We almost never knew you

Alonso Tacanga

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Rodrigue Mels always had it in him. His r’eacute;sum’eacute; authenticated it: Went to school with an NBA Finals MVP? Check. Played pickup basketball with him and his all-time defensive ace buddy? Check. Won nationwide MVP honors? Check.

Yet the senior’s elbow-rubbing with Tony Parker didn’t help him get a prominent role with the Matadors men’s basketball team coming into the 2008-09 season. His experience going heads up against Bruce Bowen didn’t make him Division-I ready. His MVP trophy from the national junior college tournament was nothing but a memento of a has-been.

CSUN Head Coach Bobby Braswell knew what he was getting in Mels: an athletic guard, a shooter and a scorer. Mels never thrived as a one-on-one stopper, but his active hands made him a defensive treat whenever a pass traveled from an opponent’s hands towards another’s.

‘I told Rodrigue he was probably the most talented guy in our program,’ Braswell said.

The statement came from a coach who had a guy who once scored 63 points in a single game and another who was the Big West Conference leader in assists for two consecutive seasons. Just how was the skinny man from Guadeloupe ‘- who averaged five points per game coming into 2008 ‘- his best player?

Backtracking to the beginning of the season, Mels wasn’t nearly prepared to be the best. Deon Tresvant, the 60-point man, and Josh Jenkins, the assist machine, had a year of experience and recognition ahead of the Guadeloupian. Mels couldn’t buy a role other than a ‘catch-and-shoot’ one for less than a fourth of a game’s duration.

But Tresvant went down for the season after being accused of a crime he claims he didn’t commit. Jenkins was also unable to finish his last days as a Matador on the court after suffering year-ending internal injuries in a car crash. Mels, CSUN’s best player, finally got his chance, because of others’ misfortune.

The junior college champion out of Midland made the most of it. He made the Matadors champions. Against UC Santa Barbara in the Big West Tournament’s semifinals, he should have had 30 points. In reality, he had 28, but the two he got after bouncing an inbounds pass back to himself off the back of All-Big Wester Chris Devine ‘- which led to a statement-making, game-sealing dunk with 41 seconds to go ‘- should have counted for four.

Those were the kinds of plays Braswell envisioned when he said what he said. There was a reason Mels won a national MVP, even if it was at the JUCO stage. And who did Mels beat on his way to that award and the championship? Jenkins’ Frank Phillips. On a buzzer-beating putback dunk.

Two years later, Jenkins and Mels were teammates. One was the Matadors’ face, the other a player in the shadows trying to earn the leeway that comes with being an established senior. Had Jenkins and Tresvant not been forced to cede those minutes to Mels because of life circumstances, would anyone have ever known who this French kid was?

‘Who knows? That’s a tough question. You don’t know the answer,’ Braswell said. ‘But I do know he rose to the occasion and the adversity we were facing. He stepped up.’

Braswell isn’t entirely the bad guy in this story. Mels was not ready to contribute when he first got to Matador-land. A groin injury prevented him from ever feeling comfortable on the court during 2007-08 as Northridge won a share of the regular-season championship and was eliminated in the tournament’s semifinals.

A season later, on the same stage, it was him who was dunking the Matadors into the Big West finals and it was him splashing six of 10 points in overtime against CSUN’s all-time nemesis (Pacific) to clinch Northridge’s second-ever berth to the NCAA Tournament. Had Jenkins and Tresvant been there, the Matadors could have still been champions, but it would have never played out the way it did.

Jenkins himself admitted it. He was happy for Mels getting his chance because he knew better than anyone the 6-foot-3 guard was buzzer-beating talented. Jenkins just hated Mels’ opportunity had come at his expense.

‘It was bittersweet,’ Jenkins said.

In the Big Dance, Mels’ 15 points were a major reason the Matadors were ahead of No. 3 Memphis, 62-56, with 10:11 to go. The upset didn’t happen. The Tigers went on to win 81-70, but Northridge made a name for itself. No first-round exiter deserved a hero’s welcome as much as Northridge did on Thursday.

Braswell is still getting e-mails from thankful fans proud of belonging to a community that has CSUN in its heart. As far as Mels goes, he probably will not admit it, but there had to be a miniature man standing on his shoulder whispering negative things to his ear from time to time. He felt he could have averaged 20 points. Instead he’ll be looking for a job showing nine points per game as his most impressive senior-season stat.

‘Coach knew what he was doing,’ Mels said.

There is a reason Braswell won the coaching version of an MVP award in back-to-back seasons. Consecutive Big West championships also didn’t happen from thin air. Through so much adversity, Braswell held it all together, even if that meant one ‘- or seven ‘- players weren’t happy.

Mels was the odd man out until the men ahead of him weren’t there anymore. A matter of adversity got transformed into luck for someone. If it wasn’t for that ‘hellip; Rodrigue who?