When they heard of the “Dominican Michael Jordan,” others fantasized about the next basketball savant immigrating to the United States.
They expected greatness of the 6-foot-5 Latino with insane athleticism, a million-dollar smile and a prideful nation on his back. And when the anticipated fairytale ending went unreached, many shook their heads in disappointment and swiftly motioned to the next obtainable sector of “feel-good” to meet their lofty projections.
Few stuck around for what has been the continuation of Felipe Lopez’s life success story. In fact, it’s still being written, as he promotes The Dominican Dream, a documentary of his heartbreak and triumph directed by Jonathan Hock, which premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival on April 27.
“I’m so grateful,” said a smiling Lopez—now an NBA Cares Ambassador—seated in room 214 of the Roxy Hotel in Tribeca 24 hours before the premiere. “This film tells a story about my career, but I felt like telling the story because of how it was gonna be able to impact and educate people in so many different angles.”
For Lopez, and for Hock, that’s the point: Nuance and grey area when it comes to what we determine successful. An open-mindedness is required for the film, which will debut nationally on ESPN Tuesday (April 30) at 9pm ET.
From a purely basketball perspective, Lopez’s story is remarkable on its own: A Dominican immigrant who moves to the Bronx with his family in 1989, becomes the best high school player in New York City within three years and ultimately the best player in America prior to his 1994 graduation. Then he decides to stay home, where he was already revered in a uniquely New York and Hispanic fashion.
Through the ups and downs, he graduates (first of his family) from St. John’s University; and while the one-time immense support had watered down, he had still reached his NBA pinnacle.
But it wasn’t purely basketball that drove Hock to produce this story.
“I said, you know what, if we could tell the story about Felipe Lopez as an immigrant story, not as a basketball story, well now it’s a totally different thing,” he says. “Now it’s like, ‘What does success mean?’ Today where success is measured by dollar signs, fame, how many likes, how many followers you have or whatever, what does it mean for an immigrant to have success here? For an immigrant family to be successful? Felipe is the model of the successful immigrant.”
In the NBA, Lopez is considered a bust, and while all parties can accept that, The Dominican Dream suggests a supplemental layer to counteract that notion: Why does that make him a failure?
“Felipe never said what he was gonna become,” Hock offers. “Felipe just came, worked hard and made it to the NBA after coming here at age 13 not speaking a word of English. That to me is a success story masquerading as a disappointment story. I’m hoping people will look at this and say, ‘Wow, who is going to call this a failure?’”
Then there’s Lopez growing up in the Bronx during the 1990s. It was a time when drugs and basketball synchronized daily, so Lopez did his best to remain on the court.
“People would line up just to get their drugs and I’m playing around that. I had to go around that. I’m playing and probably like 50 feet from me, people are just buying the smack,” Lopez says.
“[One time] I’m actually playing basketball and there’s a line inside the playground. All of a sudden, there was a shootout. Somebody came and something happened with a girl. I heard it… but that was just growing up in New York. So when you go to a basketball court, you’ve got a little more anger, a little more hunger, because you want to get out from that situation.”
Hock insists that the 1998 first-round-pick was better off despite the controversy that stemmed from his decision to stay at St. John’s for all four years. Hock also produced and directed the 2005 documentary Through the Fire, based on Sebastian Telfair’s rise at Abraham Lincoln High School and his subsequent jump straight to the NBA, drawing a correlation between Telfair and Lopez.
“That was a great success story at the time, but how are you gonna look at [Telfair’s] story today and say, ‘Oh, it’s good he didn’t go to college? It’s good he didn’t have four years of that incubation period of his adulthood?’ Sebastian would’ve left a lot of money on the table when he went to college, but tell me he wouldn’t trade that today,” Hock says.
“I believe very strongly that it’s wrong to not allow high school kids to go right to the league if they can do it, but I also agree that it’s short-sighted and you’re passing up the most important social and interpersonal development years of your life by giving up those four years. Anderson Lopez [Felipe’s brother], in the film, talks about success being better than money… Felipe, who could’ve gone out of high school, didn’t and walked away from a lot of money, and Bassy, who went to the NBA out of high school and got all the money, you ask them if they’ll switch places and see which one wants to.”
The aim for Hock is to communicate this message: Success is not defined by fulfilling expectations others set out for you. He hopes that when you see Lopez, you see yourself or your family. You see the breakthrough of what it ultimately takes to make it in America. You see today’s end result of what he’s become versus where he came from.
“It’s uniquely Dominican and uniquely Latino and uniquely Felipe’s family. But it’s also universal,” Hock adds.
“Yeah, this is Felipe’s story, and this is the story of the Dominicans and New York in the 80s and 90s, but this is your story, too. This is my story. This is every American story because we all came from somewhere else.
“Everybody is the product of some family that moved from somewhere else so that their children and grandchildren could have a better life.”
Lopez says he’s greatly appreciative of the film, and is eager for the ESPN debut on Tuesday night.
“I truly appreciate that because at the end of the day, this film has become part of my legacy that no one can take away or erase,” he says proudly. “The story is something that I’m going to be able to tell my grandson, my grandkids, so on and so forth. It’s a timeless piece. I’m so grateful for all that. I’m so grateful to be in the NBA Cares program and it was not based on my performance… I learned how to build good relationships while I was playing. While I was on top, I made people feel that even though I was the best player, I made them feel that I was a regular guy just like anybody could be.”
Bryan Fonseca is a contributor to SLAM. Follow him on Twitter @BryanFonsecaNY.
Photos via Getty.