There was a time when it was unthinkable that a high school player could skip college and go straight to the pros. The conventional wisdom was that even the most talented prospects needed time to mature and refine their game in the collegiate ranks to prepare for the rigors of the NBA.
But then a player came along who was so supremely talented that he challenged the status quo. By his senior year, he was dominating his fellow high-schoolers. He had the skill-set and the physique that were ready-made for the NBA, and many teams around the league would’ve jumped at the opportunity to draft him the moment he graduated.
As familiar as that story sounds, the name might surprise you. Before Kobe Bryant, before Kevin Garnett, there was Felipe Lopez, a Dominican immigrant who took the New York City basketball scene by storm before rising to fame as the most highly-recruited player in America, in the process earning his designation as “The Dominican Michael Jordan.”
Though Lopez never quite lived up to the unreasonable expectations that came along with that dubious distinction, he’s found peace, contentment, and fulfillment in life, and his is a story that challenges the notions of how we measure success both on and off the court. Now, his life and career are the subject of the new ESPN 30 for 30, “The Dominican Dream,” which premiers on ESPN and ESPN Deportes on Tuesday, April 30th at 9 p.m. ET.
We caught up with Lopez last week via telephone to talk about the new documentary, his philanthropic efforts in his home country, the globalization of the NBA, and more.
Let’s start by talking about the origins of the documentary, which is excellent by the way. How did it come about, and what does it mean for you to have your story told now on such a large platform like ESPN, and for it to be aired in your native language as well? That must feel pretty amazing…
Yeah, that’s pretty cool they are actually going to air it in Spanish. They’re going to transmit on April 30th in the English platform, as well as ESPN Deportes. That’s a first for ESPN. I come from a foreign island where I represented the Dominican Republic, and I think so many other Spanish speaking countries would just want to know about the story, my story, being in New York and, you know, being the center of attention for so many years, during my high school and college years.
The NBA is such a global game now, with such a huge international presence among the players. From your perspective, do you think that it’s a little bit easier for kids today coming over from other countries and trying to make it in basketball than when you were coming up?
Of course. Of course. There’s a platform for them to be able to come to this country and just play and just feel like themselves, just because the platform has been set up for them. So many players that have come to the NBA [from overseas] have become franchise players for their team. So it’s a lot easier for international players to come here, and just have guidance, have a blueprint for them to understand that they can do everything they want.
As one of the first big basketball prospects from the Dominican Republic, you were obviously under tremendous pressure, and it seemed like you really felt like you were carrying the weight of an entire nation on your shoulders, as a very young man.
Yeah. Well, I blame that to the Sports Illustrated cover. You know, I think that lifted a little more of expectation, not just about myself but about the country, for the team, the city. I mean, there’s nothing wrong with it at all. At the time, that it was one of the biggest accomplishments as far as, like, showcasing something that it was not baseball or like the bad image that was given to Dominicans around the time.
So I think it was a real feel-good story about seeing someone, an immigrant, coming from the Dominican Republic and five years prior, just learned the language but also able to take control of a basketball platform with a sport that not too many Spanish are involved with. This story is not just about myself being from the Dominican Republic; it goes across the board. And the reason why I was drawn to tell the story now is because the producer, Jonathan Hock, did such an amazing job of explaining to me that, yes, it is a story about coming to New York, but it also talks about immigration, and migrating families, an immigrant family coming from another country, coming to the United States and looking for the opportunity to be successful for the American dream.
You were right at the front end of when players started to think about skipping college and going straight to the pros. So what do you think about the age limit in the NBA? There’s been a lot of debate about it recently, and it looks like the league might consider eliminating it altogether. Do you think they should keep the age limit? Is there something to be said for young players getting that extra year of experience?
I think, honestly, there should be an age limit. Not too high, but obviously keeping it at a point where you have to look at what has worked for players. You know, LeBron came in at 19, or 18. Anything earlier than that, there’s a maturity process that every person needs to go through; I feel that it’s only right for beginning players. Because when you come to a situation too early, instead of nurturing and becoming better, it will become something of a frustration.
Young players, high school players, they’re looked upon as projects, something that you’re gonna have to develop for the next two, three, four years. So then why not give those opportunities to those guys who develop themselves, not just in the game, but other places. It also gives them an opportunity to go to school.
You talked a little bit about this in the documentary, that decision to stay in school instead of entering the draft. It seemed like it was really a decision you came to as a family. Do you think that was a cultural difference, in terms of coming to that decision as a family rather than making a unilateral choice to go to the NBA?
Well, my mother been a teacher for 25 years. My father has been a hard worker. Understanding how much education means to us as this family, I always had the hope for those opportunities; that big contract and everything was gonna be there. We were very optimistic. We always saw that things were gonna be okay, which eventually they did. I’m glad that the decision was made for me to go to school for four years.
I still feel that was the best four years of my life, through the ups and downs. And because of that, I been able to maintain a job. It was not through my performances. It has been because I was educated, I am the professional, and that has helped me to maintain my success. Not just success as a basketball player but obviously giving back and providing to my community.
New York City basketball players are known to have a certain flair to their game. How do you think that style of basketball influenced you as a young man?
In the Dominican Republic, we play a lot of zone. So, I was able to have a mold, like a shooting kind of game, coming to New York. But then once you come out here, the 1-on-1 game just really was something that I didn’t have as much. And that’s where my ball handling was able to come in handy. One of my mentors at Gauchos [Bronx gym] was Rod Strickland.
Rod Strickland was an older star. He’s working out with me on my ball handling and things like that. And that really was just something that, it came together. Having my game from D.R., it was more of a shooting game, and then coming to New York, just having to have strong mentality for 1-on-1, it came on full circle.
Being in New York City, as opposed to say, somewhere like Nebraska or something like that, the expectations were clearly higher, but it also seems like you fed off it a little bit.
I was always competitive. I always know that no matter what, everything was being handled in the basketball court. I assumed that all the attention I was getting, it was because of my work inside the basketball court. Mind you, I spoke very little because I was still learning the language, but I was being approved. I was being recognized because of my work inside the basketball court. So, there was not much for me to talk about, just to show people what I was capable of.
I think that coming to St. John’s, the expectation was that I was gonna be able to, not just be the same kind of player I was, but I was gonna be able to bring the same dynamic of winning to a school that needed it. And obviously, by those situations not happening, I’ve been tagged as a bust, a loser, a failure.
But, if I look back to my college career, I feel pretty good; just finishing my career as number three all-time scorer [at St. Johns]. The number one, you know, with the most threes. We have had other people that have broke those records, but at least when I finished at St. John’s, I had set those records down there. I might’ve failed as a teammate, but personally I feel like I had a pretty good run because I tried it. I wanted it. I really wanted to win. It was not that I was looking to be the number third all-time. I would prefer to trade that for winning more games, and for getting more recognition as a team.
That’s something else I wanted to ask you about. The way success is measured in basketball, specifically in the NBA, the expectations are at such a high, high level, that we kinda tend to brush aside all these great accomplishments.
Well, you can look at what’s happening right now, with LeBron James…He just doesn’t have the help enough to just be able to accomplish the thing that he has set up for himself. It’s not like he wanted to not make the playoffs. This is a guy that has been in the NBA Finals the past 7-8 years. He doesn’t know anything but winning.
Speaking of the playoffs, which teams and players have you been watching?
I really have been watching one, Damian Lillard…I love how he plays the game. He’s like, the killer. And he’s really showing this year that they’re all about business. He’s a very tough competitor. For him to put them [OKC] out the way he did to finish that last game…There’s something special.
Zion Williamson, young guy, similar to you, one of the most hyped players in recent memory, and for good reason. He’s obviously extremely talented. What advice would you have for someone like that, who’s facing the same expectations, and the same scrutiny from the media?
I think he’s gonna do really well…When you have the body that he has; the game that he has. And then you have a comparison to like, let’s just say like a LeBron James.
He’s so explosive that you can say that he’s like the second coming of LeBron James. And because of that…because everything is about social media…that’s a great thing because I know that at the end of the day, he’s gonna be able to surround himself with a great team of players that’s gonna help him to make sure that he’s able to maximize his talent.
That’s definitely gonna be exciting to watch. As we finish up, can you tell us a little bit about what you’re currently doing with NBA Cares in your home country?
I’m still part of the NBA Cares, as an ambassador, which has given me the flexibility to also do some work in the Dominican Republic as president of the club that I grew up with. That is very dear to me because it was the club that gave me the opportunity to be the person that I am, and the player that I am.
So, I’m just running different projects out there to make sure that we engage more youth, not just in the game of basketball, but also throughout different activities. We are creating chess rounds for youth. We have karate. We have arts. We have computers. It’s really allowed me to really go back into my hometown and touch in a personal way a lot of kids with hope. I don’t wanna use the term “dreamers” because obviously we know what dreamers is all about out here.
But, that’s what they are. There is a lot of kids these days, they can go into their Instagram and they can immediately know information from players, and from people that they follow, and they love. We didn’t have all that accessible to us coming, growing up, so it’s a lot easier for these guys to not just be able to dream but just be able to have more information to prepare themselves.