When you look at Orlando Antigua’s storybook career, from St. Raymond High School and the New York Gauchos to the University of South Florida via Kentucky, Pitt and Memphis, you can’t help but see why his fellow Dominicans and Puerto Ricans say he is bendecido.
Sure, Antigua’s USF Bulls aren’t in the NCAA tournament and Antigua is missing the trip as a coach for just the second time in 12 years. Yet even as he builds his own program in the American Athletic Conference, his legacy as John Calipari’s assistant at Kentucky and his work in assembling five straight No. 1 ranked recruiting classes there has had a behind-the-scenes ripple effect on basketball in general.
Most people don’t notice, but consider 6-foot-11 Kentucky freshman Karl-Anthony Towns: He is already being talked about as a top NBA prospect, and Antigua should get a chunk of the legacy credit for Towns’ decision to play for Calipari. The 19-year-old center was part of the Dominican national basketball team Antigua coached last year at the FIBA World Cup, which was important since it was the first time in 38 years that the Dominicans qualified for the World Cup.
But what does being bendecido -- or blessed -- mean? Does it mean that only good things happen to you? Because if that is the definition, you might look at Antigua’s life and say he’s salado, or unlucky.
I mean, let’s review. The 42-year-old took a bullet to the head at age 15, the victim of a drive-by shooting on a Halloween night. Doctors could not operate and he lived with the bullet lodged in his head for six years. Antigua played his entire high school career at St. Raymond and for the AAU New York Gauchos -- and then his entire college career for the University of Pittsburgh -- with intense migraines. In the summer of 1994, while he was playing ball for the Carolina Gigantes in the Puerto Rico Superior league before his senior year at Pitt, he felt unbearable pain and thought it was an ear infection from swimming in the ocean. Doctors extracted the slug from Antigua’s ear canal.
Despite a stellar playing career at the University of Pittsburgh, he went undrafted in the 1995 NBA draft. He was overlooked by Puerto Rico’s national team (his mother’s roots) in the mid-1990s and thus made the Dominican Republic, his father’s native country, his international choice. The decision meant that he missed opportunities to go to the World Championships as well as the Olympics.
A glass half-empty kind of person might have seen these life plot twists and turns and said: “Estoy salado.” Not Antigua.
“Going through those experiences, you know at an early age that you are getting a second chance at life,” Antigua told ESPN One Nacion's Antonietta Collins earlier this month. “At the hospital, my mom told me: ‘Yo no sé porque Dios te dejó aquí en esta vida, pero te dejó por una razón.’ That has always stuck with me. So you go about your daily grind, your daily work, just trying to do the best you can, and appreciate both the good and bad experiences that you are going through because you know that those experiences are forming you to become better.”
And so, not getting drafted led to Antigua becoming the first Latino to play for the Harlem Globetrotters, an experience that took him all over the world. And not getting drafted led him to hone his skills as a coach, first with Jamie Dixon at his alma mater and then with Pittsburgh native Calipari, first at Memphis and then at Kentucky.
Picking the Dominican Republic over Puerto Rico led to Antigua getting valuable playing time in the Dominicans’ magical run toward 1996 Olympics qualifying. And it cemented Antigua’s relationship with the island’s program so much so that he became the catalyst for its rebuilding over the past five years, bringing in Calipari to coach and then in 2014 taking over to skipper the squad to just the second World Cup in its history. That rebuilding process has also opened up new recruiting opportunities for Antigua’s USF program and other NCAA teams as they realize the untapped potential of basketball players in the Dominican Republic.
For Antigua, being blessed means being passionate about his job and encouraging every player he works with to adopt the same enthusiasm.
“You just try to figure out, how do I get better every day?” said Antigua, who is one of just two Hispanic-American head coaches of major Division I programs, along with Frank Martin at South Carolina. “I’m trying to teach our players the habits of success and how can I do that on a daily basis, and then if you do it consistently the results take care of themselves.”
Gabrielle Paese is a deputy editor for ESPN.com and the former sports editor at The San Juan Star in San Juan, Puerto Rico.