It was a New York City article of faith: The young man from the South Bronx, the mid-sized slasher with the elastic body, would go on from Harlem's Rice High to much bigger things. He needed a little work on his outside shot, to be sure, but that's how it is with city kids who go hard to the hole. He so loved the game that no one doubted he'd do the work, that the shot would come.
He did, and it has. He has improved each year and in his first three college seasons never failed to play in the NCAA tournament. This season he was fifth in the nation in scoring at week's end, with an average of 25.3 points a game, and his defense, rebounding and passing had helped carry his 6-2 team to 14th in the AP poll. That all the touts had the wrong guy—that the likely first-team All-America described here isn't 6'6" Felipe Lopez of St. John's but 6'6" Reggie Freeman of Texas—is but a pothole in midtown traffic.
At Rice High, says Longhorns coach Tom Penders, Freeman was "a caddie" for Lopez, the 1994 national high school Player of the Year, even though Freeman was a two-year starter and a year ahead of his more ballyhooed teammate. Today it's Lopez who is looking to Freeman for advice on how to get off a good shot.
Through last weekend, Lopez had shot 41.4% from the field since arriving at St. John's in the fall of 1994, and he had more turnovers than assists. Over that time the Red Storm had gone 28-34 and had been shut out of the NCAA tournament. The coach who wooed and signed him, Brian Mahoney, was fired after last season and replaced by Fran Fraschilla. And Lopez may not even get drafted. "Lopez is just a runner and jumper, and that won't cut it beyond college," says NBA director of scouting Marty Blake, who's reluctant to comment on nonseniors. "We'll of course look at him next year, but right now I wouldn't mention him in the same breath with Freeman."
Two weeks ago the good fortune of one seemed almost to mock the tough luck of the other. On the very weekend that Freeman sprang for 43 points in Texas's 98-86 defeat of Fresno State on CBS, Lopez was missing all seven of his shots in St. John's 77-39 loss to Minnesota. The same media that once put Lopez on a trajectory to the heavens now coldly fix him at a point very close to the ground. In a note on Felipe's sister, Sayunara, who plays for Division III Lehman College, the New York Daily News recently wrote, "Sayunara Lopez may not be the best known basketball player in the family. But she just might be the best." An AP dispatch on the debacle in Minneapolis pointed out that Lopez had been outscored by the St. John's national championship soccer team that day.
The Lopez story began as an enchanting one of how an émigré from the Dominican Republic, arriving in New York as an eighth-trader unable to speak English, quickly became a solid-B student it a demanding Catholic high school; of how he had abandoned the usual Dominican obsession, baseball, for basketball after a wild throw hit him in the nose one day; of how he was reared to be respectful in a throwback, two-parent immigrant household, where his dad once grounded him on the day of a big basketball trip because he hadn't done the dishes. But more beguiling than his background was the joy with which he played the game. "City kids take basketball so seriously," says Lou DeMello, who coached both Lopez and Freeman at Rice. "To Felipe it was important that he vas always having fun." DeMello vas born in Brazil, and as he matched Lopez and his merry band of Dominican supporters, le couldn't help but think of all the trappings of soccer back home: the flags, the drums, the samba beat—basketball as Carnaval.
The tale resonated equally with The New Yorker, which dispatched Richard Avedon to photograph Lopez, and the bottom-feeding tabloids, which despite their instincts couldn't bring themselves to print a discouraging word. Before he had played so much as a St. John's minute, Lopez graced the cover of SI's 1994-95 College Basketball issue. He was shown levitating over the Statue of Liberty, lacking only a cape. The morning after he announced that he would sign with the Red Storm, the phone rang in Mahoney's office. It was former St. John's coach Lou Carnesecca. "Did you see the Daily News?" he asked. "Six pages! Eisenhower and Patton didn't get six pages, and they won the war!"
But with the corridors of St. John's gym, Alumni Hall, clogged by Lopez acolytes, some upper-classmen grew to resent him. The Red Storm struggled, and that only redoubled the urgings of Lopez's friends and family that he try to do more. Former St. John's forward Roshown McLeod, who now plays for Duke, recalls that with the Red Storm leading at Georgetown that first season, Lopez told Mahoney in a timeout huddle, "Coach, I'm not touching the ball enough."
The cast is different now, and Lopez touches the ball as often as his teammates can get it to him. Still, despite averaging 16.9 points a game for his career, he can't seem to please. "People say he was overrated," says DeMello. "But in high school he played against the elite, the Iversons and the Stackhouses, and made all-tournament teams and won MVP awards. This kid has never lost in his life, and he's got to be thinking, People are attributing these losses to me. If he were averaging 17 points a game and St. John's were getting NCAA bids, people wouldn't care what he was shooting. But when you're not winning, they've got to blame somebody."
Fraschilla wishes they would blame anybody else. "He gets scapegoated, but we're a poor passing team that can't get him the ball," he says. "He's the only guy we've got, and there's a bull's-eye on his back."