When he was just 14 years old, Felipe Lopez was dubbed the “Spanish Michael Jordan.”
He had just immigrated with his family from the Dominican Republic to the South Bronx, and, without missing a beat, had started making a name for himself in New York City — the mecca of basketball.
Lopez starred at Rice High School in Harlem and played college ball at St. John’s University. Then, in 1998, he finally made it to the NBA. But it’s not just his skills on the hardwood that make him so special.
“When I was in college, I already had the urge to give back to the community,” he says. “But there was the financial uncertainties as you go through college.”
So in his first year in the NBA, Lopez took action to make an impact both on and off the court.
Immediately, he laid the groundwork for the Felipe Lopez Foundation, a program geared toward providing underprivileged kids with athletic and academic opportunities.
“Once I made it to the league,” Lopez explains, “every time I went to the Dominican Republic for vacation, it was not a vacation — it was to travel around the country and give free [basketball] clinics and give out free donations to all the places that I went to.”
Lopez even petitioned the president of the Dominican Republic to create a new gym on the site of the playground where he first fell in love with basketball.
“The best way to make ourselves feel good is by giving — giving your time, giving your effort, giving your love to people that need to find their way,” he says.
Not even a serious knee injury, which derailed his career in 2002, could slow down his humanitarian work. Lopez kept coming back to the Dominican Republic despite leaving the NBA and playing in leagues across Europe and South America.
In 2014, Lopez returned to New York to give back to the community that gave him so much. He started working with kids at the Bronx Spanish Evangelical Church to support efforts to take them off the street and give them a safe haven from the rampant drug abuse and gang scene in the neighborhood.
It’s here that Lopez started getting more recognition for all the amazing community work he was doing. In fact, his inspirational story and heartwarming relationship with one of the campers was recently featured in a profile for State Farm’s Neighborhood of Good.
With all the kids he helps, Lopez tries to offer guidance for their future.
“I’m not trying to build the next superstar,” he explains. “I’m trying to build the next best citizen that is going to go all around and take all the opportunities that’s going to be given to them.”
That’s why he’s trying so hard to set kids on the right path towards college — to him, it’s the key to unlocking a world of possibilities.
And to help them get there, he stresses one thing: preparation. “When you talk about preparation,” Lopez says, “you talk about readiness, you talk about being on time, you talk about doing your homework.” These are the things, he says, that help them not lose sight of their goals.
Lopez also shares his faith with the kids to give them another source of guidance. In fact, that’s a big reason why he renamed the Felipe Lopez Foundation to the Ministry of Faith this past year.
Today, almost 20 years since he first launched his foundation, Lopez has only found more ways to give back — earning him a new nickname: “Saint Felipe.”
Fellow NBA Cares Ambassador Dikembe Mutombo gave him this new nickname after Lopez became an NBA Cares ambassador in 2008.
“Felipe is special among former players,” NBA Commissioner Adam Silver said. “He’s magical. Kids respond to him, his manner, his smile. He has almost a special skip in his step.”
Today, Lopez also serves as a mentor for My Brother’s Keeper, a project started by President Obama. “It’s a mentoring program,” explains Lopez, “and the point was to raise 25,000 mentors to guide young black men across America.”
Without a doubt, paying it forward is at the heart of everything Lopez does.
That’s because he knows that at one time, he too needed encouragement and guidance to keep him on the right path and get to where he is today. Now, he wants to do the same for the next generation. Because whether it’s trying to pass an exam or make it to the NBA, everyone could use a helping hand or a mentor.
“I see myself as that person that lent me their hand when I needed it,” he says. And if all goes according to plan, that’s exactly what the kids he helps will say once they reach their goals.
To learn more about his incredible story and how Lopez is reaching his hand out to help kids, just check out this heartwarming video below:
If you’re looking for easy ways to take action in your community, get started by visiting the Neighborhood of Good. State Farm will help you connect locally with people and organizations in need of a good neighbor.