Felipe Lopez was not looking for the publicity.
“I feel that after the Sports Illustrated cover, I’ve had enough press,” he said, referring to the memorable 1994 issue that depicted him in full flight over the Statue of Liberty on his way to projected stardom at St. John’s.
Lopez is 44 now — old enough to use the term “press” rather than “media” — and seems admirably well-adjusted for a sports prodigy who fell short of expectations.
Therein lies his story, one of a grateful immigrant with strong family support who insists on a positive take on life and basketball.
It is told in the documentary “The Dominican Dream,” which is to premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival on Saturday (April 27) and will be shown on both ESPN and ESPN Deportes on Tuesday (April 30).
“If it was just basketball, I wouldn’t have done it,” Lopez said over breakfast in lower Manhattan on Friday. “The reason why [I did it] is I love the story line where it goes into the migrating families that come to this country and try to contribute to what this country is all about and the opportunities we are given. It’s very touching.”
Director Jonathan Hock revisits the Lopez sensation of the early 1990s at Rice High School in Harlem, where he rose to stardom as a rare basketball star from a country known for baseball.
Lopez, who moved to the Bronx from the Dominican Republic at age 14, said his favorite part of the film was its interview with Alex Rodriguez, a fellow Dominican-American who is a year younger than Lopez.
A-Rod talks about being from a baseball-oriented family. “Then,” Lopez said, “once I started playing basketball he’d come into the house and his mother and his father, all of a sudden they’re watching basketball, and he’s like, ‘What’s going on here?’”
In addition to fresh interviews, including with Lopez’s family, the film mines a vault of 1990s video in which half the fun is seeing how young everyone used to be, from Anderson Cooper to Jeremy Schaap to MSG’s Mike Quick.
It chronicles Lopez’s passed-upon opportunities to go pro early, an uneven four seasons at St. John’s and an NBA career that lasted four seasons before being cut short by a torn left ACL in a 2002 preseason game with the Timberwolves.
“It tells the good and the bad, but at the end of the day it’s about being persistent with what you really want,” he said. “I’m pretty happy with who I am right now. I think all that experience truly made me who I am right now.”
Lopez said his father has been ill, and it was an emotional experience being able to watch the film with him.
“Taking everything aside, I really felt that it was an honor to my father to just be able to see the film, see what his son, his family, his hard work has done for this country, for our family,” Lopez said.
Lopez, who still lives in the Bronx, said the film is a teaching opportunity in concert with his job as an NBA Cares “ambassador” who works on projects both in the United States and on extended visits to the Dominican Republic.
Among the programs he has found most significant are visits to Rikers Island to help prepare inmates for a return to society and his work on “My Brother’s Keeper,” a mentoring program founded by President Barack Obama.
Do the young people he meets have any idea he used to play ball?
“This old guy with skills, he’s got to be somebody, right?” Lopez said, laughing. “It’s very easy these days for a kid to be standing next to you and in two seconds they already know who you are. They search your name and first thing that comes up is ‘Sports Illustrated.’”
Lopez is thankful there was no social media in his era. “With everything that was going on, it would have been a little bit crazier than what it was,” he said. “I enjoyed it that everything was through word of mouth.”
Lopez, who has a son who is 19 and a daughter who is 15, by all evidence is at peace with his present and past.
“I am in a good place,” he said. No regrets? “Not really. It’s just hard for me to look back and say, ‘What if I would have made this decision?’ I don’t know. I don’t try to live with that ‘if.’ I try to live with, ‘OK, what I did, how are we going to make it better?’
“It’s a process. Every single person could have changed something in their life, but the fact of the matter is we’re still here learning about ourselves and how to make ourselves better.”
Perhaps the most iconic image of Lopez’s playing career was him climbing onto the rim at Fordham after winning the city Catholic league championship, a Dominican flag draped over him.
Hock ends the film with interview subjects showing pictures of their immigrant relatives to drive home the universality of Lopez’s story. He said that touch was “awesome.”
“When you are an immigrant you don’t only play for your family and yourself,” he said. “You play for the countrymen that are here that want to feel proud because this is an opportunity to lift ourselves and our flag.
“That’s the reason I was sold on the film, because it showed a different perspective. It’s a story about struggle and triumph, but it’s a story about migrating families, immigrants that have come to this country and they somewhere along the way find themselves struggling and still trying to come out on top.”