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America got what it needed out of Fab Melo

Melo never stood a chance in the American basketball system

Big East Basketball Tournament - Syracuse v UCONN Photo by Jim McIsaac/Getty Images

Fab Melo was the American Dream.

An athlete so gifted with talent that despite being tucked away in an industrial city in Brazil, he was whisked away to America where he could turn that potential into profit, for him and others. Once here, his new coach shortened his name, Fabricio Paulino de Melo, to Fab Melo. He did so in order to make it more palatable for American brains. However, the way it intrinsically-linked him to another basketball prodigy was the lasting effect.

Even before he arrived at Sagemont School in Florida, the college basketball buzzards circled. Considered one of the best recruits in the nation, he ended up picking Syracuse over Louisville and followed in the footsteps of that other Melo, where expectations for a star freshman are sky-high.

There was no reason for a talented Brazilian kid to end up in Upstate New York except that part of the American Dream requires penance and sacrifice. Melo made his in the form of learning who he was while also learning a new language in a strange land all in front of a national audience.

His struggles were mighty. Heaped with expectations he never asked for, he was deemed a failure before he’d even found his footing. He had all the potential but he was way behind in terms of conditioning, physical and mental. Had the situation been different, he might have redshirted. Or maybe it wouldn’t have mattered.

"We basically set him up for failure,” Fab’s Sagemont coach Adam Ross told ESPN in 2011. “There was so much hype, so many expectations. He didn't ask for any of that. He'd barely played. He started in the ninth grade. People here, they start when they're 4, but anything short of 15 points and 10 rebounds for his freshman season was going to be a failure. And so he failed."

The system doesn’t ask you if you’d like to be a part of it. You’re a part of the system and then it’s up to you what you do about it.

After an abysmal freshman year, which included a fourth-degree criminal mischief charge for an incident with his then-girlfriend, Melo returned for his second season like the player all of that potential said he could be. In 25 games, Fab averaged 7.8 points and 5.8 rebounds but it was his defense that made him standout. He became as dominant a player in the middle of Jim Boeheim’s 2-3 zone as there has ever been. The rare big man who can redirect an opposing team’s strategy because they don’t want to end up eating the ball he’s just swatted back at them. He blocked at least four shots in eleven games, including a ten-swat performance against Seton Hall, en route to being named Big East Defensive Player of the Year.

2011 Dick's Sporting Goods NIT Season Tip-Off - Syracuse v Stanford Photo by Patrick McDermott/Getty Images

What we remember most about that season, however, is what happened in between and after those 25 games. Melo, who struggled to understand English, let alone handle complex assignments while putting in countless hours in service to Syracuse’s mighty basketball program, was deemed ineligible in January over academic failings. He was reinstated after missing three games (though only after someone wrote a paper for him). Just before the NCAA Tournament, with Syracuse’s sights set on a Final Four, Melo was deemed ineligible once more when the facts came to light. The Orange would make it to the Elite Eight without him but the lack of a big man to offset Ohio State’s Jared Sullinger was part of their undoing.

Melo took the fall from every angle. Syracuse fans excoriated him for not doing his schoolwork. Pundits lambasted him as a posterboy for what’s wrong with college basketball. Partially because of an investigation but partially out of a need to save face, SU didn’t stand up to defend him. He was deemed lazy and unfocused and unwilling to do what was being asked of him. Most of all, he had disappointed everyone who believed in his potential.

You are not handed the American Dream. You have to work for it. You have to strive for it. And we will take it away from you if we deem it necessary.

Melo left Syracuse and entered the NBA Draft, mostly because he didn’t have a choice. Still, his raw potential carried him to a first-round pick by the storied Boston Celtics. The system wasn’t done with him yet.

2012 NBA Rookie Photo Shoot Photo by Nick Laham/Getty Images

He played in six total games for the Celtics before he was shipped off to Maine and the D-League. He probably should have started there and had the system been about what’s best for Fab, that’s where he would have. But being a first-round pick comes with expectations and those expectations demanded to be met (or not). That it laid bare his inability to play at the NBA level wasn’t Boston’s program, it was his.

Not that Melo didn’t continue to prove himself. He once blocked 14 shots in one game for the Red Claws and was named to the NBA D-League All-Defensive First Team and All-Rookie First Team. After that, however, his NBA dreams fizzled out and by 2014 he was back in Brazil where his stunted pro basketball career sputtered to an end in November 2016. He would be found dead in his bed three months later.

Like so many immigrants before him, Fab Melo came to America with the capacity to change the lives of so many people around him. His potential was the kind that could change a high school academy’s reputation, a college basketball program’s fortunes, and a pro basketball team’s chances. That’s why the very thing that made it possible for him to come here in search of a better life was the same thing that doomed him. Melo was a commodity, even to those who cared about him. Others showered him with expectations that he didn’t ask for and then lambasted him when he failed to meet them. And when he was of no use to us anymore we shipped him back to Brazil, maybe with a little money in his pocket but not much else to show for his time here.

The business of basketball is a harsh one. Perhaps harsher than many simply because the moneymakers at the center of it all don’t actually get to make any of that money until they cross a hard-to-reach line that only a few of them do. Kids grow up dreaming of using that given talents to make the millions and that’s exactly how you create a system built on monetizing them the whole way up the ladder. Even fans who recognize the flaws in the system will find themselves blind to it, happy to scour a guy like Fab for his lack of loyalty while pushing another player out the door becase you’ve found someone better. Someone like Melo is doomed.

R.I.P., Fab Melo. I wish you could have come to Syracuse with less hype and less promise so that you had a chance to reach your true potential. But then again, if that were the case, we wouldn’t have wanted you in the first place.