Lopez, New York's finest, also nation's top prospect

January 28, 1994|By Calvin Watkins | Calvin Watkins,Contributing Writer

NEW YORK -- He lives in an apartment in the Bronx. He once turned down $800,000 to play professional basketball in Spain. He is a hero in his community.

And he is 19 years old.

Felipe Lopez is high school basketball's latest phenom. He was born in the Dominican Republic, where shortstops are in abundance, but where the last basketball sensation was a 7-footer named Tito Horford who never lived up to his billing in college or the NBA.

Today and tomorrow Lopez will lead Rice (16-0), the nation's No. 1 team according to USA Today, in the 1st National Bank Charm City Basketball Classic at Loyola College.

Rice, which is in Manhattan, will face Dunbar today. The Poets are No. 2 in the area and No. 13 in USA Today. Tomorrow Rice could faceSouthern of Baltimore, No. 1 in the area and No. 4 in the nation.

Lopez, a 6-foot-5, 170-pound swingman, is considered the nation's top high school player and has been recruited by most of the country's top college programs.

"The whole thing has been an honor for our family," said his brother Anthony, who helps oversee the recruiting of Lopez. "To have a Dean Smith, a P. J. Carlesimo or even a Pat Kennedy come to your home is an honor. Right now the top five are UCLA, Florida State, St. John's, Seton Hall and Kansas."

New York hasn't had a player so highly recruited since Kenny Anderson left Archbishop Molloy in 1989 to play for Georgia Tech.

New York hasn't had a team finish at the top of a national poll since Bronx Tolentine clinched the national championship in 1987-88.

"This is the best team going right now," says Lou DeMello, in his fifth year at Rice. "We've been No. 1 for four weeks now, longer than anybody going. We've had a young team the last few years, and the chemistry is now right where it needs to be."

Rice has already won the McDonald's Classic (Erie, Pa.), the Beach Ball Classic (Myrtle Beach, S.C.) and the Tymark-Burger King Tournament (Norfolk, Va.). Rice has twice beaten defending national champion Simon Gratz of Philadelphia, which plays Southern today, and defending New York State champion St. Raymond's, which plays Walbrook today.

Rice's win over St. Raymond's last Saturday drew 3,500 fans and a crew from the television show "NBA Inside Stuff." Lopez didn't disappoint with 34 points, including four in overtime in the 84-78 victory.

How good is Lopez?

"He has Michael Jordan ability," said Dunbar coach Paul Smith. "After I watched the tape, I couldn't sleep."

"He's improved his game since the last time I saw him," said Howard Garfinkel, who runs the Five Star basketball camp. "He's improved his three-point shot. The kid has all the tools to be a super player. He has the heart, desire and quickness."

Lopez averages 28.3 points, 10.4 rebounds, 2.8 assists and 1.6 steals. During his four-year career, he has 2,171 points and 806 rebounds.

Lopez's strengths are his passing, his ability to drive to the basket and his rebounding. He'd like to improve his jumper and his defense, and gain weight.

"You always want to get bigger; I'll take care of that when I get to college," said Lopez, who has scored 770 on the Scholastic Assessment Test, 70 points higher than the minimum required for NCAA freshman eligibility.

"I can shoot well," he added. "I like to drive to the basket and draw the foul. Sometimes I can find a teammate and make the pass. I think the only bad thing about my game is defense. I need to show some consistency."

Like many children in the Dominican Republic, Lopez started out playing baseball, but he quickly found out the game was not for him.

"I tried baseball when I was about 8 or 9 years old, but I got hit in the nose and quit," he said.

That's all right with his fans in the Spanish-speaking community in the Bronx, where he has become a hero and a role model.

"To be the best, you have to perform to a higher level," said Lopez. "I work real hard to get where I want to be as a basketball player. It's easy [living up to the high expections], when you take it one game at a time."

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