ROAR, LION ROAR
Merley Ends Career on a High Note
Despite limited playing time, senior leaves Columbia with good
By E.J. Crawford
|Mike Merley '01 posts up
against Duke during the 1999-2000 season.
PHOTO: JEFFREY A. CAMARATI
the waning moments of the final basketball game of the season,
Columbia center Mike McBrien '02's free throw rimmed out and fell
to the right side of the floor. Bouncing through the hands of three
Dartmouth players, the ball found its way to Mike Merley '01,
Columbia's lone senior, waiting behind the three-point arc. With
the clock clicking toward 0:00 on the game and on his career,
Merley instinctively spun and heaved up the trey. At first he
thought it was headed left, then he thought it was too strong. It
was both, but the angle sent the ball high off the backboard,
clanging off the rim, back off the backboard and finally through
the waiting net for the final points in a 71-64 victory.
moment of euphoria that followed as his teammates mobbed him in
celebration whisked Merley back through a basketball career with
more ups and downs, more caroms and odd bounces than the
last-second shot he had just watched fall through the
Merley, whom teammates call Merles, played every sport as a
youngster in Tuscon, Ariz., but his athletic fate was sealed when
he grew 11 inches between fifth and sixth grade. "He grew so fast
his bones were always aching," recalls his mother,
the time he was a freshman at Canyon Del Oro High School, Merley
stood 6-7. After splitting time as a star on the junior varsity and
a reserve on the varsity during his freshman year, he moved up to
the varsity full-time as a sophomore and led Canyon Del Oro to the
regional finals in each of the next three years. "He was a player
from the past," Canyon Del Oro Coach Daniel Huff says, referring to
Merley's work habits. "He was a good solid player with tremendous
character, a tremendous young man. The last thing you'd ever have
out of Mike Merley is a bad attitude."
Merley survived a spate of injuries early in his high school
career to draw the attention of college recruiters from schools
like Massachusetts, Oklahoma and New Mexico. "It's definitely cool
when you're sitting in class and get a hand-written note from John
Calipari," Merley says five years later, looking at his hands as if
the note from the former UMass and current Memphis coach were
there. Laughing, he answered Calipari's message, "I will have a
Merry Christmas, man!"
on Jan. 5, 1996, Merley's plans began to unravel when he hurt his
left knee. He continued to play on it despite persistent soreness
before reinjuring it in early February. This time he took a week
off but returned while the knee still was unstable, and it finally
broke down during warm-ups before a late-season game.
Merley, who wears a neoprene brace on the knee to this day,
remembers when the doctor called with the results of his MRI. The
doctor asked to speak to his mother, but Merley secretly picked up
the phone and eavesdropped, eager to hear his fate. The prognosis
wasn't good. Not only had he torn his anterior cruciate ligament,
he also had worn down all the fibers inside the knee, unusual for
an ACL tear.
surgical procedure usually requires six to eight months for the
knee to heal, but Merley made it back in just over four. "I worked
my ass off," he says. Nonetheless, the injury scared away most of
Columbia coach Armond Hill saw Merley play in his first AAU
tournament after he returned from the injury. Merley says he was
rusty, but Hill saw something else, a fire and competitive energy
that would become Merley's trademark with the Lions. "The other
team was up 40 and trying to rub it in," Hill remembers. "With time
running out, the other team went up for a dunk and Merles went up
and blocked the shot. That was all I needed to see."
Merley has short hair and sharp features, a quiet demeanor and
a self-deprecating wit. An environmental science major with a 3.2
GPA, Merley plans to look for a job in the information technology
field after this month's graduation, with an eye toward law school
down the road. He carries himself with no sense of pretentiousness
or entitlement, and might go unnoticed were it not for his 6-7,
225-pound frame. As his mother says, "He's a shy guy, but he always
Unfortunately for Merley, he did anything but stick out during
his junior year at Columbia. After starting 19 games for the Lions
during his first two years while totaling 107 points and 97
rebounds, he played only 91 minutes as a junior, when he was lost
amid an influx of talented newcomers and fell to third on the depth
chart at center behind McBrien and 6-9 Chris Wiedemann '03. Merley
ended the season with totals of just 15 points and nine
was really hard on him," says his mother, who remembers travelling
to a tournament in Nebraska that year in which her son did not even
play. "He didn't talk about it much."
However, unlike the 11 others recruited along with him in what
some thought was the class that would turn Columbia's basketball
fortunes around, Merley stuck it out. He learned the position of
power forward while continuing to work with Wiedemann, who credits
Merley for teaching him Hill's offense and easing his transition
into college basketball.
senior, Merley assumed the mantles of co-captain and emotional
leader. He played 200 minutes in Columbia's 27 games, scoring 39
points, grabbing 33 rebounds and collecting five blocks. More
importantly, for the first time in 15 years, the Lions beat
Princeton and Penn on consecutive days, a sweep Merley calls "a
stepping stone" toward becoming a true title contender.
Merley takes pride in the progress the program has made during
his four years. "I've become quite an advocate of Columbia," he
says. "There are a lot of good memories."
Merley even got one final start, against Brown on Senior Day.
When his name was announced during the pre-game introductions, the
crowed erupted in applause. "He jumped off the bench," Hill said.
"Tears nearly came to my eyes."
Echoing the comments of his teammates, forward Marc Simon '02
says of Merley, "It's been such a backward ride for him, after
getting major time as a freshman. But because of that he knows what
it takes to get on the floor. That's where the leadership comes
from. He knows what level we have to play at and brings that to
practice every day."
Merley, just being out on the court is its own reward. He tells a
story of when his girlfriend took him to a New Jersey Nets game,
where they had courtside seats. "I was thinking 'cool, great
seats,'" he says. "But once the game started I was thinking, 'I'm
never going to find a cooler seat than playing.'"
is why he stayed. That is why Merley endured stress fractures, ACL
tears, work-study programs and a season on the bench - that chance
to play one more game, to take one last shot in his one last game,
the one that dropped poetically through the hoop.
best thing about that last shot," Merley says, "was how everyone
reacted. It was like we had won the national championship. It's too
bad it has to be over, but if you're going to go out, that's how
you do it."
Crawford, who expects to graduate from the Journalism School this
month, is an aspiring sports journalist living in Hoboken, N.J.