Living and learning on the fly: Melo's rise in the States


Word spread quickly around campus. It wasnt every day that a seven-foot 17-year old transfer student from Brazil was touring the grounds of The Sagemont School in Weston, Florida.

Fabricio Paulino de Melo -- Fab Melo, hed go by -- was moving to the United States to pursue the NBA dream. He didnt have any family with him. He didnt speak much English. He didnt have that much experience playing basketball, for that matter.

But he had a goal and a natural ability he was willing to spend countless hours improving in order to achieve it.

When I first laid eyes on him, I was very excited just based on his size, Sagemont basketball head coach Adam Ross told in a telephone interview. But then once we got him in the gym and really saw his athleticism and physicality, we got obviously very excited. Since that day, weve spent a lot of hours in the gym working on his game. Still, his best basketball is still ahead of him. But he did a very good job putting the time, effort, and energy in really honing his skills.

Melo was a work in progress. Growing up in Juiz de Forz, Brazil, he played the popular sport of soccer. Given his stature, though, he was encouraged to begin playing basketball in the ninth grade. With only a few short years of experience under his belt, Melo had a lot to learn on the court when he enrolled at Sagemont as a junior in 2008.

There arent a lot of human beings that are seven feet tall who can move and jump like him, said Ross. He has God-given stuff, natural ability. He has great timing, which is something all big guys dont have, and hes agile. He played soccer so a lot of footwork components of basketball, he had already. He had an unrefined skill set. He had all of these tools that really just needed repetition.

The teenagers transition went beyond basketball. With little knowledge of English, he had to learn a second language at an accelerated rate in order to communicate with his coaches and teammates as well as fellow students and teachers.

It wasnt easy, Ross recalled. Fab was kind of just thrown into it and had to adjust. He immediately was put in classes where if he didnt quickly start understanding the language, he was really going to fall behind and struggle. But he really made the adjustment a lot better than I would have if I had gone to school in Brazil and had to learn Portuguese. It was little bit of a rough process. Especially on the basketball floor, we had to go over things several times. Not because he didnt understand the basketball concepts, but he just didnt understand the English terminology that we used. That took some time but we worked through it.

Melo had left his mother and two older sisters (his father passed away when he was a small child) to live with a host family in Florida. Unlike his fellow classmates who lived at home with their own family, Melo went through his final high school years in an unfamiliar environment.

In addition to being his basketball coach, Ross became an ear to listen to Melo during this time. When the transition proved challenging, the two had numerous long conversations about Melos new life.

We had talk likes that on a sometimes daily basis because his situation was so unique to his peers, Ross said. Everyone else goes home to their mom and dad, or at least one parent, and siblings and can talk things out and deal with issues. Fab never had that. School wasnt easy. There was a huge language barrier. We demanded a lot on the basketball court, and that wasnt easy either because he had really no experience when he got to us so he wasnt used to being pushed like that. So he had to battle through adversity. We had a lot of conversations like that.

Yet throughout it all, Melo exuded a lighthearted, engaging personality that was contagious around campus. Students were quickly drawn to the new student with the outgoing demeanor. He spent hours in the gym with the kindergarten and first grade students as they climbed on and hung off of the towering upperclassman.

Melo shared his easygoing side with his teammates as well. During a high school tournament in Springfield, Missouri, he got his first glimpse of snow. Ross recalled leaving his team on the bus to check into the hotel and being greeted with a chilly surprise when he returned.

When I came back to the bus, Fab had loaded up with snowballs and just started pelting me and he thought that was the funniest thing in the world because he had never seen snow and it was his first snowball fight, Ross said with a laugh. Off the court hes really laid-back. Hes from Brazil and culturally theyre a little more laid-back than we are here in the United States. He always running around pulling practical jokes on people. Hes a funny, light-hearted, good guy.

As Melo became more comfortable with his new life in the United States, he began to look more and more at home on the basketball court. While he sat out his first year at Sagemont because of international transfer student rules, he continued to work on his game during that time.

Ross noticed a change in Melo during the summer entering his senior year. He modified his diet and increased his commitment to strength and agility training. During that time, college recruiters began expressing more interest in the big man, including those from his eventual choice, Syracuse University.

I would say the point when I really thought that there was a real chance at being a first round pick kind of guy was the summer between his junior and senior year of high school, said Ross. All the college coaches obviously took notice and he was getting a lot of publicity amongst high school basketball recruiting services. At that point we kind of all realized that he was a man amongst boys. This was a kid that was really going to have a chance.

He continued, I think it took a full year in the United States to really understand what it takes to be good in anything, especially in a sport like basketball. You talk to just about any high school coach and theyll tell you, post players take a little longer than guards to develop. But the good ones at some point, they make one good move or they figure out things they can do really well on the basketball court and that just gives them the confidence to continue to make good plays.

For him, that light just went on when he was finally in great shape and he was able to do things on the floor he wasnt able to do that first year. From there, it was kind of a snowball effect when you get the momentum going you just keep it rolling, and he did. He got better and better and better and it led him to Syracuse.

Before he left Sagemont, Melo earned accolades including McDonald's All-American honors, Parade All-American honors, and first team honors at the NBA Players Association Top 100 Camp.

But once he moved north to college in New York, Melo faced yet another transition. His role changed from standout high school athlete to less than 10 minutes per game (2.3 points, 1.9 rebounds) as a freshman. In addition, the excitement of snow he experienced during a high school tournament became the reality of every day life during the winter.

Like they did so many times in high school, Melo and Ross talked at length about his struggles.

Once he went off to college and went to Syracuse, he had a really difficult freshman year, said Ross. He had a really tough time adjusting to being away from here, being in cold weather, the rigors of college and college athletics and all the expectations that were rushed in onto him. We had a lot of talks during that year about staying the course and continuing to pursue the dream you came to the United States to pursue.

After a rocky first year at Syracuse, Melo bounced back for a solid sophomore season. He averaged 7.8 points, 5.8 rebounds, and 2.9 blocks in 25.4 minutes per game. His performance earned him serious looks from NBA organizations as he declared for the 2012 Draft.

Last Thursday night Ross joined Melo and a close group of friends and family, including Melos mother who made her first trip on an airplane for the special occasion, at a Miami restaurant to anxiously wait to hear Melos name called.

NBA Commissioner David Stern approached the podium and announced the Boston Celtics selected Melo with the 22nd overall pick. Celtic pride broke out in Miami Heat country.

Its hard to put into words what went on, said Ross. When his name was called and it was actually official, it was almost kind of like an out-of-body experience. Our entire group exploded and we were jumping around and hugging and high fiving.

Fab just kept saying, Boston Celtics! Boston Celtics! He was just so excited at the opportunity.Fab was already talking about how great its going to be to be part of the Boston Celtics organization and have the opportunity to go after the defending champions here.

Celtics front office executives praised Melos abilities to both block shots and take charges. At seven feet tall, he gives the team size and a presence on the glass they had been lacking. Ross expects the coaching staff to be pleased with Melos willingness to learn and take direction.

He has seen Melo progress dramatically since he began playing basketball at Sagemont and knows there are still areas of his game Melo is looking to improve upon.

Hes got some work to do ahead, said Ross. I think he can be an impact defensive guy right now. Hes going to provide a presence down on the post where he will deter guards from trying to make their next basket with a layup because he is a very, very good shot blocker. He does slide in and take charges.I think hes ready right now to contribute on the defensive end.

Offensively, I think he is going to get better and better as his professional basketball career goes on. Now he can shoot the ball better than I think most people think because he didnt do a lot of it at Syracuse. I think hell maybe have some flexibility with the Celtics to do that. But hes a very good passer out of the post. He will score a majority of his points on offensive rebounds and putback and lob plays or dunks. He is not the kind of guy thats going to take his man 15 or 20 feet away from the rim and take him to the basket off the dribble, like maybe Kevin Garnett or a guy like that can do right now. Maybe that will come later for him, but thats not his strength right now.

But I think Fab is really focused on being the best defender he can possibly be, and then contributing on the offensive end by keeping possessions alive and getting offensive rebounds and setting great ball screens for guards and finishing around the basket when he does have that option.

In less than five years, Ross has watched Melo transform from a towering transfer student to a nationally recruited high school standout, a Big East Conference award-winning center to a first round NBA draft pick.

He remembers the long days Melo spent in the gym and the even longer conversations they had about making a life for himself alone as a teenager in a new country. When Ross tells others of Melos story, he asks if they could make the same sacrifice Melo made as a 17 year old to chase his dream.

For most people, I know for myself, the answer is no, he said.

That set Melo apart more so than his size on the basketball court.

It was pretty obvious very early on when he first got here that he had a chance to be very special, said Ross. At that point, everyone here, everyone that knew him and had the opportunity to work with him, we all started having that dream of draft day, like maybe its really a possibility with this kid that hed get the opportunity to play in the NBA.

Hes determined to be successful. Coming here to pursue it was the price he had to pay to accomplish his goal. Thats why Draft Night was so special because it was really the culmination of all the blood, sweat, and tears and the realization that the sacrifices that he made really were the right decision, and they paid off.

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