Fab Melo hits the scene
This story appeared in the South Florida edition of the December ESPN RISE Magazine.
The name. You have to start with the name.
Fab Melo. It sounds too good to be true. Like a made-in-Hollywood stage name.
To be fair, Fabricio de Melo hasn't always been known as Fab Melo. But when he came to Sagemont (Weston, Fla.) from his native Brazil before his junior year, Lions coach Adam Ross was having trouble getting his name down.
"The first time, I think I called him Fabio Melo," Ross says. "Then I introduced him to the team as Febreze Melo."
Ross quickly came up with a solution.
"I said, 'Look, I see all these Brazilian soccer players with one name,'" Ross says. "'What if we shorten your name? How about Fab Melo?' I expected him to look at me and say, 'No, how about you learn my name?' But he just smiled and said, 'OK, it's Fab Melo.'"
Since then, the 7-foot, 265-pound center has lived up to his first name with a fabulous combination of size and skill. And everyone from Roy Williams to John Calipari is familiar with his moniker. Despite not playing high school basketball last year due to the FHSAA's rules governing international transfers, Melo became an instant sensation due to his performances at Sagemont practices and on the AAU circuit. He's now rated the No. 20 senior recruit in the ESPNU 100.
Coaches from elite college programs would come to Sagemont to check out the school's other Division I prospects -- including current junior and two-time ESPN RISE All-Area pick Rod Days -- and by the time they left, they were also buzzing about Melo.
The recruiting process was a new world for Melo. When he came to the United States, he had never even seen a college hoops game on TV. He couldn't tell Rick Pitino from Rick Ross.
"I didn't know anything about any of these schools," Melo says.
In the end, Melo decided on Syracuse, a move that seems almost predetermined given the Orange's success with another Melo. In reality, Melo 2.0 developed a tight bond with Jim Boeheim and his assistants and was wowed by Syracuse's facilities, including the Carrier Dome and the brand-new Carmelo K. Anthony Basketball Center -- aka the Melo Center.
"I told Fab he got off cheap," Ross says. "Carmelo had to give $3 million to get his name on the building."
Melo's family back in Brazil was just ecstatic their son would be getting a free education, regardless of where.
"I told my mom I was going to Syracuse and she said, 'What is that?'" Melo says with a laugh.
Back in Brazil, of course, soccer is king. And like many basketball players from South America, it was Melo's primary sport as a kid. But as he kept growing (and growing), he was directed toward basketball. Eventually, he landed on Brazil's youth national team.
He flashed superstar potential, but in order to take his game to the next level, he realized he'd have to go to the U.S. It wasn't an easy decision, but Melo knew it was for the best. Plus, he had family in South Florida, and with Sagemont's reputation as a good fit for international students, he found a place that offered a smooth transition.
"It was really tough leaving my family," Melo says. "And learning the language was really hard."
Melo's personality made him an instant hit on campus. Even as he was learning English (he's now fully conversational in it), his sense of humor transcended any language barrier.
"Fab's as laid-back as they come," Ross says. "He's a prankster who loves goofing off. He's constantly cracking jokes and trying to make everyone laugh. He doesn't take himself too seriously."
And while he's retained his love for Brazilian food and would rather watch a soccer game than the NBA, Melo's pop culture tastes -- Lil Wayne beats and Will Smith movies in particular -- have been fully Americanized.
"He did a lot better than I would have at age 18 in Brazil," Ross says. "He's by far the most popular kid in our school, he has a great group of friends and is doing well academically."
Of course, having the kind of game Melo has is a pretty good conversation starter.
"The first time I saw him was in an open gym and after about two minutes I turned to my assistant and gave him a high-five," Ross says. "He was still very raw, but he had a tremendous skill set for his size."
Unlike many high school big men who are struggling to grow into their bodies, Melo runs the court like a gazelle and finishes fast breaks with authoritative slams. He can face up to the basket from 20 feet and knock down 3-pointers or drive past his man. And he's not afraid to post up down low and get physical.
"Melo has a blend of size, coordination, strength and fitness that can only be found in a future pro," says Team Breakdown coach and Florida basketball guru Kenny Gillion. "There are not too many 7-footers anywhere with his upside."
Still, Melo knows he has a lot of work to do. He only started playing basketball at 14, so he's still learning the finer points of the game. He wants to work on his defense and conditioning before getting to Syracuse.
He might have a long way to go, but given how far he's come in the last 18 months, it doesn't seem that daunting.
"I never imagined this would be possible," Melo says.
And he's just getting started.
"I know Fab has personal goals of playing in the NBA," Ross says. "A lot of kids have that dream and for most, it's not reasonable. But with him, and I'm hesitant to say it, but his goal is attainable. With time, he'll be able to develop NBA-type skills."
By then, Melo hopes to bring his basketball career full circle. With Rio de Janeiro being selected as the host of the 2016 Summer Games, Melo is already planning the ultimate homecoming as a member of Brazil's Olympic basketball team.
"As soon as it was announced, he called me and was so excited," Ross says. "He was like, 'Coach, Rio got the Olympics. I'm going. I'm gonna be there.'"
So keep an eye out for Melo as he takes the next steps in his basketball journey. Something tells us you won't have any problem remembering his name.
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