Sunday, March 22, 2009

Latino basketball player shows he can play

Western Kentucky's Orlando Mendez-Valdez determined to succeed
He has taken hard road from San Antonio to NCAA tournament
Rick Morrissey | CHICAGO TRIBUNE, March 21, 2009

PORTLAND, Ore. — If you watched Western Kentucky's victory over Illinois the other night, you might have noticed the Hilltoppers' Orlando Mendez-Valdez.

He's a really, really good basketball player.

He's also 6 feet 1 inch and Hispanic.

It took the former — and unbending determination — to overcome the latter. And if you don't think being Mexican-American makes playing Division I basketball a challenge, you haven't been paying attention.

The son of Mexican immigrants, Mendez-Valdez had one Division I scholarship offer coming out of high school in San Antonio, then had it yanked away at the last moment when Texas State chose to give it to another player. Rather than go to one of the junior colleges that wanted him, he attended Charis Prep in Goldsboro, N.C.

A year later, there was interest, but no scholarship offers, from Gonzaga, Wisconsin and Wake Forest. Perhaps Mendez-Valdez's memory will be sharp when Western Kentucky plays Gonzaga in a second-round NCAA tournament game here Saturday.

The Hilltoppers, along with East Carolina, offered him a ride. Mendez-Valdez chose Western Kentucky and then waited three years to be a starter.

"He persevered," said Abelardo Valdez Jr., Mendez-Valdez's legal guardian. "He had multiple doors shut in his face. They said he was too small. They said he wasn't fast enough. That he never would play Division I basketball. But he wouldn't take no for an answer."

Mendez-Valdez grew up in a now-razed housing project where the nearby landmarks were a cemetery, railroad tracks and a creek. His guardian calls it "the Bermuda Triangle of trouble."

"I saw murders happen," Mendez-Valdez said. "Drive-bys. Right across the street. There were unstable family households, arguments, fighting, prostitution, everything you could imagine.

"It's truly unbelievable how I came away from all that. I have a lot of friends now who either have been shot, are dead or are in jail. I've been blessed. I thank God. I've been truly lucky. I've been through it all. You could make a movie out of it, really."

Mendez-Valdez was in 6th grade when Valdez first saw him. The youngest of seven children, the boy was struggling in school and beginning to get into trouble. One brother had just been sent to prison for manslaughter. Another later would serve time for a drug conviction. Valdez was the assistant coach at the school the boy attended. He saw raw talent.

"He was a scared kid," he said. "But there was something about him. He had a light. He just needed confidence and discipline. He was starving for it. He just needed a change. I was hard on him, and he took to it."

Valdez began giving Orlando rides home, and the boy started spending more time with him. Orlando never had met his biological father. Finally, his mother asked the coach if he would take in her son to get him away from the neighborhood. That was the beginning of his freshman year of high school. Four years later, he surprised Valdez by having his name legally changed to Orlando Mendez-Valdez.

There's not a great tradition of Hispanic basketball players from San Antonio—or anywhere, for that matter — competing collegiately, so there's not a lot of encouragement in the community for kids who might dream of doing great things on the court. In the 2006-07 academic year, the most recent data available, only 1.8 percent of Division I players were Hispanic.

"Part of it is the perception that they can't play at that level," said Valdez, who works at an alternative school for at-risk kids in San Antonio. "A lot of kids here can play. They're not getting the opportunity. I don't get it. If you can play, you can play."

When Mendez-Valdez arrived in Bowling Green, Ky., four years ago, he was met with some skepticism.

"Once he practiced with us, I was like, 'Man, he's going to be a good one,' " Western Kentucky forward Mike Walker said. "But my first impression after seeing him was, 'He can't play.' "

Mendez-Valdez finally won a starting spot this year under new coach Ken McDonald, averaged 14 points per game and was named Sun Belt Conference Player of the Year. He had the first triple-double in school history. But he's more than a sweet shooter and passer. He's a drill sergeant of a floor leader.

He's also on schedule to be the first member of his family to graduate from college. He wants to play pro overseas, then become a teacher and coach of inner-city kids. Who's willing to bet against him?

Word has spread about Mendez-Valdez. When Western Kentucky players and coaches were eating at a restaurant in Miami earlier this season, a Hispanic family stopped and started taking photos of him.

Maybe the kid can change perceptions.

"We're the victim and the perpetrator of the problem," Valdez said. "We're telling the kids they're not going to make it in basketball; get real, nobody else is doing it.

"What we said to Orlando was, 'Dream big. Why not? Why not you?' "

Why not him, indeed?

"I was the San Antonio player of the year coming out of high school," Mendez-Valdez said. "It was hurtful seeing all these other players you beat out for the award, and they're going to big-time programs. And you don't even get a courtesy letter that schools send out to all players.

"It was hard to swallow. But if you know anything about Hispanics, we don't give up easily. I never gave up."

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