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Basketball glory days in banker's past

CEO Paul Mellini used to cash in as a member of the champion Greek team Olympiakos.

By BRIAN SUMERS
Published January 8, 2006


[Times photo: Stephen J. Coddington]
Nature Coast Bank chief executive officer Paul Mellini looks up at a symbol of his previous professional life.

He is a banker now, comfortably reclining in his black leather executive chair in the corner office, but long ago - and thousands of miles away - Paul Mellini was famous.

He played basketball before thousands, then recounted his athletic prowess before even more in television interviews. He signed autographs, accepted free bottles of wine and watched as women tried to pick him up with handwritten notes.

A quarter-century later, his Greek is a little rusty. But once, sporting a modified afro and a bushy moustache, Mellini patrolled the backcourt for one of Europe's most famous basketball teams.

At 22, after graduating from Albright College in Pennsylvania, Mellini signed a contract to play with Olympiakos, a team just outside Athens with a rabid fan base.

His mother was Greek, so he was recruited by a group of men who had seen him play and knew his background. At first, he worked out with the Greek national team, but then, to his surprise, Olympiakos offered him a contract. He did not know much Greek then, so he asked for a translator. Mellini soon learned the good news.

He would be paid a million drachmas, or about $30,000 in 1974 dollars. A few months out of college, with few expenses and little debt, Mellini was rich.

Plus, he was a professional basketball player.

"Everything is relative," he said. "But we were celebrities."

* * *

Now, at 53, Mellini is about one year into a different type of experiment. After more than two decades of working for large banks in the St. Petersburg area, Mellini moved to Citrus County, where he became chief executive officer of Nature Coast Bank.

Before leaving First Union Bank in 2001 when it merged with Wachovia, he supervised about 950 people in 88 branches in the bay area. His new independent bank, tucked away in a shopping center off U.S. 19, has fewer than 20 employees.

Most know of his athletic past, but he does not brag about it. There are no team pictures in his office and he rarely tells customers. Still, with his salt and pepper hair, tall, lanky frame and skinny, bony fingers, he almost appears as if could still play. He works out often, and weighs 167 pounds, about 5 pounds less than his playing weight.

But Mellini will no longer play competitive basketball, not even in a recreational league. He hung up his gym shoes about a decade ago, when the shots stopped falling and the aches and pains grew.

"I used to be able to dunk," said Mellini, just 6-foot-1. "Now I can't dunk a doughnut."

He said it has been at least nine months since he has shot a basketball. "I'll play once in a while, but the next day I'm like the Tin Man. I'm like, "Oh, god, why did I do that?' The basket looks a lot taller than it used to be, and the court looks a lot longer than it used to."

For the most part, basketball lives in his memory.

He was a star guard in high school on Long Island, N.Y., then was an All-American his senior season at Albright, a small school that competed in the College Division when the NCAA divided schools into two circuits - college and university.

His small school played nonconference games against a handful of current Division I teams, and Mellini held his own, coach Will Renken said.

Though Renken, 83, has not coached in 18 years and lives in a Pennsylvania retirement community, his voice perks up at the mention of Mellini. He remembers the night in 1971 when Mellini made 12 shots in 13 attempts against Franklin and Marshall.

"He's probably one of a half a dozen players I had in 33 years at Albright that could have played at the Division I level," Renken said. "He was a fine player and a complete player. He was one of those fellows that made others better."

Mellini is still fourth on the school's all-time scoring list with 1,996 points, but was not talented enough to play in the NBA or ABA, so with little holding him back, he went to Greece.

In the six seasons he played, Olympiakos won two European Championships and four Greek Cup titles. Though statistics from the mid 70s aren't easily accessible, Mellini said he averaged about 15 points his first two seasons and about nine during his last four.

But the experience was about more than just games. He was a 22-year-old single man embarking on the best time of his life.

"I couldn't have picked a better place to find myself," he said. "They say the best four years of your life are college. My next five years were the best."

* * *

The stories flow from his mouth, one after another, and many of them having nothing to do with basketball. He traveled behind the Iron Curtain and watched as the team's general manager left cartons of cigarettes and "a couple of thousands bucks" for customs officials so the team could leave Gdansk, Poland.

He was strip searched at the Tel Aviv airport, an incident that bothered him at the time, but he now accepts because he understands Israel's terrorism concerns.

He was pelted by coins when the team traveled to Turkey.

He was detained in Cairo because he didn't get a transit stamp in his passport and spent a half hour thinking he would be sent to an Egyptian jail. He remembers the itinerary of that trip well: Athens to Beirut to Cairo to Damascus.

On the road, it was five-star hotels all the way, except in Aleppo, Syria, where there were none.

He witnessed some under-the-table deals, too. Once, before Olympiakos played an Israeli team, Mellini watched his general manager, an owner of a high-end women's boutique, bribe a Romanian referee.

"He was taking racks of clothes down," Mellini said. "He gave the guy a 1,000 Drachma bill, which at the time was about $33, and he probably had $1,000 worth of clothes on him. Our guy looked at me, winked and gave him like 500 Drachmas back."

That night, the opponents' three best players got in early foul trouble and Olympiakos won.

* * *

There were tough times, mostly around holidays such as Thanksgiving, which the Greeks don't celebrate. But Mellini said he thrived in Europe.

He befriended American soldiers stationed near Athens, met a slew of expatriates and traveled whenever he could. Though he came back to the United States in the offseason, he also visited the Greek Islands and North Africa.

Mellini considered moving to Greece permanently as three of his teammates had done, but he chose to return after six seasons. For the first few years after moving to St. Petersburg, team management would call him and ask him to consider returning, at least for the playoffs. But in 1982, he married his high school sweetheart, Susan. A few years later, the couple had two kids, Stephanie, now 19, and Michael, 21.

Neither child ever played competitive basketball, though Stephanie was an accomplished gymnast. Stephanie and Michael have learned of their father's career from the three-inch scrap book their mother compiled. Though it's packed with tidbits about Mellini's career, Stephanie is most interested in his hair.

"He looks so different with an afro," Stephanie said with a laugh. "I kind of wish he still had it. It's funny."

A student at Florida State, Stephanie recently traveled to Greece on a school trip and considered finding some of her father's old teammates before she ran out of time. Mellini hasn't seen them in years and has never returned to Greece. He may visit, but wants to wait until he retires so he can spend three or six months there.

"My father was a twice Purple Heart and I love this country," Mellini said. "But there's a lot to see all over the world.

* * *

Fewer than 10 years ago, Mellini accompanied his best friend, Orlando attorney Anthony Palma, to a Greek deli in New York.

Palma met Mellini after he returned from Greece, but had heard most of the stories. Still, what happened next surprised him.

Though it had been 15 years after he had last played, an employee recognized Mellini.

"They knew him and all the players on his team," Palma said, still surprised. "They were excited. They were yelling. People from the back kept coming forward."

Mellini, smiling the whole time, spoke Greek with everybody, Palma said.

These days, he shows off his language skills at the Olive Tree restaurant in Crystal River.

The owner, a jovial middle-aged woman named Petroula Parnos, emigrated from Greece when she was 14. She makes him special cookies and knows he likes the Greek Salad with sliced gyro meat on top.

"His Greek is better than mine," Parnos said with a smile.

Times researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report. Brian Sumers can be reached at bsumers@sptimes.com or 564-3628.

[Last modified January 8, 2006, 00:44:19]


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