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Eastern Washington University Basketball

Known for his tenaciousness on the court, former EWU star Brendon Merritt celebrated for his rebound away from basketball

By Dave Boling The Spokesman-Review

Please examine this introduction written by Brendon Merritt on his Facebook page: “I am truly a blessed man. What more could I ever need that doesn’t already exist in my life? Nothing.”

Social media rarely provides examples of such poignant gratitude, or stand as a self-composed epitaph for a man suffering a tragic early death. All in just 20 words.

May the message provide comfort to those who love Brendon Merritt. And remind them that he believed that everything he endured had been worth it to reach the happiness he felt typing those 20 words.

After all, he had built a family with his wife, Erin, 1-year-old son Brendon Jr., and stepson Brantley.

No one could know how brief this final joyful period would be. On May 16, while at his job as a car salesman, Merritt fell dead of a heart attack. He was 43.

• • •

Merritt’s story has a compelling arc: Medical hardships, athletic successes, some missteps and early death. But make no mistake, at its heart, this story is a requiem for a baller. Stone-cold. Unrelenting competitor. The man lived for it.

Those who played basketball with and against him, cite a “chip-on-his-shoulder” attitude that fueled the uncommon ferocity Merritt brought onto the court from Bellarmine Prep to Tacoma Community College to Eastern Washington University.

They make it sound as if basketball wasn’t just a game to Merritt as much as a place where he could be himself, a stage, an identity, a refuge.

Rachi Wortham, now coach at TCC, started playing with or against Merritt as early as middle school at the Al Davies Boys and Girls Club.

“This is no exaggeration,” Wortham said. “He is the most-determined-to-win guy I know. He was a very, very talented player; he could shoot, he could score and was very, very balanced on offense and defense. And when the game is on the line, he’s going to make the play to win. An elite competitor.”

Merritt’s hallmark was his aggressive style.

“He was so, so, so tough,” Wortham said. “In Tacoma, whenever anybody talks about the toughest players of all time, his name always comes up.”

Wortham said he and Merritt talked shortly before his death. They were setting up a golf outing. Daunting, Wortham said, because Merritt was a low single-digit handicap player.

Bernie Salazar, recently retired after 29 years as head coach at Bellarmine Prep, ranked Merritt as one of the top players to come through his successful program.

“He played like he had something to prove, and he loved to compete. We have such wonderful memories of him at Bellarmine.”

When interviewed by phone, Salazar was busy helping set up the June 14 memorial for Merritt at Bellarmine Prep.

“He was the kind of guy you wanted to have on your team,” Salazar said. “His toughness, his competitiveness and his loyalty.”

Carl Howell coached Merritt as head coach at TCC and as an assistant at EWU.

“He was such a special player,” said Howell, who now coaches at Skagit Valley. “As a coach, you’re not supposed to have favorites, but you can’t help it with those players who do so much for you. I have guys calling now and saying, ‘You did a lot for him,’ but, no, he did a lot for me, for my program and my career.

“Of all the kids I coached, he most affected winning, whether it was taking a charge or making a big basket, he just did it.”

Hearing of Merritt’s death, Howell and his wife rushed to spend time at the house with Merritt’s family.

One can see a pattern developing in these interviews with the bereaved: Those who shared Merritt’s journey, even from the earliest days, still cling to him. United in the family of basketball.

• • •

Ray Giacoletti fell in love with Brendon Merritt’s play long before he signed him at EWU.

While an assistant at the University of Washington, Giacoletti was sent down to Bellarmine Prep to check out a promising big man starring for the Lions. What he noticed, instead, was a sophomore who came off the bench and simply made things happen.

“I was just blown away by this young kid who played so hard and had such great passion and knew how to play,” Giacoletti said.

By the time Merritt starred at TCC for two seasons, Giacoletti had taken over the EWU program and was eager to have him on the team. He would have to wait a year, though, as Merritt was redshirted to recover from back surgery.

EWU's Brendon Merritt tries to scoot around GU's Winston Brooks late in the second half as the Eagles tried to hold off a Gonzaga rally. GU won 67-64.   (Dan Pelle/The Spokesman-Review)
EWU’s Brendon Merritt tries to scoot around GU’s Winston Brooks late in the second half as the Eagles tried to hold off a Gonzaga rally. GU won 67-64.  (Dan Pelle/The Spokesman-Review)

Here’s how much Giacoletti thought of Merritt’s leadership, even when he was redshirted: “I felt so good with him around us, we took him every place on the road, even in a day when budgets were tight. I wanted him with us. I knew his energy and presence were so important to us. You just wanted him to be a part of everything.”

From the standpoint of competitiveness, Giacoletti said Merritt would rank in the top three players he had in 34 years of coaching.

Howell expanded on that.

“I don’t think people understand how good he was,” Howell said. “I don’t want to just sit here and toss out NBA (references), but I always said that if his body could have held up, he would have had a chance. Being a 6-4 point guard, and being left-handed, made him different. And he could guard anybody.”

With the backcourt of Merritt and fellow All-Big Sky Conference guard Alvin Snow, Giacoletti’s Eagles of 2003-04 captured the conference tournament championship to earn the school’s first NCAA Tournament appearance.

Merritt was named the conference tournament MVP.

Asked for highlight memories of his close friend and teammate, Keith Browne put it this way: “Every single game would be a highlight. He was the ultimate competitor.”

And ultimate teammate, too.

“Our relationship on the floor, I can’t even explain it,” Snow said. “That’s my brother. The kind of guy you could stand back-to-back with and take on anybody. That’s the kind of guy he is.”

• • •

Searching for the roots of the motivation that fuels those highly competitive sorts, it’s possible that Merritt had it from birth. He had no choice but to be a battler.

An old news release from EWU athletics outlined his physical history: “(Merritt) was one week old when he endured the first of about 20 medical procedures on his ears, ankle, arm and back, and others related to being born with a cleft palate. His toughness as a youngster paid off in a strong career at Eastern, while enduring a knee injury, a dislocated shoulder, an injured hip and a broken bone in his right hand after missing the previous season after back surgery.”

Wortham, a teammate and opponent since their shared youth, saw this as the foundation of Merritt’s grit. “He dealt with a lot. It probably built his toughness and resilience because he went through a lot of different things, and coming back to fight was a regular (situation) for him.”

Being roommates, Browne had been as close as anybody to Merritt. “He’s a very charismatic guy,” Browne said. “You know it when he walks into a room; he wears his emotions on his sleeve most of the time.

“But he was pretty private about (the surgeries), and he didn’t talk about it much. But it definitely affected him. He had his 21st surgery when we were at TCC together.”

Browne, having been an opponent of Merritt’s Bellarmine team when he was at Kent-Meridian, saw a disquieting part of Merritt’s life from a different perspective.

Surgeries leave scars. Opposing fans can be cruel.

“Listening to the crowd respond to him, and the things they said, it was bad. Fans, even my friends, after the game, I thought that was just terrible,” Browne said. “That stuck with me. Thinking how he had to listen to that. He had to carry that. He definitely had a chip on his shoulder and that was definitely a part of it for him. He would never say that, but you know that was one of those things that, internally, used to drive him.”

Browne remembers how Merritt answered the derision from the fans. “He hung 28 (points) on us.”

Coach Salazar said he couldn’t remember such taunts specifically. “But you know how people can be,” he said. “Brendon had a lot of fight in him. He wasn’t going to let what people said stop him from accomplishing what he needed to accomplish.”

• • •

Merritt’s friends and teammates, as friends and teammates are expected, were protective when asked about legal troubles after his career, which ended after a short experience playing in Europe.

“I think he had some challenges; having a couple back surgeries took a toll on him, and losing basketball may have had something to do with it,” Howell said vaguely.

“Brendon lived his life to the fullest, and he ran into some troubles,” Browne said. “Playing overseas and then coming back, it’s hard to readjust to life after being a high-level athlete.”

The full accomplishment of his fight back can’t be measured without at least a mention of his troubles. A search of Pierce County court records revealed charges including burglary, forgery and theft arising from a 2012 case.

Via email, Chandra Carlisle, Merritt’s court counsel, reported: “In August of 2017, Brendon graduated from drug court and his charges were dismissed. … I don’t see any indication that he had further trouble with the law after he graduated. Graduation from the drug court is a tremendous accomplishment. In Brendon’s case, it means he spent nearly two years committed to overcoming his substance-abuse issues.”

Merritt’s friends answered unanimously when asked how Brendon was able to get back on a positive path: Jim and Claudia Merritt, his parents.

• • •

“He has some of the most amazing parents anybody could have,” Snow said. “They’re just kind and loving and giving people. The sweetest people ever. To have that kind of support is amazing.”

Browne said Merritt’s father and mother were “like second parents” to him. “Just phenomenal. They’re dear to my heart, an amazing family.”

Giacoletti said that Merritt’s parents were so close to the team that they were the only ones to join the celebration for the 20th anniversary of the 2004 team’s NCAA appearance that was held in Cheney in early March.

One of the clear takeaways from so many at the reunion was how happy Merritt was as a family man with a new job.

“It was like seeing a brother again,” Snow said. “It’s hard to put into words the depth of that love, so pure and deep and genuine because we went through it all together.”

Wortham said he could sense gratitude in everything Merritt said. “It was amazing to see how much he cared for his wife and kids. Brendon was so appreciative of them, and his parents coming over – more appreciative of life than he’d ever been.”

Browne agreed. “He was doing so much better the last six years, doing great, settling down, raising a family. He was so excited to be a dad and enjoying his life. He finally had gotten himself to the point of living the life he always dreamed of. And then this happened. Everything was going in the right direction, that’s why this seems so tragic.”

Browne said he’s staying in touch with the Merritts through these painful days, especially Claudia, mostly through texts.

“It seems like they’re in disbelief,” Browne said. “We all are.”

Browne recalled how close Brendon and his mother were, and “how he’d never admit it, but Brendon was definitely a momma’s boy, always very appreciative.”

One text he received in recent days from Brendon’s mother will stick with Browne. It reminded him of the phrase Merritt said to her every time he left the house, or was getting off the phone with her.

He said her text read: “It’s hard knowing I’ll never hear him say, ‘I love you, mom, again.’ ”

Browne paused and swallowed hard. “Yeah, that one really touched me.”