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The day waited for six years is here, Melli’s love story with Milano is now completed

13/07/2021
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There is a popular song in Italy, talking about some special loves. They come and go, make unexpected turns just to be back where they belong. The verse was written by Antonello Venditti while Nicolò Melli’s favorite songwriter is the late Lucio Dalla, but the concept best represents this story. Nick returns to Milan six years after leaving town, in the summer of 2015, at the end of a very weird season, in which Olimpia won a lot (26-4 was the regular season record), but lost the games it shouldn’t have lost, the Supercup final, the Italian Cup final, a terrible semifinal Game 7 at the Mediolanum Forum. At the end of the season, some kinds of revolution took place. Melli found himself in the process of leaving Milan and re-starting from Bamberg. Raise your hand if you, within the red and white fans people, have not continued to feel Melli as one of yours. The feeling stayed there when he returned as an opponent, first with Bamberg and later with Fenerbahce, always winning the games. And raise your hand if you did not continue to cheer for him, for example, in the EuroLeague championship game in Belgrade in which he scored 28 points but failed to bring home the win over Real Madrid. The best game of his life, on the most important day of his career, even without the joy of a well-deserved win. And of course, during the two years he spent in the NBA, first in New Orleans later in Dallas where he also made his playoff debut. The truth is that everyone has always and only wished that Nicolò Melli could one day return to Milan. That beautiful day is today.

Nicolò Melli from Reggio Emilia is the son of Leopoldo, a former player in the Emilian minor leagues and his first fan. When Olimpia won the Italian championship after an 18-year drought, on June 27, 2014, at the Mediolanum Forum, Nicolò played a great game, completing a double double effort that included the final rebound. After the buzzer, Melli turned, looking to the area of ​​the grandstand where his family was sitting, in search of his father, without realizing that Leopoldo was already there, next to him, ready to hug him, only to be pushed away by his son who in the excitement of the moment, among a wild-acting crowd, hadn’t even recognized him! Leopoldo Melli married Julie Vollertsen, an American volleyball player, living in Italy to continue her career after a silver medal outing at the Los Angeles Olympics. From their union, in 1991, Nicolò was born, half Reggiano and half American, from Lincoln, Nebraska. In the next few days, Melli will play at the Tokyo Olympics, 37 years after his mom participation, in a different sport, for a different national teams!

Before the Los Angeles Olympics, Julie had been practicing with her National Team in the same place where the US basketball team held the training camp. Michael Jordan was part of that team, among other young stars. Many years later, Nicolò was summoned to a camp reserved to the best Italian teenagers. That camp took place in Milano, at Palalido. He did not imagine that it would soon become his home, the gym he attended every day for practice as an Olimpia player. That day, however, he did not even imagine being named MVP of the camp. And the one who rewarded him with the trophy was Michael Jordan himself. The usual plots of fate.

Nicolò was born with a basketball in his hands. He has a picture of his crib, where a miniball sleeps next to him. When he started playing basketball in Reggio Emilia, during the years of the local basketball explosion, his dream was to reach the Italian top league with Reggiana. In his first minibasket team he even had Alessandro Gentile among his teammates, because his father Nando was playing in Reggio at the end of his glorious career. Melli was a year older than Alessandro, taller, bigger, stronger. “Unstoppable” is the Gentile’s definition. Yet, on the first attempt to play basketball, Nicolò showed up at center court for the jump ball and tried to hit it with his fist. But the dream of playing with Reggio Emilia was easily achieved and then in 2010, at the age of 19, he got the call from Milan.

 

Melli will always be a product of the Reggio youth teams, but it is in Milan that he has grown up. The first year, he was forced to finish the season in Pesaro to get some playing time. But in 2011 he came back to stay. That was the year in which he played for a while with Danilo Gallinari, in which he had some minutes in the EuroLeague and scored 11 points in the Game 4 of the championship series against Siena, the only game that Milan won. Gradually, he started to make a name for himself. The following year, he started eight games and pulled out a 15-point game in 18 minutes with 6-for-6 from the field and eight rebounds against Brindisi. It was not a great season, however. Milan was eliminated in the first round of the playoffs and new changes followed. But that was also Nicolò Melli’s last season as a “young promising” player, in the sense that afterwards he became an important player, one you could count on, day in day out.

During the 2013/14 season, the coach was Luca Banchi. Olimpia chose CJ Wallace as its starting 4, but Wallace had to undergo surgery immediately during the preseason. To strengthen the position, the veteran Kristjan Kangur was signed, but Melli was the one, at 22, playing the majority of the minutes. In the Italian league, Olimpia played 47 games in 32 of which Nicolò was a starter, including 16 out of 18 during the playoffs, with the 11 + 13 outing during the championship-clinching Game 7, the one of the immense joy, the one of the missed hug with Leopoldo. That was also the EuroLeague playoff season: Melli was a member of the team that won eight consecutive European games and had also a 20-point game with 9-for-10 from the field against Zalgiris. The following season, Linas Kleiza was the starting power forward in the beginning, but even then Melli was the one who actually took control of the spot, with 34 out of 39 appearances as a starter in Italy A, 17 out of 24 in the EuroLeague. The painful defeat against Sassari in game 7 of the semifinal was the last game of the first Milano part of his career. And it was probably the last of a cycle, because six years later a different player will return to Milan, a star of European basketball, famous throughout the continent, with two years of NBA experience behind him. And a mature man, because in the meantime Melli got married, became a father, is over 30, and time has transformed him into an adult man, of course.

The championship won in Milan in 2014 was the first of four, two conquered in Germany with Bamberg, one in Turkey with Fenerbahce. The second season in Bamberg was the season that crowned him as a top-level player. In the EuroLeague, he averaged 11.5 points and over seven rebounds per game, shot north of 53 percent from two and of 43 percent from three. Then, he was recruited by Fenerbahce, with the goal of winning the EuroLeague. Curiously, he played his first road with the Turkish team in Milan. It was the game in which Vlado Micov forced the overtime with a buzzer-beating three. Fenerbahce won the game, anyway, Melli had 15 points and 11 rebounds. He would later score 23 points vs Barcelona and 21 vs Baskonia in the game that qualified Fenerbahce to the Final Four. Finally, the monstrous 28-point championship game against Real Madrid, 28 points that were scored actually over the last three periods.

Melli could have gone to the NBA as early as 2018, right after that game. But he turned it down to try to win the EuroLeague the following season. Fenerbahce returned to the Final Four, in Vitoria, but it was in less than ideal conditions. Gigi Datome, for example, was injured and unavailable. The semifinal with Efes was a no-contest. At that point, Melli really made the leap to the NBA, in New Orleans. He played 60 games as a rookie for a team that, after the Anthony Davis trade to the Lakers, was gradually rebuilt around Zion Williamson. He moved to Dallas in the middle of last season in a more complex trade built around the shooter JJ Redick. He played 105 total NBA games, 1.608 minutes. A path similar to the one that his great friend Gigi Datome had. He could have waited for a new NBA chance: he is young enough to try again. Or he could have chosen one of the many EuroLeague teams ready to sign him. But some loves don’t end, some loves come back. There is a Olimpia jersey waiting for Nicolò Melli in the locker room. Raise your hand if you haven’t waited for six years to see that jersey finally used. That day is today. Nicolò Melli is back.

NICOLO' MELLI
NICOLO' MELLI
NICOLO' MELLI