Monday, July 5, 2010

Prep Work

Felipe Lopez is an interesting case study. He was, at best, an average NBA player and hung around the league long enough to play 249 games with three teams. But his career should be filed as a success story because he was able to avoid sinking under the weight of unreal expectations.

Lopez’s background was custom-built for the hype machine. He was a gangly teenager when he immigrated with his family to New York City from the Dominican Republic. He built himself into a prep legend at Rice High School, learning English at the same time he mastered hoops. That’s an easy-to-swallow narrative, and Lopez became a media sensation. Lopez was on the cover of Sports Illustrated’s college preview (“The Big East Is Back”) before even playing a game for St. John’s. Even The New Yorker deigned to cover hoops, dispatching Susan Orlean for a superb profile of Lopez as a high schooler.

As with any outsized attention, timing is everything. By the time Lopez was a high-school senior in 1994, Michael Jordan had built basketball into a global business. Jordan had left the NBA for his baseball sabbatical, so the search was on for the next generation’s star. ESPN had become a surprise success in offering rabid fans around-the-clock coverage of sports. One of the many impacts of Michigan’s “Fab Five” earlier in the 1990s was a bigger focus on the prodigious talents of high schoolers. Along with that came the big shoe companies, who tried to cultivate relationships with prep All-Americans.

So when Lopez was set to play in the 1994 McDonald’s All-American Game, his legend was already burnished. The national-television audience tuned in to see if this kid really belonged in the same rarefied air as other recent NYC schoolboy legends like Kenny Anderson.

Again, the stars seemed to align perfectly for Lopez. The game was played in his hometown at tiny Alumni Hall on the campus of St. John’s, where Lopez had already committed. The All-American field also was unusually weak that year.

Lopez’s East teammates in the starting lineup were Corey Louis, Danny Fortson, Curtis Staples and Steve Wojciechowski. The West countered with starters Trajan Langdon, Lorenzen Wright, Ricky Price, Jerod Ward and Neil Reed. When visiting with broadcasters Bill Raftery and Verne Lundquist during the game, New York Knicks center Patrick Ewing proved adept at scouting talent, saying “Looking at the game, I don’t know if any will make the NBA.” Antoine Walker, almost unrecognizable as a bone-thin teenager, was the best future pro in this game.

With the hometown crowd behind him, this game seemed earmarked as a showcase for Lopez. He didn’t disappoint. With Langdon guarding him, Lopez hit a three-pointer and then a three-point play in the first few minutes. Lopez finished with 24 points, eight coming on free throws, to win the game’s MVP.

Lopez clearly had skills to make coaches salivate. He stood 6 feet 5 inches and had rangy arms. He had good form on his jumper and scored on some tough maneuvers around the basket (although mostly against Langdon, a few inches shorter and known more as a shooter than defender). Granted it was an all-star game, but Lopez seemed lost without the ball, unsure of how to impact the game if he wasn’t scoring. That didn’t bode well for the next level, with better coaches and defenses that could be geared to stop him.

Nonetheless, expectations for Lopez were kicked up a tick after his performance (I remember a lengthy highlight package and profile on ESPN’s “SportsCenter” the day of the game). He had a solid freshman season at St. John’s, averaging almost 18 points per game. But despite ending up as one of the school’s top scorers, Lopez’s college career has often been classified as a disappointment. He was the 24th overall pick in the 1998 NBA draft.

Still, Lopez can be viewed as a trailblazer. The attention paid to Lopez as a high-school senior presaged the booming business that prep hoops would become in the latter half of the decade. One year after Lopez finished high school, Kevin Garnett would be the first player in almost two decades to bypass college on the way to the NBA. Soon after, even regular-season prep games were shown on national television and more players were saddled with unrealistic expectations.

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