Ely navigating road back to NBA after year out of basketball

Slimmed-down veteran forward fighting for roster spot with Nuggets

Melvin Ely was a month into his junior year at Fresno State, working toward a degree in broadcast communications and a career in the NBA, when his first son was born on Sept. 29, 2000.

Between basketball practice and his class schedule, he didn’t always have the opportunity to experience some of the priceless moments of fatherhood.

The first steps. The first words. The spontaneous afternoon naps with Melvin Jr. zonked out on his chest.

Given a second chance to make that father-son connection, Ely took full advantage.

Out of the NBA last season, he was meeting with a professional team in China when he had to fly home to attend the birth of his second son, Aaron, in January. One look into the infant’s eyes, and Ely knew he wasn’t heading back to Asia.

“Once my son was born, I just decided to stay and be a father for a while,” he said. “It was hard to leave him when you see those little eyes looking back at you.”

Ely’s eyes are now back on the NBA, an exclusive club that is difficult to gain initial membership and nearly impossible to re-enter after an extended absence. He is hoping to be one of the exceptions while going through training camp with the Nuggets.

“I know the league better than just about anybody,” said Ely, who has played for four teams in seven NBA seasons. “I know it’s ‘outta-sight, outta-mind,’ I also know that sometimes you can shock the hell out of people coming back in good shape, looking different.”

Ely, 32, certainly looks different than he did a year ago when he reported to training camp with the Sacramento Kings weighing 260 pounds. His weight went as high as 285 before he hired a nutritionist and started running Red Rock Canyon near his home in Las Vegas.

Working out daily and avoiding junk food for four months, Ely said he lost 45 pounds to help add a dimension of quickness to his familiar back-to-the-basket post game.

“This summer, everybody’s looking at me funny because it’s like apples and oranges,” he said. “My game stayed the same, but I added so much by just being thinner. Hopefully I’m not too light to fight.”

Nuggets power forward Nene had to do a double-take when Ely walked into the locker room.

“He’s so lean, so skinny,” Nene said. “If I didn’t stare at his face, I wouldn’t recognize him. I’ve been 282 pounds maximum, but 285? Unbelievable.”

Ely and the Nuggets have flirted in the past, but their mutual needs helped them make a roster connection this year.

With power forwards Chris Andersen and Kenyon Martin recovering from knee surgery, Denver could use some interior help early in the season. The Nuggets have 12 players under contract for 2010-11 and must add one more to reach the NBA minimum.

“I’m not going to be given anything, but to be able to go somewhere just to get a fair shot, you don’t understand how rare that is in this league,” Ely said. “I’m going to get it here. That’s all I can ask for – a fair shot – after missing a year.”

There are plenty of familiar faces for Ely in Denver. He works out during the offseason with Nuggets guards Chauncey Billups, J.R. Smith and fellow Las Vegas resident Al Harrington, who signed as a free agent this summer.

As an added bonus, Nuggets assistant coach John Welch was an assistant at Frensno State when Ely was averaging 15.7 points and 7.5 rebounds as a four-year starter for the Bulldogs.

“Melvin was great for us at Fresno,” Welch said. “Just a great kid. He’s been in the league and was out of the league for a year. It’s a good opportunity for him, and he gives us a solid veteran that can really help us out.”

“I’ve always been very impressed with Melvin,” Billups said. “He has a skill set on the block, back to the basket, that gets forgotten about. He can really score with both hands around the basket. I’ve been surprised he hasn’t been able to stick with a team long-term.”

Nuggets coach George Karl is intrigued by Ely’s new physique and he looks forward to seeing what he can bring during the preseason.

“We’ve kind of always liked him, and it seemed like he always found something else just before the season,” Karl said. “More than most NBA teams, we don’t believe in bulk as much as we believe in speed, quickness and athleticism. I think he’ll be an interesting guy to evaluate over the course of training camp.”

This much is certain: Few – if any – players in camp will be as motivated as Ely.

“There’s so many things driving me now. The list is long,” he said. “Best believe, it will be a fight. Today until that last cut, I’ll be fighting for it.”

If Ely can complete his improbable journey back to the NBA, it would give his two boys a chance to see him play in the NBA once again. That would qualfy as another priceless father-son moment.

Contact Aaron J. Lopez at alopez@pepsicenter.com