#Tribeca2019 Film Review ‘The Dominican Dream’: A Dream Deferred, Denied, And Realized. An Interview With Felipe Lopez (Video)Read Now
The 1994 cover of Sports Illustrated, the "Dominican Michael Jordan", Gatorade, Parade, and USA Today Player of the Year awards. This was the talk and accolades surrounding a young 6'5" shooting guard from New York city. Felipe Lopez and his family immigrated to the United States from the Dominican Republic, but it wasn't to become a basketball star. The goal was for the Lopez children to get a better education and a piece of the "American Dream". Felipe's story, The Dominican Dream premiered this week at the Tribeca Film Festival in New York. Fitting, as this is the city where he gained cult and superstar status.
The Dominican Dream is part of ESPN's acclaimed 30 for 30 series, and was directed by Jonathan Hock. The film follows a typical narrative arc, we've grown accustomed to with these types of stories. The overlay between archival early footage of Lopez and present day gives a fresh perspective and allows the audience to experience the memories through Lopez's eyes. Hock does a good job with the source material and allows Felipe's story room to breathe throughout, with excellent pacing, and the right amount of silence for dramatic affect.
As a young man in a new city who didn't speak the language, things were tough for Lopez. He was looking to be a part of something, find friends, and fit in. He was preternaturally tall and athletic for his age -as many future pros are - and his brothers signed him up to play AAU basketball with the famed NYC Gauchos. At the time nobody in the Lopez family knew what playing basketball was going to do for Felipe.
Felipe started showing promise early in his AAU career and then attended Rice high school. It is at this point where the legend of Felipe Lopez began to grow. The Dominican community in NYC would show up in droves to support Felipe at his games. He was the number one player in the country, and he was being recruited by every major Division I school to play hoops. As this culminated in 1994 during his senior season, playing NBA basketball was not just a dream, but seemingly, a reality.
As with many young prodigies or phenoms, Felipe had a decision to make. Many experts and people around basketball were wondering if he should forgo college and enter the NBA straight out of high school. This had not been done much yet, there really was no blueprint for this kind of move. There was money to be made, surely they could figure it out right? No. While this was the "American Dream", it wasn't the Lopez family's dream. Felipe and his family decided he would wait on the NBA millions, which were surely coming, and stay close to home and attend St. John's University.
Choosing St. John's was a curious choice to many, but if you understood Felipe and his love of family and his community, it made perfect sense. As an adult 25 years removed from the situation, and with perspective, Lopez tells BSO he had just gotten used to NYC and didn't want to leave. "There were other places that I could have gone. But New York City had that vibe and energy I was comfortable with. Plus I wanted to bring a championship to the city like I did at Rice high school."
Lopez's freshman year was up and down and the team was fairly average. While he didn't live up to outsized expectations of player of the year, all-american, or winning a title, most were still convinced he'd be a lottery pick in the 1995 NBA Draft. Then the unthinkable happened. Lopez passed on the NBA again and decided he was going to return for his sophomore season. Timing is everything and hindsight is 20/20, but Lopez skipped going straight from high school to the NBA in 1994. The 1995 draft featured Kevin Garnett, a high school star who skipped college. The 1996 draft, arguably the best class ever, featured another straight from high school star named Kobe Bryant. Oh, what could have been.
The film does a nice job of making the audience aware of what was happening in the larger basketball world, and contrasting that with the singularity of Lopez's world. Sneaker executive and founder of the legendary ABCD All America Camp, Sonny Vaccaro, makes an appearance in the film as the connector between both worlds. In a particularly poignant moment Vaccaro said, "He didn't pass on the NBA once. He passed four times!"
But money was never the main focus for Lopez and his family. That's not to say, they couldn't use a huge payday. Vaccaro estimates he lost out on at least a couple million by not jumping straight from high school and obviously more after his freshman year at St. John's. At every juncture of Felipe's life where a major decision needed to be made, the film made a point to hammer home that family was most important and they were going to make the decisions together. "A Dominican kid just deciding to do his own thing and not consult his family," he says incredulously, "that was never going to happen."
An unfulfilling college career, culminated in a trip to the NCAA tournament during his senior year where the team made it to the second round. His game HAD improved, and he earned his college degree. A huge accomplishment for anyone, but more so for Lopez as he was the first in his family to do so. That was the proudest moment for his mother and father.
Lopez finally made the NBA, selected #24 by the San Antonio Spurs in the 1998 draft. Imagine if he had stayed in the Spurs organization instead of being traded on draft day to the Vancouver Grizzlies?! But it wasn't meant to be. Lopez spent two seasons with the Grizzlies, was traded to the Washington Wizards and then caught on as a free agent with the Minnesota Timberwolves. During his initial Timberwolves season he started to show promise of "that guy". The next season was his final under contract and with the trajectory of his play, it looked as though he was going to sign a nice deal. Again, it wasn't meant to be. He suffered a season ending injury during the preseason. "I was about to get paid," Lopez recalled.
This was a huge blow and a very low moment that tested Felipe, a man of faith. He had never been injured before and he didn't know how to deal with that. He admits to suffering from depression during this time and not wanting to face the world. This was completely understandable and if that was the end of his story, it wouldn't be a surprise to anyone. But as much as anything, his is a story of perseverance and defining what success means on your own terms. Yes, making millions of dollars and having a long and storied NBA career was the way a "Hollywood" story might have played out. But that was never the life Carmen and Luis Lopez imagined for Felipe. Carmen wanted to raise a good man who would live the life God had planned for him.
Sitting at The Roxy Hotel in Tribeca on the eve of his premiere, you get a sense from the 44-year-old Lopez that he is content with his life. This is exactly where he is supposed to be. After suffering the injury, he never played in the NBA again, despite working out for several teams. He finished his professional career back in the Dominican Republic winning a championship for the local team in his hometown. He is now an NBA Cares Ambassador and operates The Felipe Lopez Foundation out of his church in the Bronx. You can feel when he talks about the work he's doing through his foundation, helping others is truly what matters to him. Yes, The Dominican Dream is the story of how one young man carried the hopes of an entire nation on his shoulders from a very young age. But it is also the story of America and New York, one of perseverance, defining success, and believing in your purpose.
Flip the page for our one-on-one interview with Felipe Lopez during the Tribeca Film Festival.