Long before Felipe Lopez graced Sports Illustrated with his iconic cover of him in leaping over the backdrop of the New York City, he was just a Dominican kid growing up in the Bronx who loved to play basketball and not the savior of New York City hoops. Lopez did develop into one of the city’s best players, blanketed with tons of pre-internet and social media hype and expectations. Before enrolling at St. John’s, Lopez was a standout at Rice High School, where he would transform himself into a can’t-miss prospect that had colleges knocking lining up for his services. Lopez’s high school career was highlighted by a 48-point performance against George Washington High School in the primarily Hispanic neighborhood of Washington Heights and winning the 1994 New York State Championship in the 82-54 route over White Plains that saw Lopez scoring 28 points in 20 minutes.
By his senior year, the Dominican Republic-born Lopez would be named the No. 1 rated prospect coming out of high school. “Coming out of high school, there was some discussion about who was going to be the No. 1 player—me or Allen Iverson. He got himself into trouble, and I went on to win the city and the state championship, so I was chosen No. 1,” recalls Lopez.
Lopez would show flashes of dominance at St. John’s, including a much hyped matchup with Georgetown player and fellow freshmen Iverson. “Guarding Iverson was one of the toughest matchups I had during college. He was so damn fast, he was such a great player,” remembers Lopez.
Lopez and Iverson would face off many times during their college career. Lopez fondly remembers their first matchup. “The first time we battled each other [Iverson] ended up with 33, and I ended up with 28, but it was a great battle and a great game. After the game, I felt there was a mutual respect between us,” says Lopez. One of their most famous games occurred on March 5, 1995 in the Big East regular season finale. St. John’s defeated Georgetown 87-77. Individually, Iverson won the battle, scoring a game-high 28 points as Lopez struggled with a 1-for 10 night from the field, but salvaged things by getting to the free-throw line 22 times. During his St. John’s career, he would average an impressive 17 ppg. During his last two seasons in St. John’s Lopez was a large part of the team’s offense (23.8 percent of the team’s total points), however, he also experienced a drop in his minutes.
When Lopez entered the 1998 NBA Draft after his senior year, he was still viewed as a player with tons of NBA potential despite falling short of the inflated expectations. At a sturdy 6-5 with tons of athleticism, Lopez had all the tools of an elite NBA shooting guard, but as his .415 field goal percentage at St. John’s showed, he needed work on developing his shooting and shot selection. The San Antonio Spurs drafted him in the first round (No. 24) and shipped him to Vancouver on draft night. He would show flashes, but, Lopez never developed as a pro and after four seasons (which included stops at Washington and Minnesota) his NBA career would end, the final blow when Lopez tore his ACL and MCL in his left knee in 2002 after a collision with Paul Pierce. Lopez would never play an NBA game again. Almost 20 years later, Lopez has no regrets about his career.
Today Lopez is still very involved in the game, helping as an ambassador for NBA Cares. He also launched the Felipe Lopez Foundation, which gives athletic and academic opportunities to children in Washington Heights. We recently sat down with Lopez to talk about growing up in Dominican Republic, playing at St. John’s, his NBA career and today’s NBA stars.
Tell me what was life like growing up in the Dominican Republic?
I had a good childhood, just being able to have a lot of freedom to go out to the park. The basketball court was a community playground; being there developed my interest in basketball. I’m the youngest of four, so I grew up watching my brothers and my sister play. For me it was fun just to follow in their footsteps.
A lot of Dominicans are drawn to baseball. Did you feel any pressure to play baseball as a child?
Of course. My father (who played amateur baseball in the Dominican Republic) had already moved to the U.S. in 1983, and he already knew I was into basketball. Everyday after school, I would drop my bag at the house and go to the basketball court. We’re a nation that is well known for baseball. My father did try to push me into playing baseball, but I had two incidents playing baseball. I got hit with a baseball in the nose twice that knocked me out both times. After that, I told my father baseball is too rough.
Who are some basketball players that you looked up to while growing up in the Dominican Republic?
I grew up on a club named CUG. That club is near and dear to me. As I’ m speaking to you right now, I’m in the process of building a playground for the kids out there. Growing up in that era, watching my brothers play, they were my heroes, after that we had a pretty popular basketball player by the name of Venica Munos. He was my Michael Jordan, I grew up idolizing him. That pushed me to work hard and try to be like him, my Dominican idol, but God had other plans for me. I came here to the States. I was fortunate enough to go to St. John’s and become a first round draft pick. I became a little bigger than my idol, but I still to this day look up to him, he was one of the icons that made me who I am today.
You were a legend by the time you were in high school. How did you deal with the pressure and expectations at such a young age?
It was pretty basic for me, it was all about basketball. The only way I knew how to deal with pressure was by going out on the basketball court and playing well. The expectations grew as I became more of a household name. I got to go to St. John’s and unfortunately my career wasn’t what I expected. I think I had a lot of personal success at St.John’s. By the time I left I was third all time in scoring (Lopez remains fourth in scoring for the Red Storm). For a school with so much history for so many years, I knew I was trying my best, however as a team we weren’t able to do the things that I expected. It’s sad I wasn’t able to win at the college level like I wanted, but overall I did my best.
What led you to go to college at St. John’s?
Family and the Dominican community. I had a pretty good following coming out of high school. I felt that the support I was getting from my family, the community and the entire city of New York. It was something that drove me to make that decision to stay in the city and try to bring some success to the school. I wanted to take them back to the days of Lou Carnesecca. To me, he’s the greatest coach in college history. I wasn’t able to play for him, I played under two different coaches while at St. John’s (Brian Mahoney, and Fran Fraschilla), going through two different rebuilding situations. Overall, being in the city helped me make my decision.
Back in the mid ’90s the Big East was stacked with a lot of talent. It featured yourself, Ray Allen, Allen Iverson and Chris Herron, to name a few. Who were some of your toughest individual rivals?
Iverson has always been tough. He was always a tough matchup, but for me it was fun, especially in college.When he got to the League, he became a much different player.While we played in college, I really looked forward to the competition against him. When he came out of high school, he was considered the No. 1 player in the nation in 1994. I never played against him in high school. I finally got the opportunity to play against him while he was at Georgetown. It was great competition. We both really wanted to play with each other. Those kinds of things I miss about the game. Those battles made it feel like it was a game within the game. We had some pretty tough games against UConn and Syracuse, when John Wallace played for them.
You mentioned UConn. What did you think about playing against Ray Allen?
Ray is elite man. Even in college, Ray game was above everyone else. He could beat you off the dribble and he was a good catch-and-shoot guy. I like the way UConn utilized him. He eventually went to the NBA and played the same way. He was dropping those numbers early. That’s one of the reasons he’s considered one of the best shooters in NBA history.
Do you have any regrets about not leaving school earlier?
Nah. Honestly, at the end of the day we all have a goal to make it to the NBA. I took the longer route but it was the most successful one for the simple fact that I can sit back and say that I have a great job as a NBA Cares ambassador because of it. I used basketball and having a degree as a vehicle that took me into different waters. I’m part of a mentoring program that President Barack Obama started called My Brother’s Keeper. I’m happy to still be apart of the game in a different light. In order for me to do all these things I needed to finish school. Now I’m able to look at things from a human perspective instead of a game perspective.
How did your life change after you got drafted in 1998?
It changed for the better. Obviously, being in the NBA allowed me to do more. I always dreamed of working in the community, I was able to help a lot of people in my life one way or another. Fiscally, I was able to do the things that I dreamed of for myself, my family, and my country.
What are your favorite NBA moments that you experienced in your career?
The brotherhood that you develop over the years is something that holds near and dear to my heart. Just looking back at all the friends I made from 1998 up until 2003 when I had my injury… as far as memories go, I recall how special I felt traveling to different arenas, being the only Dominican in the NBA at the time. Not only was I the only Dominican but I was one of the few Latinos. The love I was getting from the Mexicans, the Puerto Ricans and the Cubans was unbelievable. Anyone who was Hispanic appreciated that I accomplished something so huge. At the end of the day, we all come here with a dream to be successful and to make an impact.
Do you have any funny locker room stories?
I love the fact that TNT just came out with “Area 21 with Kevin Garnett.” If you watch it, you would hear a lot of great stories. KG went hard on the basketball court, he gave more than a 100 percent during the game. That same energy he carried to the court, he also carried it to the locker room in terms of making guys laugh and making fun of people—with me, it was always the way I dressed. All the guys called me Papi, which was the easiest way to remember the Spanish guy on the team. The overall experience was pretty cool
What was going through your mind after you suffered that injury in 2003 that ultimately ended your career?
It was tough. I’ve had injuries before: I twisted my ankle and I had a dislocated shoulder, but nothing that took me out of the game for a long time. The first that came into my mind is that it’s over—all the work that I put in and the expectations that I put on myself—I felt devastated. I must’ve cried through the whole night when my injury happened. I’m happy where life has taken me, but I can’t help to think where I would be if I never got hurt. I’m blessed that I’m still part of the game. I’m in and out the locker rooms and I still continue to have relationships with former and current NBA players.
Do you have any regrets in the way your career turned out?
Hell no! I think for the short amount of time that I was in the NBA I put in a lot of work, and I had a lot of great moments and a lot of good accomplishments. I felt the injury was a blessing in disguise, the game has been good to me, I’m still living off of basketball, which is crazy, and that’s all because the way I carried myself off the court. I treated everyone with respect. It didn’t matter if I was on the top of my game when I was one of the best players in the nation. I always hung out with my boys. One of my best friends from St. John’s, he was a manager on the team. I would hang out with him all the time. I was at his house more than he was at mine. Right now, he’s a CEO for a non-profit. It’s funny how roles changes and things turn around in life. I’m thankful to God, no matter where I’ve I never felt higher or more important than anyone else because at the end of the day we’re all equal.
Who are some of your favorite players to watch in todays NBA?
Obviously you have to give it up to LeBron. He’s going to be one of a kind. He’s changed the whole game. Just look at Magic Johnson when he came in being 6-9 playing the point, and how he changed the game, and how people starting to look at bigger point guards. Now we have LeBron who just isn’t a point guard, but an all around kind of player. Of course, we all know what he brings on offense, but defensively he’s someone that can make an impact on your team.
Then you have Steph Curry, he’s a videogame every time he steps on a basketball court and the things he does amazes people, he doesn’t shoot normal threes anymore, he needs his own three-point line because he shoots from far away.
Last but not least: Russell Westbrook. He’s really trying to prove something not only to the NBA but to the whole world. He has a different engine he just continues to get better after every game.
Do you think Westbrook can average a triple-double for the season?
He’s averaging a triple-double now. People are saying he’s going to hit a wall because at the end of the day, you want to preserve yourself come playoff time. You don’t want to wear yourself out. I don’t think he’s worried about the playoffs. I think he’ll continue to do what he’s doing now. Can it be done? Yes it can be done, and Westbrook will be the person to do it.
What do you think about today’s NBA and stars joining together to form super teams?
Everyone has to make their own decisions. LeBron went to Miami, that’s all I have to say. Guys are looking out for their well being, and at the end of the day you’re being praised for your accolades, it’s not just how much you score. Look at Charles Barkley, and how much grief he gets for not winning a championship as great as a player he was he never won a ring. Winning championships takes player into that elite standing. Guys who sacrifice to win a championship, you have to respect them for that.
In the modern NBA is so much change with teams and players. Do you think the days of teams building continuity over a period of years are over?
We’re playing a different game now. Just look at Kobe. He played for the Lakers his entire career. To me that is a great feat for a great person and a great player. Back then guys stayed with their teams. Now it’s a business. Loyalty is out the door. I would love to see more of players showing more loyalty to their teams. But now its a different game. Guys are just looking for their best interest, owners are looking for their best interest—that’s the reason why the game is the way it is.
Who’s your pick to win the 2017 NBA Championship?
That a good question. Golden State being up 3-1 [in last year’s Finals] lost that series and is now bringing in KD into the mix. They’re just starting to get into a rhythm as a team. I have Golden State going back to the Finals because they have a chip on their shoulder because of the way they lost their last championship. I would go with Golden State to come out to the West. But you have a guy named LeBron that’s also playing with a chip on his shoulder. At the end of the day, I have to go with Golden State just because they know they dropped the ball last season.