At New York City's Rice High School in Harlem, there is a conspicuous illustration on one of the walls of Mrs. Simonelli's art class. It is the first sketch in Felipe Lopez's blue period. The ink drawing features the planet earth shedding a tear while coddling a child. The Rice senior, who many scouts say is the most accomplished high school basketball artist in the nation, explains that his work symbolizes the need to care for all children in poverty. Felipe admits that he is still a child himself and that children are often idealists, but in the heart of Harlem you must probe deep to find a paragon like Felipe Lopez. "I have so many good ideas in my head," the artist says. "I want to change the unhappy world around me, so I must use my creativity in class and on the court to bring hope."
When Felipe immigrated to New York City from the Dominican Republic in 1989, during the summer before his eighth-grade year, he couldn't say hope or anything else in English. Since that day his vocabulary has nourished along with his body. He has added 6½ inches and 40 pounds to reach his current 6'5", 180-pound stature, expanding skyward so quickly that one day a few years back he pulled a pair of pants from his closet and didn't recognize them as his own. Felipe's lithe, elastic build recalls that of Michael Jordan, prompting his mother, Carmen, to say, "If he would eat more, he could be like the man who jumps."
Like so many kids in the Dominican Republic, Felipe was encouraged to play baseball but was quickly discouraged when he shagged a throw with his nostrils. He gravitated to hoops, the more so once he reached the States. Three years later, he declined a $500,000 offer to forgo the rest of high school and the prospect of college to play pro basketball in Spain. Last season he averaged 25.1 points, 8.7 rebounds and live love-struck Division I coaches per game as he led the Raiders to a 21-5 record. "Felipe has tremendous potential," says recruiting maven Tom Konchalski. "He has the speed of a world-class sprinter and can leap tall buildings in a single bound. He is already an icon in the Latino community, more popular than Menudo ever was."
Felipe clearly has the talent to make a big name for himself and establish a presence in basketball for the Hispanic community, of which he is already the pride and hope. So revered is Felipe in his native Dominican Republic that when he returned to his hometown of Santiago this summer and joined a pickup game, more than 1,000 neighbors came to watch. The game ended when Felipe tore down the rim on a dunk and scraped his arm. A woman came out of the bleachers to stanch the bleeding, then asked Felipe if he would autograph the bloody hankie.
Felipe, in turn, respects his heritage and vows he will attend college in a city with a large Hispanic community. He has tailored his choices to that end. "I want a lot of Hispanic kids to be able to see me play," he says. "My greatest joy is when the children come to me and say, 'I'm going to be the next Felipe.' "
During his career at Rice, Felipe has become accustomed to playing before appreciative crowds, even during road games. On Dec. 2 the Raiders opened their season at George Washington High in Manhattan's Washington Heights, a Dominican enclave. Felipe dazzled the crowd with 48 points, including two treys and five poster-worthy dunks. After the game, when someone mentioned that 48 points had to be the most ever scored by a Rice player, one couldn't help but recall a moment a few hours earlier in Mrs. Simonelli's classroom. "You could say that I'm greedy," Felipe had said, staring at the full circumference of his planet earth. "I want to make history everywhere I go."
The proud Dominican aims to be creative on the court and beyond.