Red Storm rising on the shoulders of Felipe Lopez

THE BALTIMORE SUN

New York -- Felipe Lopez surveyed a familiar scene, his big, brown eyes darting about. A pack of reporters pressed close to him, hanging on every word of his accented English.

He had just completed his 12th collegiate game. His St. John's team had dropped an overtime decision to Seton Hall for its third straight defeat -- a loss largely due to Lopez.

Yes, the freshman prodigy, the 6-foot-5 shooting guard who has been compared to Michael Jordan, had a bad game. Actually, it was the worst outing of Lopez's young career. Ten points on 3-for-10 shooting. Six turnovers. Half a dozen outside shots that missed badly.

Just another eventful day in a wild year for Lopez, whose 180-pound frame is bearing up well under heavy expectations. Just another day for the charismatic kid who is expected to revive a once-proud program, while he carries the hopes and dreams and pride of New York's Hispanic fans on his bony shoulders.

After the Seton Hall loss, the questions came at Lopez in a way that resembled the pushing and the elbows he is confronting on his first tour through the Big East Conference. Why were you forcing your shots down the stretch? Why so many turnovers? What's wrong with the defense? What's wrong with the team? Which point guard are you more comfortable with?

Lopez summed up his performance succinctly.

"Basically, I didn't come ready to play," Lopez said. "I knew I was going to have one of these games. As a freshman, I have a lot of things to learn. Every day is a new opportunity."

Lopez used his next opportunity three days later to take over the Carrier Dome at Syracuse, where he put a major scare into the sixth-ranked Orangemen. Syracuse won, 91-87, but not before Lopez rained shots with frightening proficiency. He scored 29 of his career-high 35 points in the second half.

Tonight, the Red Storm takes on 13th-ranked Georgetown at USAir Arena in Landover. Lopez relished the idea of a showdown with another highly touted freshman, Georgetown guard Allen Iverson. But Iverson, troubled by a sprained ankle, is questionable.

"He [Iverson] is a great player. He's so quick, always working so hard," Lopez said. "I look forward to it, but I have to come ready to play."

When St. John's signed Lopez last spring to win a furious recruiting war with Seton Hall, Kansas, UCLA and Florida State, the school didn't simply gain the nation's premier high school player.

St. John's inherited a savior, went the popular logic. And from New York, no less.

At nearby Rice High School in Harlem, Lopez electrified observers with his gorgeous jumper, leaping ability and work ethic, and charmed them with his unselfish style, humility and handsome smile. He averaged 26.4 points and 10.2 rebounds as a four-year starter. He was a three-time All-American who led Rice to the mythical national championship as a senior.

Lopez's arrival altered expectations drastically for the Red Storm. A year earlier, St. John's went 12-17, finished next-to-last in the Big East and failed to qualify for the postseason for the first time in 32 years. Lopez, with help from 6-11 freshman center Zendon Hamilton, was going to reverse that fortune in a hurry.

Hype vs. reality

Midway through this season, reality hasn't matched the hype. The Red Storm (8-6, 2-5), limited by one of its weakest senior classes and shaky depth, has lost five straight games. Lopez and Hamilton have started every game. They have made their share of freshman mistakes, especially on defense.

Lopez has met the hype head on, at times playing brilliantly.

He leads the team in scoring (19.4), thanks to how tirelessly he roams the perimeter to get open and launch his team-high 15 shots a game, and to his ability to finish fast breaks.

Lopez does more than score. He is grabbing 5.5 rebounds a game. He has handled the ball well and has displayed dazzling passing skills. St. John's coach Brian Mahoney, who has played Lopez sparingly at point guard, is thinking about moving him there regularly. Lopez also has been remarkable at the foul line, where he has converted 81.5 percent of his attempts. He has scored in double figures in all 14 games, recording at least 20 points in nine of them.

His weaknesses are also noticeable. He needs to refine his one-on-one game and work on his shooting range. He has made only 27.5 percent of his 51 three-point attempts, and has hit an unspectacular 44 percent of his shots overall.

Through it all, Lopez has gained admirers with his businesslike approach to the game. No taunting from this guy. When a questionable call goes against him, Lopez takes his proper position on the floor when many players would be pleading their cases to an official. His game is practically devoid of emotion.

"Felipe would be a very good poker player. He doesn't get caught up in the emotional side of the game," Mahoney said. "He's very mature for a freshman. For a young kid, he's pretty consistent. But I think it's unrealistic to think of him as a pro right now. Just on a physical and experience basis, he needs two or three more years."

Lopez was so impressive in high school, in AAU competition and at elite basketball camps that people suggested he head straight to the NBA. He rejected a $1 million offer last year to play for a professional team in Spain.

"Life is not just about basketball," said Lopez, who just turned 20. "That's why I'm going to school. Education is more important. It will help me make better decisions."

Drawing Hispanic fans

As if leading St. John's back to national title contention doesn't carry enough pressure, Lopez also shoulders the adulation and expectations of New York's Hispanic population, which has followed his moves with increasing fervor. Growing pockets of Hispanic fans, sporting signs in Spanish, are showing up at Red Storm games to cheer their hero.

It is a sight that touches Lopez. In 1989, he emigrated to the United States from his native Dominican Republic, settling in the South Bronx. Staying close to his family and his people figured heavily in Lopez's decision to attend St. John's.

"Sometimes I get caught up in hearing them and seeing them [in the stands]," Lopez said. "They are following what I do, and whatever I do has meaning. It's good, because I can tell they are really offering me all of their support."

Lopez's family gradually left the Dominican Republic over a 10-year period beginning with his father, Felipe Sr., a maintenance worker who came to New York in the early 1980s. When Felipe came to the United States, he already boasted an eye-catching game, but he didn't speak a word of English.

His family decided to hold Lopez back for a year in the eighth grade. His older brother, Anthony, who came to New York in 1986 and quickly began to master the language, took Felipe under his wing. Felipe then discovered Gauchos Gym, a safe haven in his Mott Haven neighborhood, which had deteriorated into a dangerous, crack-infested place.

Lopez once saw a drug-related shooting at a playground where he was playing basketball alone one day.

"I wasn't the type of guy who was around violence," he said. "That was the first time I'd ever seen people shooting at each other. I never went back there again. You see good things and bad things happen here."

Fanfare came early

When he wasn't attending class or playing at Rice -- a small, all-boys Catholic school -- Lopez was at Gauchos, playing in tournaments and pickup games, or just dribbling and shooting alone. By his sophomore season at Rice, his basketball reputation was spreading.

And by his senior year, recruiters from coast to coast were enticing him. At one point, his school was receiving 75 calls a day.

Anthony acted as Felipe's watchdog/recruiting coordinator.

"It was very organized," said Anthony, 27. "Every member of the family had some sort of homework. We took our time devising questions for the coaches and making sure Felipe understood the whole thing. We got tips from the right basketball types. Those guys were impressed. They didn't expect us to have so much information about their programs.

"We came to this country looking to get better financially. It would have been unfair to just think of the money [the pro offer]. We thought about Felipe the person, and he doesn't think about being an NBA player. He just plays his game. He just gives you the effort."

Felipe Lopez lives with the when-will-he-turn-pro speculation. He knows that St. John's fans expect him to restore the school's basketball greatness. He shakes his head when the Jordan comparisons come up.

"I'm still learning how to make decisions, how to be a grown man," Lopez said.

"You have to really manage your own time and take pride in what you do in college. I just have to keep working hard and be myself. You guys can make the comparisons. I'll just play my game."

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