Melendez adds a new country to Globetrotters' resume

NEW YORK -- Lloyd Church has never been a fan of the dunk.

"It's just two points," he says. "Nothing more."

In 22 years as coach of the boys' varsity team at McDowell High School in Marion, N.C., Church hasn't had to raise an objection very often. But the first time Orlando Melendez put on a McDowell uniform, Church was forced to amend his stance on dunks.

After an opposing team scored on the first play of a game, point guard Jenis Grindstaff received the inbounds pass, took a dribble and heaved an alley-oop pass to a skying Melendez, who jammed it.

"We had never practiced that, never talked about it," Church says more than a decade later. "I never did get on him for dunking after that."

It's fortunate for Melendez, because his taste for theatrics -- the ups, the dunks, the behind-the-back and through-the-legs -- will suit him well in his new job as a member of the Harlem Globetrotters. Melendez is the first Puerto Rican-born player to don the most famous candy-striped shorts in all of basketball.

"I represent not just my island now, but all Latino and Hispanic people all over the world," Melendez says.

Melendez, 29, is not the first Latino to play for the Globetrotters. That honor goes to Orlando Antigua, the Dominican Republic native who starred and later coached at Pittsburgh before joining John Calipari's staff at Memphis earlier this year.

Current Globetrotter Kevin "Special K" Daley was born in Panama.

But the Puerto Rican distinction is important to Melendez.

"I'm part of the books now," he says, "I'm the first Puerto Rican to be here."

"El Gato" in Puerto Rico and Carolina

Back home, in Juana Diaz, Puerto Rico, Melendez was a classic latchkey kid. When school got out, he would dump his books at home, grab a ball and a snack, and start the 2-mile jog to the nearest basketball court.

Dropping crumbs along the way, Melendez attracted stray cats looking to score a quick bite. The kid who cut through the cane fields every day with a basketball under his arm and an entourage of cats in his wake was soon nicknamed "El Gato" -- the cat.

And like the real thing, El Gato could jump. Melendez was dunking and playing varsity basketball by seventh grade. Through an exchange student program, he was able to play at McDowell his senior year.

With Grindstaff lobbing passes, Melendez was an instant sensation.

"They had to open up all the bleachers when we played," Melendez says. "They never had to do that before."

Melendez averaged 20.1 points, 9.1 rebounds, 2.9 blocked shots and 2 steals a game in his one and only year as a Titan. But his body of work was enough to get a scholarship to North Carolina.

Not long after Melendez arrived in Chapel Hill in 1997, Dean Smith, the Hall of Fame coach who recruited him, retired. But any questions about the kid from the mountains of North Carolina by way of the sugarcane fields of Puerto Rico were answered before Melendez ever wore Carolina blue.

Lloyd Church tells the story. He heard it from some UNC assistants. During his campus visit, Melendez played some pickup games with several Tar Heels, including Antawn Jamison and Vince Carter.

They heard "El Gato" could jump a little bit, so Carter issued a challenge.

"Orlando goes first, and throws down some monster dunk, I don't even know what he did," Church says. "And Vince just walked off the floor and said, 'You win.'"

Melendez's memory of the event is a little more specific.

"Oh yeah, I think I went through the legs and behind the back," he says.

And Vince?

"We went at each other a lot," Melendez says, smiling. "I don't think either of us ever won."

The kid with rise

Melendez and the rest of the Globetrotters are prepping for a photo shoot in a corner of the cavernous 396th Harlem Armory -- named in honor of the 396th U.S. Infantry "Harlem Hellfighters," New York State's first black National Guard unit and a considerable thorn in the Axis' side during World War II.

First, a little makeup, then the iconic red, white and blue uniforms, and then maybe some push-ups to get those arms and shoulders popping for the camera.

"Cock that leg behind you," shouts Wayne "Rare Air" Clark as Melendez poses before a large white backdrop. "Give it some of that salsa stuff."

Teammates for less than two months, the Globetrotters are already a tight bunch. Howls of "Ellll Gaaaatoooooooo" echo through the gym as Sweet Lou Dunbar ambles past the shoot.

"That kid's got some rise on him," says Sweet Lou, who no doubt has seen some high flyers in his 29 years with the Globetrotters.

"Que pasa, papi" says former Kentucky center Shagari Alleyne, reborn as "Skyscraper" in the Globetrotters family.

There are 25 players on the Harlem Globetrotters' roster. Some, like Clark, come from tiny schools like Georgia Perimeter College. Then you have guys like Eugene "Wildkat" Edgerson, who played in two Final Fours for the University of Arizona. The roster is divided into two squads that will perform 400 shows between them, both domestically and abroad.

The Globetrotters used to field a team that played serious basketball, often beating top college programs in preseason tuneups. But when the NCAA tightened restrictions on whom and how often colleges could play, the Globetrotters got squeezed out and returned to their first love -- trick shots, sick dunks and confetti buckets.

"You need to have three things to be a Globetrotter," says Harlem Globetrotters CEO Kurt Schneider. "You need to be a great basketball player, a great person and a great entertainer."

No one questioned Melendez's basketball prowess. He was a solid contributor during his five years -- one redshirt season -- at Chapel Hill, and played professionally in Europe and Puerto Rico afterward.

It was Sam Worthen, the former Bulls and Jazz guard, who suggested Melendez try out for the Globetrotters. The two had bumped into each other outside the San Juan apartment building in which they both lived.

Worthen coaches professionally in Puerto Rico, but also helms another team: the perennial Globetrotters punching bag, the Washington Generals.

But even with the hapless Generals lining up against them every night, basketball is the easy part for the Globetrotters.

Yes, the ball handling, spinning and trick shots can take years to master, but being an example, a 24-hour role model who cannot be found sulking or sneering for a single second of an exhausting, complicated show, can be even trickier.

"When we would go to hospitals and homeless shelters, Orlando was always very comfortable with that," said former North Carolina coach Matt Doherty, now at Southern Methodist University. "He's got a good heart. He cares for people. I can see him taking to that very easily."

Melendez says he feels like a role model in a bigger way now.

"All the traveling and shows, kids are going to be seeing me more and looking up to me now," he says. "I want them to say, 'I want to work hard like he did. I want to run 2 miles to the court like he did.'"

And for the kids who don't know the way, just follow the cats.

Joshua Hammann is a freelance writer living in Brooklyn, N.Y. He can be reached at joshua.hammann@gmail.com.