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Lopez finally having fun at St. John's Senior gets NCAA chance to respond to the hype; Midwest at Chicago; NCAA TOURNAMENT


CHICAGO -- Maybe it would have been different had Felipe Lopez not appeared on the cover of Sports Illustrated before playing a collegiate game. Maybe if he hadn't been named the consensus high school player of the year, we'd be looking at him now as having a pretty successful college career at St. John's.


But Lopez never lived up to the hype that preceded him. In fact, the name Lopez was almost synonymous with the word failure, a heavy burden on a kid from the Dominican Republic who never quite reached expectations that were unreasonable.

"I got a little bit depressed. My self-esteem was down, I wasn't believing much about myself, about my game," Lopez, in a thick Dominican accent, said last night. "I heard a whole lot of things, I can't specifically tell you what it was. But I can remember going home and feeling lonely, kind of even crying.

"I'm a competitive guy. And when you feel yourself not being able to see the results you really want to see you kind of get down on yourself."

Lopez, a senior, is no longer depressed about basketball. Not with seventh-seeded St. John's about to face 10th-seeded Detroit in a Midwest Region first-round game here at the United Center tonight, a culmination to what had been a difficult career for Lopez. This is the first trip to the NCAA tournament for the 6-foot-6, 195-pound shooting guard, and the team's first appearance since 1993.

"It's beautiful being here," said Lopez. "I think this is a great opportunity to show people how much we have improved our game. It's a great moment to be here. And it's an opportunity for us."

And an opportunity for Lopez to demonstrate that he was worthy of the hype that followed an outstanding career at Rice High School in New York City.

Not that Lopez has been a total bust during his career. He is the third-leading scorer in St. John's history (1,916), behind Chris Mullin and Malik Sealy. He holds the St. John's record for most three-pointers made in a season (57 this season) and a career (145). Lopez has averaged 17 points during his career, and a team-best 17.5 points this season when he helped lead the Red Storm to a 22-9 record -- St. John's best record since 1991.

"He's a solid player," said St. John's coach Fran Frashilla. "He's been through so much, and it hasn't really affected him."

In a game at Louisville earlier this year fans mocked him with chants of "Michael, Michael," trying to compare him with Michael Jordan. And it's been more than once that fans have chanted "CBA, CBA" when Lopez has the ball.

"I have put myself in a situation where I can differentiate between being a CBA player and being an NBA player," Lopez said. "Not that I'm cocky, but I would never consider myself playing in the CBA. I know the things I can do.

"I'm suited to play in the NBA. And even if I don't make it, I'd still have that mentality wherever I go."

While in high school he dominated with his ability as a slasher -- with much of his scoring coming on easy layups and dunks -- that style wasn't as successful on the collegiate level. So Lopez, after a summer of shooting 500 jumpers a day along with Mullin, has developed a solid perimeter game.

"He has been such an influence," Lopez said of Mullin. "He told me to be a gym rat and just shoot, and shoot and shoot. That's what I did, and it's helped."

Pub Date: 3/13/98

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