When Felipe Lopez Was 'King of New York'November 25, 2014
Twenty years ago this month, Felipe Lopez appeared on the cover of Sports Illustrated jumping over the New York City skyline with the Hudson River and Statue of Liberty as a backdrop. The magazine called him a "super freshman." The cover's headline, "The Big East Is Back," implied that the young 6'6" swingman from the South Bronx was going to be mostly responsible for the conference's return to prominence.
Felipe Lopez, cover boy, had yet to play one millisecond of college basketball.
This was before Kevin Garnett or LeBron James or Jabari Parker appeared on the magazine's cover prior to college. It was before SLAM Magazine came along and put pre-college stars on its cover.
Lopez was supposed to help resurrect the Big East. He was supposed to bring the St. John's program back to life. He was the Dominican Michael Jordan. He was supposed to be a messiah.
"It was crazy, man. There was a lot of pressure," says Lopez, now just a few months shy of turning 40. "Sometimes it felt like people almost expected you to change the world."
It's likely that a good number of millennials might not even be aware of Lopez. His college and pro career was characterized mostly by disappointment.
He led St. John's to only one NCAA tournament appearance. As a late first-round draft pick, he only played 249 games in the NBA for three bad teams (Vancouver, Minnesota and Washington), never averaging in double figures. And what could have been a long journeyman career was cut short by a debilitating left knee injury.
But Lopez had his moment. And his moment—a four-year ascension from 1992-1995—can rival most others. He was LeBron before LeBron, and his Sports Illustrated cover was his coronation.
A Compelling Personal Story
"Felipe can get a bad rap because of that cover," says Zendon Hamilton, Lopez's fellow Class of '94 St. John's teammate. "But up until that point, nobody else deserved to be on that cover. I can't stress to you enough how much he dominated high school basketball. There was no one like him. He was a rock star."
Legendary NYC hoops scribe Tom Konchalski says the hype around Lopez was unprecedented.
"There was more hype surrounding Felipe than there was around Lew Alcindor, around Kenny Anderson," Konchalski said. "He was the most hyped player to ever come out of New York City, up to that point."
He suggested that was at least partly because of Lopez's Dominican roots.
"It was because Felipe had such a wonderful story. It was an American story, and it enchanted people. The immigrant comes to America and makes good. It was an example of how America was changing. ...By the time Felipe was rising to prominence, the immigrant population was becoming mostly Latino. And Felipe was like a champion for that."
Konchalski said Lopez's compelling narrative went like this. "Here's a kid who comes to America the summer before his eighth-grade year, can't speak English and within a few years is the best basketball player in high school. It really was the stuff of legends."
A New York City Legend
Lopez grew up in Santiago, in the Dominican Republic. At the time, the Dominican was in the beginning stages of becoming what is now one of America's chief exporters of athletic talent.
The baseball academies set up in cities such as San Pedro and Boca Chica on the southern coast capitalized on the country's baseball obsession and became All-Star talent factories. Santiago is about two hours inland, in the middle of Cibao Valley in the D.R.'s central region, and as the country's second-largest city, it held the unique distinction of having a robust basketball culture.
"There weren't a lot of parks in Santiago. But we had hoops," recalls Lopez. "All day and everyday, that's what we did. I would rush home from school, put my books on the table and run straight to the court. I wouldn't stop until I heard my Mom yelling for me."
But for the Lopez family, as it was for many in their country, the holy grail was the American Dream. So his father, Luis, and mother, Carmen, packed Felipe and his three siblings and immigrated to the South Bronx, site of the city's expanding Dominican enclave. NYC's streets were under assault from the crack epidemic, so the "dream" of so many Dominican immigrants quickly became a nightmare.
"Guys would come back to the Dominican with a gold chain or something and you thought, 'Man, it's heaven over there,'" says Lopez. "But they probably had to save up all year to get that chain. It was a mirage."
Lopez, making light of the darkness, once jokingly told the New York Daily News, "If I was in the Olympics, I would have broke a record running from gunshots."
No matter how bleak the surroundings, New Yorkers still found their way to the city's basketball courts. And Lopez came of age as a player during a golden era of talent.
He was surrounded by players such as Rafer Alston, Kareem Reid, Stephon Marbury, Terrence Rencher, Speedy Claxton, Orlando Antigua, Jerry McCullough, Zendon Hamilton, God Shammgod, Rodrick Rhodes—back when New York was still basketball's mecca.
"Let me tell you...I played against some baaaaad brothers," Lopez says.
"And he was the best of them all," says Konchalski. "Easily one of the best players I ever saw in New York."
He played for the now defunct but once powerhouse Rice High School, part of New York's Catholic High School Athletic Association, for legendary coach Lou DeMello, a no-nonsense taskmaster who stayed on Lopez's case once he saw he was dealing with a transcendent talent. Lopez was a lithe slasher who ran like a gazelle and had hops that inspired tall tales.
"There used to be rumors that Felipe had a 60-inch vertical," says Hamilton. He laughs. "And I believed them."
In Awe of Felipe
In the summer of '92, prior to Lopez's junior year, sneaker impresario Sonny Vaccaro put together the inaugural ABCD Camp, an all-star game, of sorts, for the nation's top prospects. Rasheed Wallace was there. So was Jason Kidd, Antonio McDyess, Jerry Stackhouse and others.
"There was this mystique about him. He was sort of an enigma," recalls Tarik Turner, Lopez's teammate for all four years at St. John's.
"I was coming from Virginia, and for guys like me, we didn't know much about him, but we heard stories about how good he was. Plus, he didn't speak much English at the time, so he was quiet. And guys were just really anxious to see what he was about. Nobody knew how he got so good, so fast.
"There were all these whispers, 'There goes Felipe...There goes Felipe.' He was like a guy from another planet."
And then it was time to hoop.
"I remember this one play," says Turner. "Felipe was just so much faster than everyone else, so he was like a one-man fast break. But on this one break it was a two-on-one, and Felipe got caught in midair.
"Now, his hang time was ridiculous, so he was deciding in the air whether or not he wanted to pass or shoot. But the defender jumped out to deflect a pass. So, Felipe, still hanging, just threw the ball off the glass to himself and dunked it.
"Everybody just ran out the gym. It was one of those moments."
Lopez won MVP honors.
"No one believed his age. He couldn't be so much better than us and be the same age," Hamilton says.
A Triumphant Senior Season
After the ABCD Camp, Lopez spent his final two seasons at Rice causing pandemonium. The New Yorker wrote him up in March 1993. The story by Susan Orlean documented a hysteria of sorts. "White men in suits" (recruiters), filling the stands of his game. The city's Dominican population treating him like Michael Jordan—or even Michael Jackson, for that matter.
Emanuel Richardson, who played for Rice's archrival St. Raymond's, once said, "When you dealt with Felipe, it was like Carnival. They were doing everything but roasting pigs."
"You had Dominicans coming to America to change their lives, and there was Felipe doing what he was doing," says fellow South Bronxite Orlando Antigua, now coach of the Dominican national team. "He was one of ours and he had reached the pinnacle."
Fittingly so, after Rice won the CHSAA championship in his senior year, Felipe sat perched atop the basket draped in the Dominican flag.
He won every award that year—Player of the Year for Gatorade, USA Today and Parade.
"When I tell you he was a virtuoso in high school, I can't overstate it enough," says Hamilton. "I mean, he was doing things we had never seen before in NYC. He was before the YouTube Era, so there's not a lot of footage of his exploits. But, I'm telling you: I was there. People weren't even close to him. He was doing whatever he wanted, to whomever he wanted."
The SI Cover Shot
Michael O'Neill had photographed plenty of athletes for Sports Illustrated, but his shoot with Lopez would be one to remember.
Having recently shot a fashion series for New York Magazine in which models were asked to jump on a trampoline as they floated on a barge around NYC to get shots in front of different landmarks, he and SI Director of Photography Steve Fine agreed to try O'Neill's trampoline idea with Lopez for SI's "Big East Is Back'' package.
With Lopez hopping up and down on a trampoline on a big boat in the Hudson River, the shoot began.
"There were so many variables we were dealing with that day," recalls O'Neill. "There's the New York harbor's tide, there's a rocking boat, there's a setting sun, there's the need to time Felipe's leaping relative to where the ball is. And we have to make sure that we're getting the Statue of Liberty in the right spot in the background.
"Basically, you're looking for a micromoment of serendipity."
And they got it.
"I'm insecure, so I can never tell if anything is going to be special until I see it," says O'Neill. "So I didn't know we had that cover shot when I was going 'click.' But, you know, I'm thinking, 'It's not perfect, but it's, you know, perfect.' We didn't manipulate the photo at all. It all happened in real time. Felipe made that picture."
There are not many athletes so closely associated with one photo. It was iconic. When it hit the stands, it made Lopez a celebrity for the casual fan. And it also undoubtedly raised expectations for his college career.
Having not grown up stateside, Lopez and his family weren't acutely aware of the import of his cover turn.
"We just thought it was another great cover photo like some of the other magazine covers I had done," says Lopez.
"We knew all eyes were going to be on us after the Sports Illustrated cover," says Hamilton.
Lopez learned quick enough, especially as St. John's struggled his freshman year.
"I feel like I got isolated after the cover," he says. "Like it was Felipe versus the Big East."
"In retrospect, the cover might have been the worst thing to happen to him," says Konchalski. "It spiked expectations way too high. It was too much, too fast for any freshman. Not just Felipe."
Lopez's career at St. Johns was underwhelming. The arrival of Fran Fraschilla his junior year righted a wayward ship, and St. John's finally made the NCAA tournament in his senior season. The team lost to Detroit in the first round. Lopez's potential game-winner clanged off the front rim in the final seconds. He left St. John's as its third-leading scorer but hardly a savior.
Finding a New Passion
Bronx Spanish Evangelical Church sits behind black metal gates next to the Adams projects in a blighted neighborhood not too far from where Lopez grew up. On a rainy Saturday afternoon, once inside, you're first greeted with life-sized posters of Kevin Durant, Kobe Bryant, Carmelo Anthony and Kevin Garnett. And you hear a lot of sneakers squeaking and a gruff, accented voice barking instructions.
Felipe Lopez is back where he started.
"My mom does a lot of work in the community, and one day she told me to come down to help out. When I got in, I saw the court, and it was like I saw heaven," says Lopez, in gym shorts, sitting on the sideline overseeing his kids (which includes his son, Felipe Jr.) run sprints.
On this day there are about 30 kids—mostly Dominican—who throughout the day do everything from learn the game from a former pro to get help with their schoolwork upstairs, via Marija Kero, a schoolteacher and Lopez's girlfriend of four years.
Lopez, it seems, has found his second calling as a teacher and mentor. The kids think the world of him, even when he's scolding them, because his love for them is apparent.
"Either come here to work or go home!" Lopez commands, along with other pronouncements such as, "I didn't come here to babysit no one." And "You all are playing very stylish. I don't care about none of that. I wanna see buckets."
"A lot of these kids don't have fathers in their lives. So I try to be that role model. I visit their schools, talk to their teachers. Make sure they're eating. They're like my sons," he says.
You won't likely find many people who hold Lopez in low esteem.
"The frustration at St. John's, the knee injury that ended his career—it didn't embitter him," says Konchalski, who thought enough of Lopez to attend his college graduation. "What he's doing now with these kids—that's his most important work. So, no, he didn't end up being Michael Jordan. But look at the man he's become. You can have Michael Jordan. I'll take Felipe."
On his old college campus, some of the great St. John's players—Walter Berry, Chris Mullin, etc.—have various memorabilia encased in glass displays at Carnesecca Arena. Two students, not even born when Lopez was at his apex, are trying to help a reporter find Lopez's case.
"What's his name again? Felipe?"
One spots him on the far left.
"I think this is him."
There he is. His No. 13 jersey in the same case with St. John's legend Mark Jackson. The other kid peeks over his classmate's shoulder and spots a copy of the Sports Illustrated inside the case.
"Oh. Yeah. He was the SI guy. I guess he was pretty good, huh?"
Lopez says 20 years feels like yesterday.
"Sometimes I get asked how things would have changed without the cover, and I don't even bother to think about it," he says. "No what-ifs. I'm proud of that cover. I had a great run in this city."