NBA Legend Felipe Lopez Visits Roosevelt High School - Early College Studies

  • Felipe Lopez Circles Up with Roosevelt MBK As a teenager in the South Bronx who spoke almost no English, Felipe Lopez turned subway rides into English lessons, reading books and listening to cassette tapes designed for first-graders.

    The future NBA legend had arrived in the United States from the Dominican Republic at age 14 and needed to learn English quickly in order to attend Rice High School, a Harlem parochial school with a competitive basketball team. Mr. Lopez also faced ridicule from classmates who frequently asked him, “Felipe, are you dumb?” In response, he would answer, “Yes, I can dunk” and then would imitate a roaring slam dunk, as he confused the two words.

    “Imagine being called dumb every day, how that felt,” Mr. Lopez, now a NBA Cares Ambassador, told a group of 15 riveted Roosevelt High School students who had gathered for an empowerment session in their gymnasium on November 3.  It took time and practice but, now, at age 42, “To me, my English sounds beautiful,” he said, Dominican accent still shaping his words. “I’m cool. I’m fine. I’m comfortable in my own skin.”

    The Roosevelt MBK brothers and advisors gathered in a circle, passing a “talking piece,” in this case a small basketball, to each speaker. MBK groups around the school district often use such restorative practices to create safe space and build a sense of community. Several students in the circle were recent immigrants, English-language learners attending the Yonkers International Academy at Roosevelt, which supports their literacy and language needs. The young men, many dressed in sports jackets and ties, some of them speaking in Spanish, asked Mr. Lopez about his challenges and triumphs and what has helped him lead a successful life.

    Going to college was crucial to building a solid future, he said. Guided by his schoolteacher mother, Mr. Lopez opted to attend St. John’s University in Queens rather than heading directly for the NBA, as other young talents do. Earning a college degree, he said, opened doors for him when his basketball career ended. For example, he said his college education helped him secure work nine years ago with NBA Cares, the league’s global social responsibility program which focuses on youth-serving programs in education, youth and family development, and health-related arenas.  NBA Cares eventually led him to the White House to support the national My Brother’s Keeper initiative created by former President Barack Obama in 2014.

    NBA Cares “understood that the educational piece was something I took seriously and at the end of the day, you don’t want somebody who cannot handle a conversation running your business,” he said.

    Mr. Lopez, who appeared on the cover of Sports Illustrated while still in high school, was a first-round draft pick by the San Antonio Spurs in 1998. He played for the NBA for five years, his career cut short by disappointing performances and a torn ACL and MCL in his left knee. Leaving the NBA earlier than anticipated, “was a blessing in disguise. I was getting too inflated and losing myself and my humility,” he said.

    After playing abroad for several years, he returned stateside to dive into NBA Cares and other community-focused work. Mr. Lopez, who still lives in the Bronx, dedicates much of his time to supporting underserved youth in New York and in the Dominican Republic through his foundation Ministerio de FE.

    In addition to emphasizing the importance of education and giving back to one’s community, he touted the necessity of discipline and goal-setting.  As an immigrant in a crime-plagued section of New York City, he spent hours every day shooting hoops in this gym, which helped him through those difficult early days.

    “My goal was to make it to the NBA. But I realized that once I made it to the NBA, I stopped making goals,” and it showed in my performance, he said. “By my second year I started going into games with specific goals and it helped.” Even now, he said he makes daily and weekly goals that include simple acts like “kissing my mother.”

    “When you have a goal, a focus,” Mr. Lopez told the Roosevelt High School students, “The blessings start pouring in.”