Mixed bag: Spanning 3 continents and 5 years, the story of SU’s freshman class may exceed its hype
For the motley crew, there never was a true beginning. That’s what the three continents separating the Brazilian neighborhood of Juiz de Fora, the soccer-saturated streets of Saint Louis, Senegal, an inner-city neighborhood in Philadelphia and the Baltimore home of a kid named Carl Jr. will do to the most motley of recruiting classes.
But there is, and was, always an unquestioned leader in Dion Waiters. When Carl ‘C.J.’ Fair scours his mind for that starting point for the 2010 Syracuse freshman class, the closest thing comes in the form of a faded memory. Fair knows the meeting in the elevator at a random AAU tournament put SU’s unique four-man recruiting class on the same path.
Fair, admittedly, can’t remember the location or date of the tournament. But what he does recall is what became the first in-person meeting between two members of Syracuse’s 2010 freshman class.
‘I knew (Waiters), but he didn’t know me,’ Fair said. ‘He knew of me, but he didn’t really know me.
‘Time flies. And now we come up here with open arms.’
And so the fusion of one of the most eccentric recruiting classes in SU history — one comprised of Waiters, Fair, Fab Melo and Baye Moussa Keita — took off in the elevator. Syracuse’s 2010 freshman class is a four-man group of polar backgrounds and paths. It equates to the No. 7 class in the country — according to Scout.com — which is the best in the Big East.
There is the leader in Waiters, the No. 27-ranked player in the 2010 class who committed to Syracuse before he ever played a high school game. There is the gem in Melo, the No. 13-ranked player and preseason Big East Rookie of the Year who comes from Brazil, where athletic allegiance to a university is unheard of. There is Moussa Keita, the Gumby-strong Oak Hill Academy import from Senegal, ranked No. 96 in the country. And then there is the one ordinary recruit in Fair — from the Syracuse breeding ground of Baltimore that produced Carmelo Anthony and Donte Greene — ranked No. 90 in the country.
They may be an unlikely foursome whose recruiting processes were as motley as the group themselves. But as they prepare to start the 2009-10 season, they also comprise a class expected to provide SU with four key players. And all four of them are bringing that rookie-like bravado. Starting with the gem that is referred to by the SU basketball holier-than-thou word: Melo.
‘They all felt like they could play right away and help impact the program,’ SU assistant coach Mike Hopkins said.
Melo’s American name speaks directly to the outlandish nature of the construction of the class. The new Melo was found thanks to the first SU center who brought Jim Boeheim to a Final Four — Rony Seikaly. But before Melo became the next Seikaly or Carmelo who SU fans latched their hopes onto, he was merely Fabricio de Melo. Sagemont High School head coach Adam Ross’s lucky draw — thanks to de Melo’s two cousins living in Miami — from lower middle-class Juiz de Fora, Brazil.
Depending on the day of the week, Ross may have called his new center ‘Febreze’ or ‘Fabio.’ He couldn’t quite say de Melo’s first name. So, during a Sagemont practice in the fall of 2008, Ross explained the predicament, and in the vein of Brazilian soccer stars, Ross had an idea. Instead of the classic Brazilian one-names of Pele or Ronaldo, Ross wanted to put a little American spin to it. How about two names? How about Fab Melo?
‘That’s the best story of them all,’ Ross said. ‘Fab just sat back, smiled and said to himself, ‘Fab Melo … OK.”
Little did Fabricio know, his ‘OK’ would soon turn into, apparently, the most ironic get for an SU fan and for SU’s class. Just months later, Seikaly called SU assistant coach Bernie Fine about Melo.
‘Coach Fine was like, ‘I am hearing about this big kid,” SU assistant coach Rob Murphy said. ‘Before he was even rated, we got a chance to see him, and he was as good as advertised.’
During the same time, Delaware assistant coach R.C. Kehoe began to badger Hopkins. And it was all because of that YouTube video that was never supposed to be. Kehoe took notice of Melo when recruiting another Sagemont player that fall. As quickly as he realized his team wouldn’t have a prayer in landing Melo, Kehoe got on the phone with Hopkins. His good friend needed to get to Miami. Now.
‘It’s unbelievable,’ Hopkins said. ‘I looked at the YouTube thing, and then a few weeks later we are playing in Miami during the NCAA Tournament.’
With one look at Melo on the Internet-stream, the stream that was only supposed to be a practice tape, Hopkins said he felt like he was being entranced by something that didn’t seem real. Melo was that good.
‘You are talking about a guy, you watch a movie and you are like, ‘No way. No way,” Hopkins said. ‘And then you are like … ‘Way!”
On Aug. 4, 2009, Melo committed to Syracuse. He was the finishing touch on the class, four years after Hopkins originally saw Waiters. In between, the Orange managed to snag another big man who showed up on SU’s radar late in the game.
That big man was Moussa Keita, a Senegalese import through Carmelo Anthony’s former high school, Oak Hill Academy. His commitment was a sudden one, as very few had heard of him.
What the Orange secured was its first international big man in the class, a big man who, like Melo, grew up playing soccer. Not until the age of 14 did the then-6-foot-2 Moussa Keita pick up basketball. From there, he skyrocketed up the African basketball scene, aided by the Sports for Education and Economic Development School in Senegal. It’s a school that professes ‘NBA dreams with a dose of reality.’
In 2007, Moussa Keita got that dose of NBA reality. At the NBA’s Basketball Without Borders camp in Dakar, Senegal, the basketball deity of Africa, Dikembe Mutombo greeted a teenage Moussa Keita to the camp. Moussa Keita was tardy, and this was a huge chance.
‘Because of the paperwork, I was kind of late,’ Moussa Keita said. ‘That was like the last option. I then talked to Dikembe, and he told me to hurry up.’
From there, Moussa Keita hurried up all right, transferring to Oak Hill for the 2008 season.
Back in the United States, Waiters was in the midst of a hectic high school career in which his commitment to Syracuse was the only constant he had. He went through three high schools, including one he was kicked out of, before transferring to Life Center Academy in Burlington, N.J., as a junior. Waiters remained there until he graduated.
But despite the tribulations of Waiters’ high school career, he was the early get for the Orange. Thanks to seeing him play with his older cousin, current SU guard Scoop Jardine, in a pickup basketball game at Neumann-Goretti High School (Pa.) when Waiters’ was just an eighth grader, Hopkins and SU pounced on Waiters. He became an SU commit observing the evolution of the class he led through the rest of its formation — the elevator ride included. He was, basically, a member of the team. Murphy professed that even though Melo is the prize recruit, Waiters was the leader of the class. The guard referred to SU as his second family.
It speaks to the core of his situation, as well as the class’s. Waiters was the polar opposite of Melo. Melo is that marquee name that reminds fans of another identical one-word SU legend. Waiters is the forgotten cornerstone.
‘We knew we had a solid guard and we could build the class around him,’ Murphy said. ‘That’s what he did. He is going to do a lot for us this year.’
If the Syracuse basketball team was Waiters’ second family, his inclusion in SU’s class might as well have been his first. That’s why on Nov. 19 of last year, Waiters played that role of leader when the nation’s No. 7 player, Tobias Harris, chose Tennessee over the Orange.
He played the role of big brother, even if he is the youngest of the family. Waiters called up the other members of the class and got the point across.
After a half-decade of SU putting together perhaps the country’s best combination of skill and story in a 2010 recruiting class, this was the final family. These four were it.
They were the motley crew. And Waiters let it be known that in less than a year, each of the four would need to bring his best, wherever he was from, to help Boeheim to his first national championship since the days of another freshman tabbed ‘Melo.’
No matter where they were, someone needed to round them up.
‘I told them once practice starts, we are going to go hard,’ Waiters said. ‘They had to bring a championship back for Coach Boeheim.’
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