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 all day."
"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 birthday.
"Good things happen if you work hard," he added hopefully. "Just ask Reggie, right?"