syracuse teams ever.”
In January 2012, Melo was suspended for an “academic issue.” He missed three games but remained eligible for the rest of the regular season. Syracuse won its first 20 games of the 2011-12 campaign and went 17-1 in the Big East, which named Melo Defensive Player of the Year.
The Orange earned a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament and looked poised for a title run. Then, on March 13, the first day of NCAA action, the school announced Melo was suspended again, only this time for the remainder of the season. Syracuse’s campaign came to an end in the Elite Eight.
Later, it came to light that Melo had been at the center of a sprawling investigation into the Syracuse athletic department. The NCAA had learned athletic staffers had pulled strings to keep Melo (along with other players) academically eligible. They wrote papers for him. They posed as him in emails to professors. Melo became a symbol for much of what is wrong with college athletics and a scapegoat for the Syracuse fans angry about the team’s falling short of a title.
“People take things pretty seriously up here,” says former Syracuse guard Eric Devendorf, who serves as an assistant strength coach for the team. “It can make life tough if they feel, right or wrong, that you let them down.”
This wasn’t Melo’s first issue on campus either. A year earlier, he had been charged with criminal mischief after getting violent around an ex-girlfriend. According to a police report obtained by the Post-Standard‘s Robert A. Baker (via Syracuse.com), he snapped off the turn-signal control arm of her car while she was in the driver’s seat.
Joe Robbins/Getty Images
But that incident didn’t affect his eligibility. The academic scandal did, and Syracuse’s fanbase turned on him.
“I think he felt dejected after that,” says Hart. “He felt the fans let him down.”
“He stopped talking to me for a bit around this time,” Ross says. “He knew I was the guy who’d tell him things straight, and there was no reason for him not to do well in school.”
A few months later, Melo, feeling that he was no longer welcome at Syracuse or with the NCAA, declared for the 2012 NBA draft.
His Syracuse friends hadn’t spoken to him since he left the U.S. two years ago. Neither had Ross.
Melo’s NBA career had fizzled out. The Boston Celtics had selected him at No. 22 overall, but he spent most of his time playing for the NBA Development League’s Maine Red Claws. He played well too, even blocking a D-League-record 14 shots in one game.
Otto Kitsinger/Getty Images
He bounced around the D-League a bit, never sticking in one place for long. One time, when playing for the Texas Legends, the Dallas Mavericks’ affiliate, he got into a heated exchange with head coach Eduardo Najera.
In 2015, he decided to continue his professional career back home. He lost touch with most of the friends he had made in Florida and Syracuse. He exchanged some quick texts with Jardine eight months ago but nothing more than that. At times, even friends in Brazil had trouble reaching him.
“We were in touch when he was happy,” says Marcelo Starling, a childhood friend from Brazil, “because sometimes he wouldn’t answer us on messages or phone calls.”
“He was going through a hard time,” says Pedro Leal, another childhood friend. “He saw his dream come and go.”
Leal says he last spoke with Melo 10 months ago. They talked about life, his new basketball team and a rough breakup he was having trouble getting over.
“But he was trying to climb up again,” Leal says. “I just think it’s hard to do it once you’ve already fallen.”
Melo never did like delving into his past. “It was tough for him, leaving his family,” Resavy says. “It was a huge adjustment. He was homesick at times—we tried not to talk about it too much.”
Resavy doesn’t remember Melo ever bringing up his dead father. Neither do Melo’s other friends. Nor did any of them ever meet his mother. Ross, a quasi father figure in Melo’s life, didn’t meet her until the night the C’s drafted him.
“He grew up in a very tough environment,” Ross says. “He lost a parent early on, saw many people close to him pass away or become incarcerated. He dealt with poverty and violence and a lot of things kids shouldn’t have to deal with.”
Sergio Hentschel/Getty Images
Still, friends like Starling say he was happy at the end. That he was enjoying his life back in Brazil, where he could both play basketball and be himself.
You can’t help but wonder, though, what he thought about what his life had become. Was it worth leaving home and his family to play basketball, a sport others wanted him to play? Or was he just trying to please? Most of his friends say he loved the sport, but a few waver when asked.
“He definitely enjoyed being around his teammates and around the guys and going to battle with them,” Resavy says.
“I think he liked basketball,” Ross says after pausing a moment. “But it was more that he understood what it could do for him.”
* An earlier version of this article mistakenly attributed the a quote (“Fab was a pleaser. He wanted everyone to be happy and proud of him.”) to Nick Resevy. That quote was said by Adam Ross.
All quotes obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted.