UT Men’s Basketball Manager Shows Character After Adversity

As a student equipment manager for The University of Texas Men’s Basketball team, Clay Mello often finds his day full of tasks like hand-steaming jerseys and racking basketballs, but it’s rare to find Mello without a smile on his face.

Mello and his fellow four student managers provide the unheralded backbone for the Longhorns, whether they’re sorting sweaty laundry or participating in drills during practice or shoot-around.

“It’s truly a dream to be a manager for this basketball team,” says Mello, a physical culture and sports major at UT. “I’m privileged to be here, so every day that I’m here, I love it.”

Under the eye of athletic equipment manager Rob Lazare, who’s been with the Longhorns since 1998, the student managers form their own team, often as brotherly and bonded as the basketball players they support. So, earlier this season, when they gifted Mello with a “Juan Pelota” T-shirt from a local coffee house owned by cycling great Lance Armstrong, the sentiment was both laughter and love.

Mello, 24, was diagnosed with testicular cancer two years ago, but was pronounced cancer-free following immediate surgery to remove the tumor. Testicular cancer is the most common form of cancer in males ages 15-35, and Mello won his battle without radiation or chemotherapy.

“I know life is short, and I try to live it one day at a time,” Mello says. “I’ve been through a lot, so I’m pretty lucky.”

As daily reminders of that fact, Mello wears pink bands on both his left and right wrists that read “Simply the Best.” He had them made in honor of his late mother Monika, who passed away in 2008 following a three-year bout with ovarian cancer.

Mello, an only child born to parents Steve and Monika, graduated in 2006 from Round Rock McNeil High School and then took the next year off to spend time with his ailing mother, whose condition was terminal.

“We were really close, obviously. I knew that she didn’t have much time,” Mello says. “Some days I’d just lay in bed with her, watch TV shows or do whatever she needed. Once she passed away, I looked at life totally different. Everything I saw was different. I looked at it through a different lens I guess.

That’s when I thought about seriously getting back into school.”

Monika Mello was a native New Yorker, which, according to her husband Steve, contributed to her tendency to “talk a mile a minute.” Being from Rhode Island, Steve did just fine holding his own.

Once they were married, the couple took a trip out west to visit an aunt in El Paso. What started as a one-week trip turned into a three-year relocation. During their final year in El Paso, the couple had their son, Clay.

But the border town’s desert landscape had Monika, a travel aficionada, longing for water and better topography. She set her sights on Austin, and Monika and Steve soon found new jobs in the capitol city.

Steve says Clay has been a “total jock since inception.” If it wasn’t on ESPN, Clay likely didn’t watch it.

A self-described lazy student in high school, Clay didn’t put much emphasis on grades.

“My mom always said if I studied my schoolwork how I studied sports, I would be at Harvard,” Clay recalls.

Monika worked as a nurse for more than 25 years, and she always told Steve she had a premonition she would die young. Monika was diagnosed with breast cancer in 1995, but defeated it after a mastectomy and chemotherapy treatments.

Ovarian cancer is the fifth-most common cancer among women. It often goes undetected and is almost incurable once it spreads into the pelvis and abdomen, and that was Monika’s reality when her cancer was discovered in 2005.

Clay often accompanied Monika to chemo treatments, and as her conditioned deteriorated, was there as doctors stuck a long needle in her lower back to drain Monika’s lungs. Monika defied death until her final days, and the family even took a horseback riding and whitewater rafting trip to Idaho in June 2008.

Monika passed away just 40 days later.

“She fought like a demon until her very last day,” Steve says. “The three of us were interchangeable, and when his mom died, Clay clung to me, and I gotta admit, I clung to him. She was our whole world. Without each other, I don’t know how we could have made it.”

Clay had already taken courses at Austin Community College and transferred into UT when he was showering one day in 2009 and noticed a lump in one of his testicles. He and Steve were in a doctor’s office on Monday, and Clay was in surgery by Friday.

“It took me a long time to grieve Monika. I still am really,” Steve says. “When Clay told me he found a lump, I was in shock. I was on the ledge, looking down. Luckily, I was able to gather myself.”

Clay was blessed by early detection, and after just seeing his mom take on the ugliness of chemotherapy and cancer headfirst, he was prepared for anything.

“I wasn’t that scared. I saw my mom go through the worst of the worsts,” Clay says. “I got so lucky, because I caught it very early. It doesn’t even feel like I had cancer, compared to what my mother went through. I missed a week of classes, but that’s it.”

The Mellos remain bound as tightly as ever, if now reduced to only two. But in a way, their unit also grown, thanks to Clay’s work with the basketball program.

“I always tell him, ‘Buck, that’s your little family over there,'” says Steve, who hasn’t missed a Longhorns home game yet this season.

Though the student manager position is defined by grunt work, Lazare usually gets 60-80 inquiries each year for as few as three open positions. Mello was hired on after working camps last summer and has fit in nicely, despite his unwillingness to play defense during pick-up games.

“We call it cherrypicking,” says graduate manager Chris Quinn. “He stays on the offensive side of the floor and waits for a long outlet pass. He will not play defense.”

Of the previous 29 student equipment managers who have worked for Lazare with the men’s basketball program, 10 are currently coaching at the high school level, five are coaching at the college level, and five are working in athletics administration.

Clay aspires to become a coach, and hopefully even one day open a foundation to permanently honor his mother.

“I try to bring her name up every day, think about her, just keep her spirit alive,” Clay says. “I try to have a good attitude and not let anything affect me. I really just want to do everything I can that would make her happy.”

This story was first published on Texassports.com.

Photos of Clay, Steve, and Monika courtesy of Clay Mello.


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