Nerlens Noel's tenure as a Kentucky Wildcat was numbered in months. That was enough time, however, to form a lasting friendship.
During his time at UK, Noel met Kelly Melton on a hospital visit. The son of Lisa and Harrison Melton Jr. of Science Hill, Kelly was diagnosed with leukemia when he was 6.
"We met on one of my UK Hospital visits," Noel said last week via the phone. "You'd think when you meet someone with cancer, they'd be down. But Kelly, he was so positive in spite of his situation, he just made a big impact on me."
Even last winter, while Noel sat out what would have been his rookie season with the Philadelphia 76ers while rehabbing the torn ACL that ended his Kentucky career, he said he and Kelly stayed in touch.
"Maybe once every two or three weeks, I pick up the phone and call him or he'll call me," Noel said. "He's in the hospital so much, it's hard sometimes to know when to call."
When Noel attended the Kentucky Derby in 2013, Kelly was his guest. "It was my first Derby, too," Noel said. "I couldn't think of anyone I'd rather share that with."
This past May, the pair attended the Derby again.
Now, Noel is part of a group trying to do Kelly a favor far larger than attending the Kentucky Derby.
Along with current UK students Sarah Davis and Max Strong, a walk-on punter on the Wildcats football team, Noel has attached his name to an effort to raise $100,000 for Kelly Melton's family.
The goal is to help defray expenses associated with Kelly's illness and treatment. (For details, you can go to the website Giveforward.com/kickinit4kelly).
"The family did not ask us to do this at all," said Davis, a member of the UK Dance Team. "But all of us who have met Kelly have been touched by him, just how positive he is. If we can do something to help him and his family, we wanted to step up and get it done."
More than $9,300 had been pledged as of late Saturday afternoon.
Noel's one UK season ended, of course, after 24 games because of the knee injury he suffered at Florida while racing downcourt attempting to foil a Gators fast break.
In the bleak days after his injury, Noel said he drew encouragement from a little boy facing an even more daunting physical challenge.
"Kelly actually lifted my spirits, kept me from getting down," Noel said of Melton. "With everything he's been through, he was the one trying to lift me up. So if I can be part of anything that helps him, I want to do it."
While I had Noel on the phone, I did talk a little basketball with him.
The Sixers big man, of course, has yet to officially launch his NBA basketball career. He will finally make his debut in a real NBA game Oct. 29 when the 76ers open their season in Indianapolis against the Pacers.
With the rebuilding 76ers going through a brutal 19-63 slog last season — losing a whopping 26 games in a row at one point — there was no reason for Noel to risk a re-injury by playing in 2013-14.
"I could have come back at the end of last season, my knee was ready," Noel said. "But I talked it over with our GM (Sam Hinkie), our coach (Brett Brown), and we all agreed it was best for me to wait."
In July, Noel tested his surgically repaired knee by playing four games for the 76ers entry in the NBA Summer League in Orlando. The results were encouraging. Noel appeared to have his bounce back, averaging 12.2 points, 5.7 rebounds and 3 blocks in 24.4 minutes.
As for his Kentucky career, Noel might have reason to feel a bit cheated by his experience. After all, in the year before he came to UK, the Wildcats claimed the 2012 NCAA championship. In the season after Noel left, the Cats were 2014 NCAA runner-up.
The Kentucky team Noel played on, however, finished 21-12 and went to the NIT.
"Nah, nah, I don't feel cheated," Noel said. "We had a good team, some things happened and it just didn't come together like we hoped."
From afar, Noel said he watched Kentucky's thrilling run through the 2014 NCAA tourney, pulling especially for his former classmates Alex Poythress and Willie Cauley-Stein.
"My guys Alex and Willie got to be a part of it," he said. "That made me feel good."