Teenage Basketball Phenom Felipe Lopez Redefines Success in His Biopic Dominican Dream
The documentary about the life of basketballer Felipe Lopez, Dominican Dream, premiering this week at the Tribeca Film Festival, is more than just a redemptive roller coaster of a sports story. The film provides insights into the benefits of biculturalism and how to redefine success.
Back before the internet era of sports coverage, before ESPN took over the world, there was the weekly Sports Illustrated. What Rolling Stone was for bands, SI was for United States athletes. Felipe Lopez, who moved from the Dominican Republic at age 14 and barely spoke English, was by 17 named the best high school basketball player in America, getting comparisons to Michael Jordan at an obscenely young age. He nabbed the coveted cover in 1994 — before ever playing in college — wearing a St. John's college jersey. Instead of accepting offers to the NBA or famous college programs, he chose to stay in his adoptive home of New York City, sticking closer to his family and his people and making the city's Latinos proud and full of expectations. He was a good-looking media darling nationwide at the dawn of the high school–to-pro era. The rest is, well, not so much basketball history. Called “The Lebron before Lebron” in today's comparisons, his nationality pushed the Felipe Lopez story beyond sports.
This week the documentary film Dominican Dream premieres at the Tribeca Film Festival. On the one hand, the biopic on the life of Felipe Lopez is an ESPN film about a basketball player who made it to the NBA from the Dominican Republic, land of baseball, and became the first Latino drafted in the opening round. On the other it's a film about biculturalism, family ties, mental health and how they interact with the super-hyped sports media spotlight. ESPN, by association, doesn't necessarily come out looking innocent, but the film doesn't focus on media criticism. It is rather a love letter to Felipe Lopez and his family, as it should be.
CHICA spoke to the easygoing Lopez, now 44 and based in New York City.
CHICA: What were you thinking watching the film? Afterward?
Felipe Lopez: “I was definitely emotional the first time I saw it, because I saw my father, well, and my father is in a bed right now at the hospital. I think it was almost a tribute to him. To see that, his family that he brought to the United States, has done some type of accomplishment that the story is being told on the big screen.”
Lopez's father, a mechanic, announced that the family, including his two brothers and sister, was moving to the States. But Felipe's parents left him and his sister in DR for three difficult years. The family finally reunited when he moved to the big city at 14. The transition from DR to the Bronx was challenging. It was gray and urban, there were drug addicts, and he didn't speak English. But their family was a tight-knit unit of support, and he could dunk. Basketball would be the way.
The supporting cast of the film is his mom, sister, brothers, all interviewed, but it also includes New York City and the DR. The film opens with Lopez revisiting the barrio in Santiago de Caballeros he grew up. “It feels like home. It is home,” he says. But later, challenging the notion that a person has only one home, he says, “I feel like I was born and raised in the Bronx.” CHICA asked Lopez to compare New York and DR and he says that they are opposites. DR is full of color and the people and the weather are warmer. But New Yorkers, he says, aren't rude, like some people say, “they just have their own thing going on.”
The documentary intersperses Felipe's story with a few contextual factoids about Dominicans in New York. “They are the most hard-pressed immigrants in the city,” a news reporter says in a random clip. Washington Heights, where more than 200,000 Dominicans live, is presented as an area for gangs, crime and crack in the early '90s.
Lopez tells CHICA: “At the time that I was coming up, there was so little to be told about our community. It was just negative things coming out. And even to this day, you know, when the narrative is saying that migrating families that come to this country are either thugs or they gang members. You know, people take it the wrong kind of way.”
Felipe was 6-foot-3 going into the ninth grade at Rice Catholic high school in Harlem. While learning English, he dominated the sport at that level and word spread fast throughout New York, particularly in the Latino communities and of course Washington Heights. The buzz would always be on the edge on hype, his legendary feats expanded like in a game of telephone. He was talked about as a “magical player from another planet.” Becoming No. 1 in the country by his sophomore year, the Rice games were switched to college facilities. At 16, he was selling out Fordham and Iona. Sports pundits debated whether he was the Dominican Jordan.
At his games, he developed a loud and proud cheering section in the stands, waving the Dominican flag, bringing their homemade food to the games and chanting. “We have to bring the drums” and “the party,” he jokes in the film.
One image from the doc that stays in your head: 17-year-old Felipe sitting on top of the basket hoop — surrounded by joyous teammates and fans after winning the high school championships — and holding up a giant Dominican Republic flag. “I started feeling I'm not playing for myself, I'm playing for a community,” he says in the film, knowing in hindsight that the relationship gets complicated. At the time, he was just making them feel good and that made him feel good.
Lopez tells CHICA: “I felt that I was really truly playing for the Latino community. You know, in particular the Dominicans. But when I say they were just so many Puerto Ricans, you know, Mexican. As for Latinos, we always love to hear a success story coming from one of our own, someone that we can relate to, someone that speaks our language.”
Lopez began to carry that heavy load well before his senior year in high school. He didn't want to let them down. Foreshadowing tells us that he will. And, though Lopez doesn't like to admit it, sometimes your biggest fans become your harshest critics.
Lopez tells CHICA: “Like, honestly, I'm going to be a little bit too honest. Sometimes I don't wanna get too honest because it could hurt people. But a lot of the time, we get the worst kind of critics from our own people. I know why, I think…. It kind of goes into a little bit more of a personal kind of thing, you know. And I have felt that from Dominicans. Ain't nothing wrong with that, 'cause I feel, in those days, I think the flag is a lot higher than me. And I have represented that flag in a huge kind of way.”
In the last quarter of the film, Lopez heads back to his hometown of Santo Domingo and plays for his original club team. It's a happy ending of sorts and we begin to understand the Dominican dream theme and how to redefine success. Sometimes it's just getting to the States, Lopez tells CHICA.
In high school, Felipe Lopez delivered for both his Dominican people and his sports media fandom. He became an American media sensation by his senior year, his American Dream-type story already epic given his origins. Every big college coach came to recruit, Shaquille O'Neal came to meet him, but so did The New Yorker's Susan Orlean who is interviewed in the film and crystalizes how his situation “transcended” a sports story.
Would he go to the NBA after high school? His manager at the time told him to take the money. The family, economically limited hard workers but low-earners, decided together that he would not go. His parents had always preached education. To the delight of thousands of fans, friends and family and Latinos, he stayed in New York and went to St. Johns in Queens.
After a decent freshman year, Lopez was again given the chance to go pro, but the family passed on it again. As if angering the God of Ball Sports, Lopez hit a sophomore slump and was almost immediately dubbed an overhyped let-down by a media machine that once endlessly sang his praises.
What occurs while watching is the realization that the true antagonist of the story is the sports media with its amplified expectations. The overall drama of Felipe's story and by extension, the documentary, is somewhat manufactured in the grand scheme of things — but no less compelling or real. Lopez leads St. Johns to the NCAA tournament during his senior year — yay! — only to get knocked out in the first round as Lopez misses a clutch free throw.
Still, he graduates from a good school with a bachelor's degree. Despite all negative press, Lopez is drafted in the NBA's first round! As he says to CHICA, he created a path for Latinos to play basketball. “Putting on an NBA uniform with the name Lopez on the back, that's a great victory.” He played for three NBA teams in five years. He started out average but his game got better.
If there is tragedy in the story, it comes during a 2002 pre-season game in which Celtic Paul Pierce accidentally steps on his foot and twists his knee, ending his chances at playing ball in the NBA (he's forgiven Pierce, don't worry). Lopez goes “into a hole for two years” after this. One quibble: We can't tell whether the film skims over this fascinating period because those days were too dark or because not addressing that time lets the viewer's imagination run wild with drama that doesn't exist.
CHICA: So after the NBA injury, you say you went into a hole. Was it like a rock bottom time or was it therapeutic, like you just had to get away?
Felipe Lopez: “I think it was a little bit of both. You know, because honestly, when I say that I went into a hole, it was just, like, anything that has to do with basketball. I kind of say, well, two months prior I'm playing in the NBA. Then, like six months later, I'm pretty much not even thinking about doing that, because I thought I wasn't good for anything at that time.
So it was a little bit therapeutic and kind of self-centered. Realizing that I'm trying to either move on and do some other things. I moved from Minneapolis, I went to Miami. I got an opportunity to actually work for Telemundo. Going to Miami was great. I felt like I was back in the Dominican Republic, you know, great weather. So it kind of gave me a break a little bit from all of these years that I have played, and all the media attention and everything else.”
CHICA: Would you say during that time that you were, beating yourself up a little bit?
Felipe Lopez: “Of course. Because you have to understand, you know, you are this close to living the life that you always thought to yourself…. You tend to listen to the commentating, and I have my own expectations. That thing that was so close seems so far now that it's almost impossible to reach. You do kind of feel a little bit of self-pity. I mean, if you don't feel self-pity about something you know that you're capable and you don't do it and you don't get it. Like, come on now. You're not human.”
CHICA: There are a lot of other athletes that deal with a lot of pressure and expectations and don't make it. Is there a support group for athletes that either get injured or don't live up to expectations?
Felipe Lopez: That is a really great question and honestly, I want to say that there's not. I mean, there is a support group if you are a pro athlete, yes. The NBA Player's Association, they provide you a lot of help. But if you, if you don't make it to the pros, you pretty much on your own — and that's where the family comes in…. Can you imagine? Can you imagine myself not having the support of the family to deal with all the pressure, and having to make decisions. That would have been a little chaotic.”
Lopez's life has in fact been filled with victories existing on a smaller scale and for a while overshadowed by outer and inner pressures, those dreams of world domination spurred by the hopes and expectations of others as well as his own passions — at one point in the doc, someone calls him “Dominican Jesus.” Redefining success not only from what others think but for yourself, in short, a new perspective, is the lesson here. And don't let the melancholic vibe in the film or the air of tragedy brought about by the ESPN hype-meisters fool you, Lopez has long been at peace.
Lopez tells CHICA: “So it's only normal for me to hear certain critics that maybe, you know, with today's standard, I didn't live up to their expectations. But I always say that your expectations are not my expectations. You created your own expectations about me, but you're not living my life. I'm cool where I'm at, I'm fine. And I've been blessed with all these opportunities. I played in the NBA. I created a path for Latinos to believe in themselves and they say, “You know what? I can make it, I can get there because I saw Felipe doing it.
I see all my past as as glorious. I do remember being down at the time, but I'm not down anymore. I see every single moment as something victorious.”
One victory in particular he would like to emphasize: The decision to do his four years and get his degree St. Johns. “That is truly where I can say it has blossomed into this wonderful story. Because without that I wouldn't have any options. I would not have had the option to be an NBA Cares Ambassador for the past 10 years.”
Yes, Lopez still works for the NBA. He's been on panels with President Bill Clinton; he's hung out with President Barack Obama. But his work for NBA Cares outshines all. You can read all about the amazing things he has long been doing with underprivileged kids at his website.
The film runs on both ESPN and ESPN Deportes. And if you're going to be in New York City, grab a ticket to the festival in Tribeca.