It was a New York City article of faith: The young man from the
South Bronx, the midsized slasher with the elastic body, would
go on from Harlem's Rice High to much bigger things. He needed a
little work on his outside shot, to be sure, but that's how it
is with city kids who go hard to the hole. He so loved the game
that no one doubted he'd do the work, that the shot would come.
He did, and it has. He has improved each year and in his first
three college seasons never failed to play in the NCAA
tournament. This season he was fifth in the nation in scoring at
week's end, with an average of 25.3 points a game, and his
defense, rebounding and passing had helped carry his 6-2 team to
14th in the AP poll. That all the touts had the wrong guy--that
the likely first-team All-America described here isn't 6'6"
Felipe Lopez of St. John's but 6'6" Reggie Freeman of Texas--is
but a pothole in midtown traffic.
At Rice High, says Longhorns coach Tom Penders, Freeman was "a
caddie" for Lopez, the 1994 national high school Player of the
Year, even though Freeman was a two-year starter and a year
ahead of his more ballyhooed teammate. Today it's Lopez who is
looking to Freeman for advice on how to get off a good shot.
Through last weekend, Lopez had shot 41.4% from the field since
arriving at St. John's in the fall of 1994, and he had more
turnovers than assists. Over that time the Red Storm had gone
28-34 and had been shut out of the NCAA tournament. The coach
who wooed and signed him, Brian Mahoney, was fired after last
season and replaced by Fran Fraschilla. And Lopez may not even
get drafted. "Lopez is just a runner and jumper, and that won't
cut it beyond college," says NBA director of scouting Marty
Blake, who's reluctant to comment on nonseniors. "We'll of
course look at him next year, but right now I wouldn't mention
him in the same breath with Freeman."
Two weeks ago the good fortune of one seemed almost to mock the
tough luck of the other. On the very weekend that Freeman sprang
for 43 points in Texas's 98-86 defeat of Fresno State on CBS,
Lopez was missing all seven of his shots in St. John's 77-39
loss to Minnesota. The same media that once put Lopez on a
trajectory to the heavens now coldly fix him at a point very
close to the ground. In a note on Felipe's sister, Sayunara, who
plays for Division III Lehman College, the New York Daily News
recently wrote, "Sayunara Lopez may not be the best known
basketball player in the family. But she just might be the
best." An AP dispatch on the debacle in Minneapolis pointed out
that Lopez had been outscored by the St. John's national
championship soccer team that day.
The Lopez story began as an enchanting one of how an emigre from
the Dominican Republic, arriving in New York as an eighth-
grader unable to speak English, quickly became a solid-B student
at a demanding Catholic high school; of how he had abandoned the
usual Dominican obsession, baseball, for basketball after a wild
throw hit him in the nose one day; of how he was reared to be
respectful in a throwback, two-parent immigrant household, where
his dad once grounded him on the day of a big basketball trip
because he hadn't done the dishes. But more beguiling than his
background was the joy with which he played the game. "City kids
take basketball so seriously," says Lou DeMello, who coached
both Lopez and Freeman at Rice. "To Felipe it was important that
he was always having fun." DeMello was born in Brazil, and as he
watched Lopez and his merry band of Dominican supporters, he
couldn't help but think of all the trappings of soccer back
home: the flags, the drums, the samba beat--basketball as
The tale resonated equally with The New Yorker, which dispatched
Richard Avedon to photograph Lopez, and the bottom-feeding
tabloids, which despite their instincts couldn't bring
themselves to print a discouraging word. Before he had played so
much as a St. John's minute, Lopez graced the cover of SI's
1994-95 College Basketball issue. He was shown levitating over
the Statue of Liberty, lacking only a cape. The morning after he
announced that he would sign with the Red Storm, the phone rang
in Mahoney's office. It was former St. John's coach Lou
Carnesecca. "Did you see the Daily News?" he asked. "Six pages!
Eisenhower and Patton didn't get six pages, and they won the war!"
But with the corridors of St. John's gym, Alumni Hall, clogged
by Lopez acolytes, some upperclassmen grew to resent him. The
Red Storm struggled, and that only redoubled the urgings of
Lopez's friends and family that he try to do more. Former St.
John's forward Roshown McLeod, who now plays for Duke, recalls
that with the Red Storm leading at Georgetown that first season,
Lopez told Mahoney in a timeout huddle, "Coach, I'm not touching
the ball enough."
The cast is different now, and Lopez touches the ball as often
as his teammates can get it to him. Still, despite averaging
16.9 points a game for his career, he can't seem to please.
"People say he was overrated," says DeMello. "But in high school
he played against the elite, the Iversons and the Stackhouses,
and made all-tournament teams and won MVP awards. This kid has
never lost in his life, and he's got to be thinking, People are
attributing these losses to me. If he were averaging 17 points a
game and St. John's were getting NCAA bids, people wouldn't care
what he was shooting. But when you're not winning, they've got
to blame somebody."
Fraschilla wishes they would blame anybody else. "He gets
scapegoated, but we're a poor passing team that can't get him
the ball," he says. "He's the only guy we've got, and there's a
bull's-eye on his back."
Since the Carnesecca era, which began in 1965, basketball at St.
John's has been played at a pokey pace. Mahoney was a disciple
of Carnesecca's and coached a similar style, and Fraschilla will
emphasize ball control as long as he has no depth. "Felipe's
game isn't coming off screens," says Freeman. "He's a creator
who can break you down off the dribble--more of a pro-style
player. If he played in a style like ours, he'd do well."
Freeman has done spectacularly well in Penders's system, which
is predicated on squeezing off more shots than your opponent.
But he has also thrived because he left New York. "New York
prepares you for anything," says Penders, who spent a dozen
years coaching at Columbia and Fordham. "If you don't develop
street smarts there, you can't leave your apartment, and Reggie
is very street smart. When he tries to lay an excuse on me about
being late with a paper or missing a class, I just tell him,
'You can't con Edison.' For Reggie, Austin, Texas, is a piece of
Lopez is not particularly street smart. "What I love about
Felipe," says Fraschilla, "is that he's a goofy 22-year-old
who's somewhat naive."
It's tough enough playing big-time basketball for yourself and
your teammates. By choosing St. John's, Lopez took on two
additional constituencies: his family, particularly his brother
Anthony, who was a regular at Mahoney's practices; and New
York's huge and proud Dominican community. "Felipe's problem is
he stayed home," says Freeman. "Some of his family and friends
wanted to live through him, wanted him to be their savior, and
that put a lot of pressure on him. At Texas they worry about the
football team not doing well. In New York, if you're not doing
well, you got to get ready for that back page."
Even in New York, Freeman rarely made the newspapers--his
signing with the Longhorns got small notice, while that same day
one paper ran a much bigger story about Lopez, still only a
junior, paring his choice of colleges to a dozen. As for family
pressures, Freeman's mother, Edna, and his brother, Ernest, came
to only a handful of his high school games (his father, Charles,
died when Reggie was 10).
In Austin, Longhorns veterans like Terrence Rencher, a buddy of
Freeman's from the Bronx and the Southwest Conference's alltime
leading scorer, took him as their protege, affectionately
calling him Fran (as in franchise) because of his genial
cockiness. "Reggie spent most of his freshman year trying to
prove he could do things he couldn't do," says Penders. "But
that was O.K. I liked the fact he had confidence."
And there was that shot. Both Freeman and Lopez went off to
college with low-slung jumpers, disfigured by years of
practicing in the Rice gym, where the rafters are only seven
feet above the basket. "When I first came, coach Penders said if
I didn't shoot the ball, I'd be sitting on the bench," Freeman
says. "And I'm not the type who likes to sit on the bench."
So he learned how to shoot, taking thousands of jumpers till he
had added more arc to his shot. Through Texas's first eight
games this season, nine different players had fouled out trying
to guard him, while Freeman's own defensive efforts had left
such guards as Rhode Island's Tyson Wheeler (3 for 17 field goal
shooting) and Fresno State's Dominick Young (7 for 21)
contemplating remedial shot work of their own.
"It's great to know someone I played with is doing so well, and
to see how good a shooter he's become because of the way he's
worked," says Lopez. "Reggie's a great player out there. I'm
trying to become the same player here. We're in two different
places but chasing the same goal.
"I guess that's what life's all about. Being together, having
joy for a while, and then breaking up."
DeMello considers the 1992-93 Rice High Raiders the finest team
he ever coached. Freeman was a senior swingman while Lopez, a
junior, was the primary scoring option. But those Raiders, with
a collection of nine future Division I players, were somehow
knocked out of the Catholic league semifinals by a school with
lesser talent, and DeMello still faults his three seniors,
Freeman included, for never fully accepting Lopez's stardom that
season and sometimes freezing him out.
Yet DeMello is hardly a Lopez apologist. Last season he blasted
him in one New York paper for not working hard enough. And for
most of last summer DeMello trained Lopez three days a week,
supervising an unsparing regimen of sprints, a two-mile run, 500
jumpers and weight-room work. For two of those weeks a
vacationing Freeman joined Lopez and DeMello. It was the first
time the two players had seen each other since high school.
"It felt a little funny, seeing as I always saw him as the Man,"
says Freeman. "Now it was like we were on the same level. When
we were shooting, I tried to help him out. 'Hold your
follow-through' and all that. He seemed to appreciate it."
To ask Freeman if he has seen the documentary Hoop Dreams is to
pose a silly question, given that he has a collection of almost
300 basketball videos and game tapes from which he takes
inspiration and cadges moves. He noticed how the fortunes of
that movie's protagonists, William Gates and Arthur Agee, seemed
to exist out of phase with one another--how one prospered just
when the other could only muddle through, and vice versa. And he
sees the similarities between the film and his and Lopez's
story. "A whole lot of people in New York who had looked at
Felipe as the Man now call to ask 'Wassup, Reg?' and all that,"
he says. "I never had the spotlight, but it's different now. The
same people who said I was no good are suddenly talking about me
in the NBA."
Their respective fortunes needn't be zero-sum, of course. Last
Saturday's results hinted as much: Lopez scored 20 points and
grabbed 13 rebounds in a 77-50 win over 2-3 Fairleigh Dickinson,
while Freeman went for 23 points and nine boards in a creditable
80-68 loss to No. 9 Utah in Salt Lake City. But there was still
a lax quality to Lopez's game. He rarely moved without the ball
and at times was slow getting back on defense. Even as the Red
Storm broke its huddle shouting, "Work hard!" the P.A. system at
Alumni Hall played Todd Rundgren's Bang the Drum All Day, with
its refrain, "I don't wanna work, I just wanna bang on the drum
"Every day I pray that wins will fall on Felipe and his
teammates, so he can have a smile on his face again," DeMello
was saying last Thursday, which happened to be Lopez's 22nd
"Good things happen if you work hard," he added hopefully.
"Just ask Reggie, right?"