I have a group chat that for the last decade or so of my life has encapsulated what every Iowa State fan suffers from daily, weekly and yearly. Arguments ranging on everything from:
“Would pairing up Harrison Barnes and Doug McDermott have saved McDermott’s job?”
“How sure are we that Chizik didn’t try and turn us into a “Bag Guy” type SEC school?”
“Was Georges’ broken foot the biggest ‘what if’ in the modern era?”
And of course, over many a few cold beverages we have argued the Mt. Rushmore of both major men’s sports, and much like death and taxes, the certainties of the men’s basketball team are almost always:
Hoiberg. Grayer. Niang. Orr.
And while these four absolutely have their place among the history books and with good cause, how is it that one name seemingly always gets left out of contention? How is it that Melvin Ejim, for all of his accolades, never gets brought up for the part he played with turning Iowa State around? Why does this former Big 12 Player of the Year and product of Canada get overlooked time and again for the four years he spent in Ames?
A person could sit here and rattle off all the stats, that person could talk about how as a freshman, the Toronto-native was only one of thirteen freshman to ever average double digits in points per game. That same person could talk about how as a sophomore he was named to the first team All Academic list. Two people could even discuss how in his junior campaign he led the Big 12 in rebounding, which was Iowa State’s first since Jackson Vroman.
A fan could sit here and describe how his senior season (arguably) was one of the single greatest efforts by a senior in school history, which culminated in being one of only three players in school history to ever win a Big 12 Player of the Year trophy, the other two being Marcus Fizer and Jamaal Tinsley, respectively. How that in that final season he played for possibly the best Iowa State team since the turn of the century, a team that had three future NBA players on it and still Melvin was the one who managed to be the stand-out.
To be frank about all of this, there was never really anything flashy about the way Melvin played hoops. His style of basketball was like the way John Mayer plays guitar in that the smooth, consistent and relaxed style, eventually leading to an extraordinary crash crescendo. Until Melvin’s senior season, he had only hit the 20 point mark six times through the first 101 games of his career. Within the first thirteen games of his senior campaign he would match that mark of six with ease.
So why is it with all the facts and statistics laid out in the open for everyone to look at that Melvin is never thought of in conversation for making the Rushmore of Iowa State basketball? He may not have had the personality of Georges or the hometown love of Hoiberg, but for consistent play and awards, he stacks up to most of the greats in a toe to toe manner. Sure, he’s never had an NBA career to brag about, but Matt Thomas has one of those and no one says he belongs up there.
So why don’t we talk about Melvin?
I suppose it’s timing for the most part. His career began on the last legs of some darker days for the program. He came on to the scene in a time of turnaround for the trajectory of Iowa State basketball. In fact, if Fred Hoiberg were the Jesus Christ of Iowa State hoops, in that he saved it, then one would argue that Melvin is Peter. Melvin is the rock with which Fred would build the foundation of his program upon.
For the first few seasons he was playing alongside what many considered to be the best “Practice Teams” in the Nation. The transfer players would come and go for those first few years, but one thing remained consistent, and that was Melvin.
Even when his minutes and starts took a downward tick between his freshman and sophomore seasons, and when he probably could have looked around and seen what other options he had available to him, Melvin (much like his game) stayed pat. The type to never waiver or quiver in the face of adversity — an oak tree among the winds of change, bouncing back from a loaded team in 2011 to starting every game but one in his junior year 2012.
This is a player that would finish his career at Iowa State breaking both the records for games played and games started. He would find himself among the top fifteen players in school history in points in a career, steals and blocks. Oh yeah, and he was only the fourth person in league history to ever finish a career with 1,500 points and 1,000 rebounds.
Looking at it all stacked up against whoever’s names people want to share or bring up, and in hushed tones Melvin is possibly one of the best four players to have ever worn an Iowa State jersey. That’s probably the best way to describe it and why he’s never discussed, he was quiet.
He accumulated all of these stats and nominations and awards while never being outward about his performances. He was the personification of “a quiet fifteen,” and it wasn’t just the points, either. He lead the league in rebounding at 6’6 or shorter, a feat only three others before him had ever accomplished. (The other two being Terry Black and NBA Cinderella Story, P.J. Tucker.) He was the the embodiment of the “bring your lunch pail” to work type player that was always thought of as “The Garbage Man.”
When a person puts the pieces together and steps back a bit to look at the full picture, they see a career that was built upon the idea of a player being unchanging and pursuant in how he approached the game of basketball.
His game was a mosaic of what coaches dream up when trying to define the perfect basketball leader. His ability to slide from position to position and role to role, all while maintaining the same level of play, hustle and unselfishness makes him the type of person people should strive to emulate. He seemingly flies under the radar in the halls of greatness for Iowa State fans, maybe because he chooses that path. Perhaps, to him, his jersey hanging among the rafters in Hilton isn’t a concern.
But this is his case, this is my call for him. Melvin absolutely should have his jersey hanging with the Greats because that’s exactly what he was, a Great. In a soft and hushed way, Melvin Ejim not only performed as an outstanding player, but also as a leader for those around him. He was what anyone should hope to be when aiming for a body of work that, when fleshed out and examined, speaks volumes of the type of person he was and the man he became.
Georges. Hoiberg. Orr. Ejim.
Give me that Rushmore any day of the week.