Before LeBron James, the most-hyped high schooler was a tall, lanky, freak-athlete from the Dominican Republic terrorizing the gyms of New York City named Felipe Lopez. Lopez, the first high school basketball player featured on the cover of Sports Illustrated, is a throwback to the heights of New York City hoops and hype... and where that hype can get to be overwhelming.
Lopez rose to stardom, and eventually became a legend, in a city that at the time also hosted Stephon Marbury, Rafer “Skip to my Lou” Alston, God Shammgod, and more.
At Rice High School, Lopez raised the school’s national profile level on arrival in 1990. By his sophomore year, Lopez was the No. 1 sophomore in the country. An urban legend, Lopez’s team eventually grew too popular for Rice, often selling out Iona College and Fordham University.
He eventually led Rice to a city title and graduated high school as the number one player in the country, just above Allen Iverson, and stayed home to star for hometown St. John’s. But despite his talent — and yes, despite the hype — St. John’s team struggled to find success with him.
ESPN’s 30 for 30: The Dominican Dream follows the story of Felipe Lopez, through his ups and downs, from his anonymity to stardom, both on and off the court. The film does an excellent job of highlighting just how absurd the hype was around Felipe Lopez, all while capturing his emotions and character as he tried to live up to expectations he didn’t ask for.
Title: The Dominican Dream
Director: Jonathan Hock
Airs: April 30th at 9:00 PM ET on ESPN
Trey: Thank you for taking the time and being able to chat with us. It’s an honor to be able to talk to you, especially about this film, as the son of two Dominican immigrants myself.
Felipe: Aw man, that’s awesome. Thank you, man.
Trey: I wanted to start off with that. How were you able to bypass baseball, coming from a Dominican household, and a country where baseball reigns supreme and basketball is often an afterthought?
Felipe: Well, I’m from Santiago, the second largest city in the Dominican Republic. As far as space, we don’t have that much space to have baseball fields all over the place. The closest thing to me was basketball all over the place.
The [local] club [team] that I am currently president of was two blocks from me. It was very easy to go out there and hang out with all my friends, just running around and watching my two brothers and my sister, who are older than me, play basketball. It was an instinct type of thing, following my brothers and wanting to be like them.
I did try to play baseball. My father, at the time, lived here in the United States. He always said, ‘Felipe has to go and try baseball! I want him to play baseball.’
So they put me into a school to play baseball. But unfortunately I got hit with a baseball twice on my nose and I called it quits. I found that to be the best excuse to say I didn’t want to play.
Trey: When you moved to the United States, you were 14 years old. How did the game of basketball help with the transition and the assimilation to a new culture, a new language, etc., etc.?
Felipe: A lot. It totally helped me in my confidence to build relationships, even though I wasn’t communicating with folks. Just building relationships based on the trust that they knew I was able to play well. When you go to the park, you want to win, so you want to pick the best players. Since basketball is a sport that is a universal language, as far as how you perform and how you express yourself, I was able to really be accepted by peers that I wasn’t able to communicate with.
Trey: Looking back, Rice HS is looked upon as this almost mystical place where a ton of NYC talent came out of. I think most recently, the biggest guy is probably Kemba Walker—obviously Rice is closed down now. But at the time when you went to Rice, Rice was kind of at the bottom of the pack of the NYC powerhouses.
How and why did you end up at Rice?
Felipe: First of all, I’m playing at Gauchos and my coach at the time, Lou DeMello, he put a hook on me.
He says that he’s from Brazil, and that he spoke Spanish. That was a very nice sound to my ears, because I needed the help to speak and the help through certain situations. I felt like playing for a coach that knew how to speak Spanish would be a lot easier for me.
The funny thing was that during those four years [at Rice], the only thing I ever heard him say in Spanish was that he was from Brazil! That boy never spoke Spanish to me for four years!
But it was a great time. Something that really helped Rice HS to make it the powerhouse that it became was that a school in the Bronx called [St. Nicholas of Tolentine] closed my sophomore year. A lot of the varsity ballplayers from Tolentine, most of them came over to Rice.
We at Rice had so many ballplayers when they closed, that we ended up having a Varsity A and a Varsity B. And our Varsity B team was a lot better than many regular Varsity teams from any other school.
Trey: You mention all that talent, and you mention playing for the Gauchos, at what point did you realize you COULD BE great and at what point did you realize you WERE?
Felipe: Never. I mean, I knew I was good, but I wasn’t looking too far ahead.
When I was in high school, I was in high school. I wasn’t looking at college; that’s the reason it took so long for me to decide what school I was going to go to.
I think I kind of feeling the whole sensation that I could be OKAY coming into my senior year and being considered the number one player in the nation, playing at a high level, bringing my team to be number one in the nation—a huge accomplishment. Now all eyes were on me.
With the opportunity to jump over from high school to the NBA, at that time it wasn’t [something people were] accustomed [to]. It hadn’t happened yet. We could have tested the water, but I’m glad the decision was made for me to go the long route because those four years at St. John’s really taught me a lot. I went through a lot of ups and some downs, but it made me the professional that I am right now.
Trey: Looking back at your HS career, you come out as arguably the best player in the country, out of a city that had Stephon Marbury, Rafer Alston, Speedy Claxton, God Shammgod, the list goes on and on—some true NYC legends today.
How does it feel being able to look back and say you were the best out of that group?
Felipe: Well, I played with those guys. Stephon [Marbury] and I were teammates at Gauchos. You can tell that there was a lot of respect. I was putting up big numbers.
How do you decide who is the best player? Whoever scores the most. That’s the only thing I knew. When I was playing a game, I always thought how could I dominate and be considered the best player? Well, I had to compete with whoever was the best player on the other team and I had to score the most. That was my whole thought process. That’s how I went about, making sure that out of ten guys in the game, I was the one who outshined everybody.
Trey: You mentioned going into HS and all of the labels and pressure that was put on you.
One of the interesting quotes I took away from the film was actually from an interview you did early on. It was on being nicknamed The Dominican Michael Jordan, and you said, “I don’t want to have the label of someone who’s already done their job.” How did you deal with that pressure, at such an early age?
Felipe: Well, I tried to play like me. From the outside, people gave me that label. I didn’t put that label on myself. I was just doing the things I was capable of doing at that time.
It was all from the outside. On the inside, I’m not really believing that because I’m doing fine just being myself. I tell people that my favorite player was a guy from the Dominican Republic, Vinicio Muñoz. If I were to consider playing like anybody, it was Vinicio not MJ.
I just felt it was unfair to compare someone to Michael Jordan—those shoes are way too big to fill. Today we compare LeBron to MJ, we compare Kobe … and they were trying to compare a HS kid?
Trey: And not just that, but the difference in doing it with you versus doing it with LeBron and Kobe nowadays is that this is happening in the middle of Jordan’s dominance of the NBA, right? It’s not like now where you have people looking back and maybe not remembering things clearly.
Felipe: That’s a heavy burden on any ballplayer to be considered as someone who is at the highest point of the game. It was almost like if MJ scored 40 or 50, your duty was to go out there as a HS or college player and you had to go and do the same thing. If not, you’re not meeting the expectations, because you’re being compared to the greatest. In reality, I’m just trying to play ball and win games, and keep the flow of just making my community proud.
Trey: Speaking of community, what did it mean to you to be able to play at home, playing at St. John’s? And was that kind of soured by the team’s struggles?
Felipe: I want to say yes. I believe that as a whole, we could’ve done better. I think that the Dominican [Republic] and the flag would have been a lot higher. Mind you, I finished my 4th year as the third all-time leading scorer in the school. You have to put in some for work [for that].
But as a team, we weren’t able to really translate that success that I had in high school over to college. That’s where a lot of the struggles started happening. It wasn’t a personal struggle, because I’m putting up some really good numbers. It was a struggle of knowing I couldn’t uplift the team as a whole to be considered a good team in college.
Trey: Any recent college players you find most exciting?
Felipe: Both kids from Duke [Zion Williamson and RJ Barrett]. It’s funny because RJ Barrett’s father actually played at St. John’s with me and his mother used to run track at St. John’s. Rowan Barrett was a great athlete. To see this kid just makes me smile; he has all the DNA to be a great player.
Trey: What players from St. John’s are you a big fan of?
Felipe: Shamorie [Ponds], man. Shamorie is incredible. The skills that he has and how he’s able to play the game… It’s hard to compare anybody, and I don’t like to make comparisons, but sometimes you can like compare games. You look at Damian Lillard, how smooth and quiet he is, like a silent killer. Those kinds of guys don’t make too much noise, but you have to give them the respect.
Trey: Where do you think he gets drafted? Any ideas?
Felipe: It all depends. It waters down to having to showcase what you can do on a different level, with the team around you. It all depends on how he is able to take the competition, not just offensively. Defensively, it’s one of the things a lot of teams want to know—can you hold down your opponent defensively.
Also, the most important part, being able to fit on a team that you are able to run their system. You see him as a scorer, so it all depends. A team like Houston that likes to have guys that can score … the Knicks need somebody that can score and can come in and just produce.
Trey: Well the Knicks need a lot of things…
Felipe: It just all depends. If this kid is given an opportunity, I think he’s definitely going to do really, really well.
Trey: I know you’re an ambassador for the NBA, but what are your goals with the Felipe Lopez Foundation? What can people do to help and get involved?
Felipe: First of all, people can go to my website, FelipeLopez13.com. My whole goal is to continue to be a bridge to a lot of these young, Latino kids that are looking forward to get an opportunity of playing basketball here. It’s not just to create great basketball players, but to create great citizens. Citizens that are able to take the opportunity to go to school and become professionals. It can be in business or anything, but allowing them to have an opportunity to go to school for free.
To become an NBA player, the shots of making it are one in a million. We talked about Shamorie: he can probably play for one or two years, but that doesn’t make you an NBA player. That makes you somebody that made it but didn’t stick.
I have seen so many stories of people that played basketball, who went on into the business world and have become so much of a success story because of the work they do. It’s just finding a balance and knowing you can make it in other parts of life.
Trey: This is a question I HAVE TO ask you; it’s a question the streets need to know. You often hang out with another NYC legend, and there’s no coincidence in the way the two of you dress. I have to bring it up. Who has the better hat game between you and Carmelo Anthony?
Felipe: You can’t compare Me and Melo with hats, man! C’mon! I GAVE Melo a couple of hats!
I gave Melo a couple of hats, man! Melo looks at my swag and the way I rock my hats and everything!
But honestly, I have to give Melo a lot of respect. He’s a guy I have followed for many years. I love Melo. The things Melo does, not just on the court but off the court, it’s something I have really appreciated. Melo is truly a guy that gives back from the heart to his community. Anything that he does I truly support because I know what it means to be a superstar and be able to give back without people even looking.
Trey: How would you describe the story of Felipe Lopez?
Felipe: It’s a story of ups and downs. Struggles, just like that of any immigrant’s family that comes to this country and goes through a lot of obstacles.
But through persistence, faith, family and sacrifice, you are given a great opportunity in this country. That’s the reason why so many people move to the United States, to follow the American Dream. In this case, I was able to follow the Dominican Dream.