TAKASAKI, GUNMA PREF. – Far from the bright lights and frenzied crowds at state-of-the-art NBA arenas, Melvin Ely plies his craft with determination and dedication half a world away.
The Fresno State product, the 12th overall pick in the 2002 NBA Draft by the Los Angeles Clippers, didn’t (and doesn’t) receive the recognition that many of his peers get. But he takes immense pride in doing his job the right way and for his longevity as a professional basketball player.
Now 36 years old, the 208-cm Gunma Crane Thunders center is focused on his the third-year franchise’s current quest: advancing to the playoffs for the first time. Furthermore, Ely said, “as long as they keep calling my name for jobs, I’m coming. . . . I’m still ready to play.”
In an interview on April 11 after the Crane Thunders thrashed the Yokohama B-Corsairs 75-57, a game in which Ely had five points, 10 rebounds and three blocks, he took stock of his role for the team.
“It’s different every night,” Ely, who has had two 21-point outings this season, told Hoop Scoop. “Tonight I was more of a defender than a scorer. (Coach Charlie Parker) didn’t really care what (shots) I hit as long as I was in there blocking shots and rebounding and being in people’s face. So that was my role tonight. Tomorrow may be different; tomorrow I may have to score on the block and do different things, and I’m OK with that.
“I get double-teamed no matter where I go and who I face,” the lone current bj-league player with NBA regular-season or postseason games on his resume said of his foes in the 22-team circuit. “And I take that as a compliment, especially with me being 36.”
After being drafted by the Clippers and spending two seasons with them, Ely bounced around the NBA. He played for the Charlotte Bobcats (2004-07), San Antonio Spurs (2007; team won the title, he didn’t play in playoffs), New Orleans Hornets (2007-09) and Denver Nuggets (2010-11) before a stint in the Puerto Rican League in 2012. He suited up for the NBA Development League’s Texas Legends in the 2012-13 and 2013-14 seasons, earning an All-Star start in his second D-League season and finishing it with 15.8 points and 5.8 rebounds in 41 games. Then he played the final two games of the 2013-14 NBA season for the New Orleans Pelicans before resurfacing in Gunma last fall.
All told, Ely has appeared in 375 NBA regular-season games, averaging 5.3 points, 3.2 rebounds and 16 minutes. Perhaps the most revealing number about his long career in the world’s premier basketball league is this: 55 starts.
Yet through it all, Ely always pined for more court time.
“It’s no fun being an insurance policy,” he declared. “And here I get to play.”
“My thing is, I spent a lot of my years in the NBA sitting on the bench. That’s no secret,” Ely told me. “I was always an insurance policy for if a big went down. I remember I got traded to the Spurs when they had a championship run just in case something happened to their second big (backup Francisco Elson). When I was at Charlotte, I actually played at Charlotte because Emeka Okafor stayed hurt, but I was their insurance policy.”
Indeed. Ely played a career-high 79 games for Charlotte in the 2004-05 season. He averaged career-high totals in minutes (23.6), points (9.8) and rebounds (4.9) in 57 games (22 starts) for the club the next season.
A decade later, Ely is an active, pesky defender with quick lateral movement. He doesn’t make fancy, cute plays; he brings intensity, hustle and an old-school competitive drive to the Crane Thunders.
Teammate Carlos Dixon, a Virginia Tech alum, recognizes how important Ely’s leadership is for Gunma.
“Mel has been in the NBA for 13, 14 years, so he knows the game very well,” Dixon said. “He knows the angles, good footwork, he just knows how to position himself and to position us to get a rebound, a good shot, or anything. He’s a smart guy out there and we need him to be a leader for us.”
Dixon described Ely as a “coach on the floor,” a mentor who’s provided key instruction for the team’s Japanese players at practice. Dixon also called him a “big-time inspiration.”
“Oh, he’s doing great,” added Dixon, Gunma’s leading scorer (18.2). “He makes the right play. He makes the right pass.”
Dixon said Ely’s field-goal shooting (57.9 percent, sixth-highest total in the league) is indicative of his solid fundamentals. Ely is averaging 10.8 points and 6.9 rebounds in 46 games.
“When he sees that he needs to go and try to get a bucket, he goes,” Dixon said. “When he sees a person open, he’ll hit the open person, and that’s helped us a lot.”
Looking back on his D-League experience over the previous two seasons, Ely summed it up this way: “proving that I can still play.”
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The Crane Thunders endured a rocky start under first-year coach Parker in the fall, going 1-12 to start the season. Ely said it took him too long to get adjusted to the league, citing that as a factor in the team’s early woes.
“I think I should have caught it a lot faster,” Ely admitted. “I struggled at times and being in a new league you do that. But as the year went on, my play has gotten stronger and now I’m happy. But at the beginning I wasn’t. There’s no way we should’ve been 1-12.”
With improved all-around play, Gunma (18-30 through last Sunday) pulled itself out of the cellar and is in the hunt for the East’s eighth and final playoff spot along with the Shinshu Brave Warriors and Yokohama, both of whom are 19-29.
Parker, a longtime NBA assistant coach who has also coached in college and the D-League, admitted that Ely’s experience is invaluable for the Crane Thunders.
“I think anytime you have a player that has championship experience, whether it’s the NBA or bj-league or whatever league, it always pays off,” Parker told reporters after the series opener against Yokohama.
He added: “(Today), his leadership behind the scenes was very important for us, and his experience and leadership definitely helped us get this win.”
Pressed to give further details of that behind-the-scenes leadership, Parker said, “During the huddles and particularly during halftime he pulled the guys together and told them what they needed to do and told them that we needed to all step up and play, and play to fight towards a championship. So it was the little things in the huddles and at halftime and even before the game he’s talking to the players about stepping up and playing this kind of game.”
Ely, meanwhile, didn’t come across as boastful or arrogant during our interview. Instead, he exuded confidence that comes from more than a decade in his chosen profession.
“I think I’m more dangerous now than I was at 26,” said Ely. “To be able to use things that I learned from other people, and I take some stuff from young guys, too, and pull it against them.”
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Throughout Ely’s career, he has played for some of the most well-known coaches in the game: Jerry Tarkanian (Fresno State), Alvin Gentry (Los Angeles), Bernie Bickerstaff (Charlotte), Gregg Popovich (San Antonio), Byron Scott (New Orleans) and George Karl (Denver).
“I’ve lucked out and had good coaches and all of them say good things about me,” he said with a smile.
Here are two of the more memorable descriptions Ely offered during our conversation:
• “George Karl was extremely funny, but firm and fair. Extremely fair. You played well, you played in games for him.”
• “Popovich will force the best out of you without you even knowing it.”
He also spoke with deep respect for Hall of Fame coach Tarkanian, who died at age 84 in February. While at Fresno State, Ely helped lead the school to NCAA Tournament appearances in 2000 and 2001 and wrapped up his college career the same year that Tarkanain retired. The two men remained close, according to Ely, who said he spoke to Tark on the phone the day he died.
“He was a great man,” Ely said, adding that Tark played a vital role in his maturation as a man.
“I had some situations in high school. I didn’t graduate on time and things were looking hazy and everybody snatched their scholarship offers back and I remember Coach Tark going to my mom and telling me, ‘If you give me this child, I’ll bring you back a man,’ and he did.
“I learned something from that man every day, and he was a joy to be around. He was a father to so many, and I think without him I wouldn’t be here. I’d be working a 9-to-5 (job) somewhere, and that’s my honest-to-God opinion. I’ve told his son that.”
Tark became a revered father figure for Ely.
“I lost my father going into my senior year (of high school) and I was lucky to catch another one in college with him,” the Gunma big man said. “To lose him, the word is a little bit sadder now. I tell people because he’s a great man. He’s affected so many people’s lives … and I’m just honored to be one of his kids.”
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Ely grew up in Harvey, Illinois, near Chicago, a town with a population of 25,282, according to the 2010 U.S. census. His humble roots provided him with never-wavering appreciation of what he has.
“It’s not the safest place on earth and definitely below the poverty line,” Ely said of his hometown, “and coming from there you learn to take things as they come and to appreciate everything.”
For instance, Ely still drives the F-350 truck he purchased as an NBA rookie. And like his former Spurs teammate Tim Duncan doesn’t fit the stereotype of the so-called typical NBA player’s glitzy lifestyle.
Duncan, in fact, may be the most atypical superstar in pro sports today. But his five championship rings — he’s tied with the Lakers’ Kobe Bryant in that department among active players — and status as one of the game’s legendary big men speak volumes.
“He was the best big I ever played with by far,” Ely said. “His patience, his knowledge of the game. I remember getting in and scoring and I’m yelling around and Tim looked at me and he goes, ‘Act like you’ve done it before. That’s how we play. … You’ve dunked before, you’ve scored a basket before. Act like you’ve done it before.’
“So I kind of sat back and I thought about it,” recalled Ely. “I go, ‘All of that energy I had jumping up and down, I can get my butt back and maybe get another basket.’ “
“His patience, be quick but don’t hurry. That was his thing. His basketball IQ, it’s amazing. He’s definitely the best person I ever played with.”
As the conversation continued, Ely referred to Duncan and retired superstar Shaquille O’Neal as 1A and 1B “because Shaq was pure power. You had to be disciplined, you had to hit him at the free-throw line. If you got close, you had to wrap him up and hope to God he didn’t take you with him.”
Ely described Shaq as being similar to a controlled bowling ball rapidly heading in your direction.
“The things he used to do on the court you wouldn’t think somebody that big and that powerful could do,” Ely observed. “Go to the middle 100 mph (161 kph) and stop on the dime.”
The 111-kg Ely will never be confused for Shaq; their body types are stark contrasts, but by facing guys built like Shaq and Duncan over the years he picked up the tricks of the trade.
“You learn a lot being in the league and you try to implement everything you leaned during the course of the season because not every team is built this way,” Ely noted. “Normally I’m chasing guys around, they’re smaller and quicker, so I have to use my length and that’s from the teachings of Tim, using length. No matter what they have to come to the basket or they have to shoot over outreached hands.”
In short, Ely augmented his own game by observing successful bigs’ skill sets, especially the crafty Duncan’s.
“Tim Duncan would do every thing to trick you so that he could get the perfect shot for him, not the perfect shot that everybody would think he should get on the block,” Ely said.
“Sometimes you are outmuscled every now and then, so you use other tricks.”
When youngsters dream of their future careers, they don’t shout out “NBA backup” to their buddies. But Ely has hung around long enough in the game to gain perspective that comes with the passing years.
“My career might not be as glamorous as LeBron James,’ but darn it, I’ve experienced so many things and have a ring that not too many people have,” Ely concluded. “My career is awesome to me. I might not be on a poster or on a cereal box but, man, I had a great run, a great, great run.”