He left the court with his head held high, a grin as wide as the Brooklyn Bridge and butterflies in his stomach. With 10.1 seconds remaining in the game last Saturday and an upset win over 15th-ranked West Virginia secure, St. John's Felipe Lopez received a rousing ovation as he came off the floor at Alumni Hall for the final time. Overcome with emotion as he was mobbed by his teammates, Lopez, who during his four years with the Red Storm has gone from savior to bust to hero, couldn't help but think about how far he had come. "So many things were racing through my mind," said the 6'6" guard afterward. "All the criticism I took, all the pain I went through. People said a lot of negative things, but I made them eat their words."
Rewind to Lopez's days at Rice High in Manhattan, when he was USA Today's national high school player of the year after scoring 2,486 points during his career. The MVP of the 1994 McDonald's High School All-America game, Lopez was profiled in The New Yorker, featured on the cover of SPORTS ILLUSTRATED and all but fitted for an NBA All-Star uniform. But things didn't go as planned. The Red Storm went 14-14, 11-16 and 13-14 his first three years, and Lopez was deemed the reason why. Ridiculed and booed for his poor play, and blamed for St. John's failures, Lopez lost his confidence, and his scoring average declined each year, from 17.8 as a freshman to 15.9 as a junior. Over those three seasons he made only 27.3% of his three-pointers, but he never lost faith in himself. "There were a lot of times I went home crying because I wasn't doing what was expected of me," says Lopez. "I got away from my work ethic a bit, but I worked through it. I appreciate what I went through because it made me a stronger person and a better player."
When the 1996-97 season ended in another disappointment, Lopez went to work in the off-season. He took 500 jump shots a day, all the while visualizing playing in the NCAA tournament. That dream came closer to reality after he scored 17 points in last Saturday's 77-69 win over the Mountaineers, which vaulted St. John's (18-7) into second place in the Big East 6 with a 10-4 record. While many fans may always see him as a flop, Lopez became St. John's third-leading career scorer during the victory, trailing only Chris Mullin and Malik Sealy.
"For someone who has been through the meat grinder, he has come out remarkably unaffected," says his coach, Fran Fraschilla. "He has a personality you can't help but like."
Despite what has happened, Lopez says he doesn't regret going to St. John's and never considered leaving. He says he has an obligation to his family and his Dominican heritage to make the school a winner, something neither he nor his teammates have lost sight of. "The driving force in our program right now is to get Felipe into the NCAAs," says Fraschilla. "The final chapter of the Felipe Lopez story hasn't been written yet, and we're doing everything in our power to make it a happy one."