Melvin Ely: Big Man, Big Changes

By: Bobby Karalla --- @BobbyKaralla

Just before practice, Melvin Ely grabs a quick snack. After practice, he runs three miles before eating a big lunch. Then he snacks, then eats dinner, then eats another snack. Then it’s game time. All in all, Ely eats eight times every day.

It might not sound like the diet habit of a world-class athlete, but the 35-year-old Ely is arguably in the best shape of his life. The Legends’ most senior player feels like he’s in his 20s again after dropping nearly 30 pounds in the offseason to get down to 245. It’s another example of a hard-working, hungry – literally – veteran prolonging his career and setting the example for younger players.

Ely began shedding the weight toward the end of last season, when Legends staff encouraged him to get thin. He said he noticed the results’ benefits when playing in the Las Vegas Summer League. Everything seemed easier: he could run up and down quicker, he could rotate faster, and he could even hit shots he used to not be able to make.

“Nowadays, you don’t need to be 300 pounds, 280, because the game isn’t made that way,” he said. “It’s made fast. Guys are thinning up, guys are quick. You need to keep pace with other teams.”

And Ely isn’t the only one who has noticed. During a Legends broadcast, Ely’s wife heard an announcer reference the center’s stamina after a prolonged stretch of back-and-forth play. Ely took the observation in jest – he even agreed with it – but said the lifestyle change has not just helped him move with ease. It’s also kept him off the trainer’s table so far.

“I’ve been blessed not to have knee problems, but last year I had to ice my knees after every game,” he said. “… This year, it’s like I’m 20-something again. I can play a couple games and I can walk right out of the gym without ice.”

Other pro teams have noticed, as well. Ely spent time in training camp with the Memphis Grizzlies, who took note of his improved physique and the quickness with his activity and hard work, especially on the defensive end. He was among the last players to be released, although he said most expected him not to last as long as he did. Once the Grizzlies cut ties with the nine-year veteran, Ely said the decision to return to the Legends, where he spent last season, was an easy one.

“I have a family, so I like to stay close at home, and the organization is so great,” he said. “They were actually the ones that started me losing weight to begin with. So I came back here.”

Ely is older than every other Legends player by at least seven years, yet the scrappy vet still beats some of the younger players in full-court sprints. He’s made it no secret that he’s a talker, so if he beats a 20-something in a foot race, the whole gym knows about it.

“I’ve beat six or seven of them running down the court and they have me by 10 years easy,” Ely joked. “But when I do it, the next time we run, they get closer, so I’ve constantly got to be in better shape myself.

“They’ll look at me, they’ll shake their head, and it pushes them through practice, and I enjoy it,” he continued. As much as people think I help them, they help me just as much. "They definitely keep me young.”

Many players in the D-League, including several on the Legends, have had a taste of the NBA before. Players like Terrel Harris, for example, have said adding physical elements to their game – speed, athleticism, even an improved jump shot – sometimes are not as important as adding the mental and emotional discipline required to compete at the NBA level. At Legends Media Day, the shooting guard mentioned he needs to “become more professional, on and off the court” as the most important aspect missing from his repertoire.

Ely is highly regarded by his teammates, and the center said the younger players, including Harris and point guard Sean Singletary, are now turning to him for advice on how to handle themselves away from the game, and he couldn’t be happier to help out.

“Normally, these guys just pick my brain about old games, but now they’re asking me about certain situations and how to handle things, and I like it,” he said. “To ask somebody that question, you have to have a lot of trust in them, and I do feel honored when they do it. So when they do it, I just give them my past experience. I’ve been in a long time, so I either did it or I’ve seen it done.”

That wasn’t always the case with the slimmed-down center, however.

“I didn’t have it at all at first,” he recalled. “I can honestly say I was a jerk. I was young. With youth comes stupidity. It goes hand in hand. When I was young, I didn’t know anything. And then as the years went on, you start picking things up from veteran guys.”

Ely said he learned how to carry himself from similarly respected players like Chauncey Billups – "You couldn’t find one person in the world that can say one bad thing about Chauncey Billups,” he said of the Detroit Pistons point guard – Tyronn Lue, who now coaches in the NBA, and Al Harrington, who’s with the Washington Wizards. Losing the weight and working hard in practice is Ely’s way of leading by example, the method he picked up from players like Billups and Lue.

“If something’s getting me down, I try to cheer everybody on … if you’re not having a good game, it’s not good to show it on the court,” he said. “You work hard, and you think to yourself ‘it’s gonna get better, it’s gonna get better,’ and eventually it does.”

Things have been getting better for Ely so far this season. He scored 16 points and blocked three shots on Dec. 2 against the Rio Grande Valley Vipers on the heels of a 12-point, 5-rebound, 1-block performance against the Tulsa 66ers two days earlier. Whatever he’s done in the workout room has translated to the court, but the advice and encouragement he’s provided his younger teammates might be his most lasting – and important – contribution to the team.