The Dominican Dream, ESPN’s latest 30 for 30, covers Felipe Lopez, the phenom who lit New York City ablaze as a high schooler, his roller-coaster career, and his inspirational life.
The story of Felipe Lopez goes beyond the rectangular bounds of a basketball court. His journey is one of immigration, ascension to stardom, getting crushed under the cinderblocks of impossible expectations, resurgence, and philanthropy.
Lopez hails from Santiago, the second largest city in the Dominican Republic, a country famous for iconic baseball players. As a child, Lopez followed suit. But after getting hit in the face by a ball because of his own defensive misjudgment, his mother forbade him to play his homeland’s most popular sport. From there on, Lopez took up basketball using a homemade hoop he’d attach to trees, and eventually turned into a pioneer of the game. A small, childhood accident changed the course of Felipe’s history.
Lopez came to the United States as a 14-year old. Like so many other families, his went through the arduous immigration process in search of a better life and more opportunity. Playing basketball eased Felipe’s transition into his new, strange surroundings that weren’t always hospitable.
“It helped in a huge way. It was the only safe haven for me. It was the only place I felt I could be understood for the simple fact I didn’t speak the language at an early age. Everyone just wants to be approved coming into a new environment. That environment can be very hostile because they think of you as different. But that’s part of the story that makes it great,” Lopez said in an interview.
As a high schooler, Lopez climbed the ranks to the No. 1 player in the country, a spot above Allen Iverson. Pandamonium broke for every game at Rice High School in Harlem. In his senior season, Lopez cemented his legacy by winning Gatorade’s Player of the Year while leading his team to the hallowed New York City title.
“I got to see him play for the first time and the legend was real,” Chauncey Billups said in the 30-for-30 film.
The city hasn’t celebrated a player with the same level of fanfare since. Lopez didn’t just carry a team on his back, but an entire ethnicity.
“I could not express to you how proud I was to be Dominican. In many ways, if you look at what Jackie Robinson did for the African American community and what Sandy Koufax did for the Jewish Community, it’s exactly what he did for our community,” said Alex Rodriguez.
As his growing myth pumped vivacity into the NYC basketball scene, Lopez received the “Dominican Jordan” moniker.
Everyone wants to discover the next Michael Jordan. Baneful comparisons have been strewn about from Harold Miner to Vince Carter to Kobe Bryant to LeBron James, adorning each player with an albatross of predisposed letdown when they don’t reach the celestial prophecy.
Lopez isn’t sure if his career would have been better or worse without the MJ comp, but it provided a rising tide for his people.
“It was a story that transcended the time we were living where Latinos, especially Dominicans, in the Washington Heights area were being portrayed as negative. Drugs, violence, gangs…so to have someone as a beacon of positive light to the community compared to Michael Jordan, it really put us on a higher pedestal,” Lopez said.
All the top schools tried recruiting him. Lopez was such an astronomical talent, it pushed Bobby Knight to scout in New York for the first time. Name any NCAA power broker — Calipari, Pitino, Coach K, Boeheim, Roy Williams — and they scouted Lopez.
Felipe projected as a high lottery pick if he grabbed the money and entered the draft. Instead, he chose the college route, opting to stay nearby at St. John’s.
Before ever playing a game in college, he graced the cover of Sports Illustrated as a 17-year old. In large, incredibly 1990’s font, “The Big East is Back” accompanied an air-walking Lopez. The fervor poured over onto local publications too.
“He got eight pages in the Daily News! General Eisenhower, who won WWII, only got three,” Lou Carnaseca exclaimed in the film.
Lopez’s style and flair carried over, at least initially. He put up about 18 points, six rebounds and three assists as a freshman, but St. John’s struggled, finishing eighth in the Big East. Fans and media saddled Lopez with most of the blame since he was the star.
Despite still projecting as a lottery pick, he returned for his sophomore year. The team flailed again. Lopez’s stats stalled out and he became depressed under all the pressure and frustrations.
Quiet and aloof, Lopez wasn’t himself. The joy of playing didn’t exist. Mental health is such a big part of life but gets handwaved with athletes. Maybe because of their physical gifts, they’re looked at as superhuman and aren’t afforded the same recognition as the average person. Lopez leaned on counseling and family during his dark period.
“In those tough times, there’s something that needs to click. If you have a fighting spirit, you see and accept things as they are but know you have to work yourself to make them better. I had the strength and support system of my family and that’s why they’re so important. That’s one of the reasons why I went to St. John’s and stayed close to them. You have fans and everything else, but the only ones who will always be true to you are your family,” Lopez explained.
His junior season came and went with more of the same. The shine of his limitless potential became a faded watermark. Though after working with Chris Mullin over the summer, Lopez found rejuvenation his senior year. Following Mullin’s workout helped Lopez focus on improving his jump shot and better showed how much goes into development.
After all the tribulations, Lopez had the exuberance back that gave him his gravity. He played the best basketball of his life during senior year and led the Red Storm to a March Madness berth as a No. 7 seed. St. John’s faced the University of Detroit, losing by two as Lopez’s shot to win symbolically clanged off the front rim.
The storybook ending eluded him that day, but the commitment and loyalty his family taught him paid off. His four-year collegiate journey ended with a degree — something so important to his mother, who taught kids how to read through the school she founded in their Santiago backyard — and, after dominating predraft workouts, a selection in the first round.
San Antonio drafted Lopez 24th overall in 1998 but dealt him to Vancouver later that night. Situation predicates so much of a player’s success and he went to the worst in the league. Thinking about Lopez under the tutelage of Gregg Popovich in the onset of the Tim Duncan era opens a Pandora’s Box of what-ifs and what-could-have-beens. But Felipe tries to live beyond what-ifs.
In the span of three seasons, Lopez bounced from Vancouver to Washington before finding a home in Minnesota. He hit his stride as a promising piece for the Timberwolves before an ill-fated play in transition essentially ended his NBA career. During a preseason game in 2002, Lopez took an outlet pass from Kevin Garnett — his favorite teammate for the rare quality of being a star who loved to share the light. As he attempted a layup, he collided with Paul Pierce and tore both his ACL and MCL, a much more serious injury nearly two decades ago.
Lopez unyieldingly rehabbed the knee, but rushed back since he was on the last year of his contract and Minnesota made the playoffs. During a full-contact practice, the knee gave out and Lopez knew that was it.
The first time he saw the footage of the injury was the first time he watched the doc. He hasn’t been able to watch the clip during subsequent viewings.
Lopez played abroad for years, hopping from professional leagues all around Europe and South America. He fittingly wrapped up his career where it all started. His ultimate basketball moment was making a go-ahead free throw to win his local club team the Dominican championship.
Lopez’s basketball journey took him through peaks and valleys around the world. The most shocking part of his voyage was his response to my question of who the hardest guy he guarded in the NBA was. While giving Iverson, Jordan and Kobe their due, his final answer was…Jeff Hornacek(!):
“I played against Iverson in college, but once you play someone so many times, you know what to expect. I played against MJ when he came back with the Wizards. He wasn’t the same as he was in Chicago but he was still MJ. I have to say Kobe. He just gave you the business any way, any how.
No, hold on a second, I would say Kobe but you expect Kobe to get 30, 40 whatever. Jeff Hornacek…Jeff Hornacek was a really frustrating player to go against. You do not expect him to do all the stuff he did. He was a guy who you could never just relax with. The minute you relaxed he hit you with a back cut or came over a screen and just shot.
I know how it sounds, believe me, I know. He made it hard because he wasn’t a dribbler. I want to play guys who have the ball in their hands. Because he didn’t have the ball, you truly had to play him at all times because he was always moving. Great guy without the ball.”
Today, Felipe has his own foundation and a community center in Santiago that takes care of over 300 kids. Aside from extensive boys and girls basketball programs, the center focuses on arts, karate, and computer classes, providing a balanced outlet for all its patrons.
Felipe also has ambassadorship with NBA Cares and stays involved with “My Brother’s Keeper,” a mentoring program founded by President Barack Obama. In addition to giving inner-city kids positive role models and trying to break cycles of hopelessness, working with the program afforded him the chance to meet the former President three times, which, by all means, is very cool.
No matter how brief or star-crossed his path turned out to be, most players never touch the heights or vast swath of people Lopez has.
“I never thought the whole process I went through was going to be remarkable. While you’re going through something you don’t get to see the whole picture. Now people can look back and see I did it the hard way. And that’s been the case for so many people, not just Dominicans, but Latinos all over the United States,” Lopez said.
It took becoming the Dominican Jordan for Lopez to live the American Dream.