Orlando 'El Gato' Melendez has gone from lighting up opponents to lighting up kids' worlds with the Harlem Globetrotters

Jay Asser 29/03/2018
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'El Gato' Melendez first joined the Harlem Globetrotters in 2008.

Being a Harlem Globetrotter can be a lot like someone who landed in a career they never planned on pursuing – it may not be your first choice, but when it finds you, it can end up being just as fulfilling as anything else, if not more.

Orlando ‘El Gato’ Melendez grew up with dreams of making his name on a basketball court, but they were never the kind in which he performed tricks to dazzle children and families.

Because long before he ever wanted to don the iconic red-striped shorts and blue jersey of the Globetrotters, Melendez wanted to ‘be like Mike’.

Growing up in his native Puerto Rico in the 1980s, Melendez was no different to the countless number of kids in the United States who were captivated and inspired by Michael Jordan.

The Globetrotters couldn’t compete with ‘His Airness’, even if Melendez knew who they were… sort of.

“I thought the Globetrotters were cartoons for a long time. I saw them on Scooby Doo and thought they were cartoons,” Melendez told Sport360 ahead of his and the Globetrotters visit to Abu Dhabi this weekend.

So as he worshipped Jordan and paid little attention to the Globetrotters, Melendez could have never imagined then his life would lead him to becoming the latter, rather than something close to the former.

Had you told a young Melendez how it would all turn out, he may have been disappointed.

The 39-year-old Melendez of present day, however, sees it a little differently.

“I did not know how much [the Globetrotters] meant, not just to the game of basketball, but to society as well,” he said. “Once I became a Globetrotter, I figured out this is one of the most amazing things I could do.”

Before Melendez became the first Puerto Rico-born Globetrotter in 2008, he actually did follow Jordan’s path for a while.

After wrapping up his high school career, Melendez was a good enough prospect that he had his choice of colleges to play for on a scholarship.

But really there was no choice for Melendez, who had one school targeted all along – Jordan’s alma mater, the University of North Carolina.

“Being a fan of Michael Jordan, you always wanted to do everything that he did,” Melendez said.

As well as giving him an education and developing him as a basketball player, attending North Carolina allowed the longtime Jordan fan to meet his childhood hero.

In the summers, Melendez recalls, UNC alums and NBA stars like Rasheed Wallace, Jerry Stackhouse, and Brad Daugherty would drop in on Chapel Hill for pick-up games. And joining them on at least one occasion, Melendez vividly remembers, was Jordan himself.

So after years of watching the legend on TV from his home in Ponce, Puerto Rico, Melendez got the chance to step onto the court and play alongside Jordan.

“Sometimes I’m watching the court and I’m playing with Hall of Famers, including the best basketball player ever,” Melendez said.

“I was straight up star-struck. I literally kind of saw him going in slow motion at times. That’s how star-struck I was.”

And like Jordan had done before him, Melendez played in the Final Four of the NCAA Tournament, reaching the semi-finals twice with the Tar Heels (1998 and 2000) in his five years at UNC.

With no NBA career coming after his college days, those Final Four appearances were the closest Melendez would come to feeling like his idol. And to this day, he cherishes those memories.

“That experience was just something out of this world. Just the stress and the tension and the fun of the tournament and what you need to go through to get there… Just the celebration of going to the Final Four is the closest thing to like the Super Bowl,” Melendez said.

“You have 60,000 people watching you practice. It’s hard to describe, especially when you see it on TV. But once you’re in there, it’s even bigger than what you see on TV.

“Put it this way – you have police officers escorting your bus through traffic, just to go to practice. When you feel like you’re a straight up dignitary or the President and you need all this security to go to a basketball practice, that’s what gave me a whole level of fun and experience.”

Even though the NBA didn’t come calling for Melendez after he finished at UNC, he still played professionally in Puerto Rico and Europe for several years before the Globetrotters came into the picture.

Sam Worthen, who coached professionally in Puerto Rico and was a former Chicago Bulls and New Orleans Jazz player, recommended Melendez to the Globetrotters. And after Melendez tried out for the team, both sides felt it was a fit.

Even so, the transition from professional player who had played at one of the highest levels, to entertainer wasn’t easy for Melendez. He had to slow down and shift his focus from the scoreboard, to the fans.

“The hardest part was going from a 40-minute basketball game mentality,” Melendez said. “You’ve been taught since you were a little kid that everything is about winning in everything you do in life. I think in the beginning, it was a little hard for me to transition from that into entertainment because when you play basketball, you focus on playing the 40 minutes competitive.

“Now, you have to figure out how to turn the competitor side on and how to turn it off. It took me a while to get to that level. But with help from the veterans, they introduced me to the game and the Globetrotter life, because it’s a lifestyle.”

As his goal on a basketball court has changed, Melendez now does something more impactful than lighting up opponents – he lights up kids’ worlds.

And while the Globetrotters have been around for 92 years, Melendez believes their role and ability to spread positivity is as crucial now as it ever has been.

“It’s very important for us to be positive role models and bring happiness. Nowadays, people are so consumed by negative stuff in media, politics and all this crazy stuff. So our job is to keep the positive side of things going – visit every single city, bring smiles to people, create memories for people that will last a lifetime,” he said.

“Whether it’s a hospital or a school, we’re always trying to bring people happiness for that little time. Right now, it’s getting even bigger and bigger with the way things are.”

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Houston Astros lead list of loaded contenders and other storylines to watch in new MLB season

Jay Asser 28/03/2018
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Jose Altuve and the Houston Astros will aim to be the first team to repeat since 2000.

Opening Day has finally arrived and with it, new storylines to look forward to in the upcoming Major League Baseball season.

As usual, the winter saw plenty of player movement around the league, with several big names changing uniforms – and one star switching continents.

There’s a lot to sink your teeth into, so let’s dive in and take a look at three narratives to keep an eye on this season.

The contenders

Haves and have-nots. That’s where the league is at right now, with a bunch of loaded teams situated at the top, followed by a long list of mediocrity.

The defending champion Houston Astros remain favourites after bringing back every key member of the title-winning squad, while also adding Gerrit Cole in a trade to bolster their starting rotation. Their offence, led by reigning American League MVP Jose Altuve, should again terrorise.

But there’s quite a few teams that could keep Houston from becoming the first side to repeat since 2000, including the franchise that was the last one to win consecutive World Series.

The New York Yankees will truly be deserving of their nickname ‘Bronx Bombers’ this season as the middle of their lineup packs a serious power punch. As if Aaron Judge wasn’t enough, the Yankees went out and got maybe the only other player who can hit a ball farther in Giancarlo Stanton.

Then there’s the Los Angeles Dodgers, who still have the best pitcher in baseball in Clayton Kershaw, which means they’re as likely as anyone to get back to the Fall Classic.

The Chicago Cubs, Cleveland Indians and Washington Nationals will also be in contention, as should the Boston Red Sox thanks to the highest payroll in baseball ($223 million).

Aaron Judge will form a lethal duo with Giancarlo Stanton in the Yankees lineup.

Aaron Judge will form a lethal duo with Giancarlo Stanton in the Yankees lineup.

Will Ohtani live up to the hype?

If you aren’t already aware of him, get ready to hear Shohei Ohtani’s name a lot this season.

And for good reason, considering the Japanese phenom has brought his two-way talents to the Los Angeles Angels from the other side of the Pacific Ocean. You read the ‘two-way’ part right. As in he can hit and he can pitch, a rarity that hasn’t been pulled off with success since the days of Babe Ruth.

The 23-year-old was named the best pitcher and best designated hitter (DH) in Japan’s Pacific League in 2016, so he’s already proved his versatility at a high level.

Whether or not he can sustain that success in America has yet to be seen, and expectations have been somewhat tempered after a rocky spring training in which he posted an earned run average of 27.00 and hit just 3-for-28 at the plate.

Ohtani will get his first start on the mound on Sunday, with appearances at DH likely sprinkled in throughout the season.

Regardless of how well he does in a duel role, Ohtani will be fascinating to follow.

Rookie Shohei Ohtani will pitch and hit for the Los Angeles Angels this season.

Rookie Shohei Ohtani will pitch and hit for the Los Angeles Angels this season.

Moneyball

Chicks dig the long ball. And so do most baseball fans, which is good for MLB because home runs are back in style.

Last season saw a record 6,105 home runs hit, which was a 45.8 per cent increase from the 4,186 hit just three years prior in 2014.

The aforementioned Stanton clobbered 59 himself with the Miami Marlins, which was the most by any player since Barry Bonds’ record-setting 73 in 2001.

With more and more balls leaving the yard, it’s likely to make games even longer, but fans probably don’t mind because offence will always be preferred to pitching duels or low-scoring contests.

Even though the Steroid Era is a thing of the past, that doesn’t mean home runs can’t be enjoyed as much as ever.

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Anthony Rizzo, Ben Simmons, Dwyane Wade, LeBron James and more offer their support for March For Our Lives rallies

Jay Asser 25/03/2018
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Washington D.C. was one of many cities to hold a March For Our Lives rally.

While hundreds of thousands of Americans took to the streets to take a stand against gun violence in the ‘March For Our Lives’ rallies across the country, many in the sports world put their support behind the protesters.

The rallies on Saturday aimed to influence lawmakers to bring about stricter gun-control measures after several mass murders in the United States due to gun violence, including the school shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida that left 17 dead on February 14.

Several athletes and members of the sports world got behind the movement by joining protesters on the street and by speaking up on social media.

Chicago Cubs first baseman Anthony Rizzo, a graduate of Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in 2007, posted a picture of him and his family at one of the rallies in Florida.

In the NBA, Philadelphia 76ers rookie Ben Simmons wore a March Four Lives T-shirt during warm-ups before the game against Minnesota.

“For me growing up in Australia, I think there was a gun ban way back in the day where they bought back the guns and there hasn’t been any major shootings and no one carries around guns,” Simmons said. “You want kids to feel safe going to school.”

Miami Heat star Dwyane Wade, meanwhile, posted a picture of himself wearing a March For Our Lives T-shirt on Instagram.

Wade visited Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School after the tragedy, with one of the Parkland victims buried in his jersey.

Oklahoma City Thunder forward Carmelo Anthony helped by sending over 4,500 kids from Baltimore to the march in Washington D.C., while New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft flew families of the Parkland victims and other students to the nation’s capital on the team plane.

Others who voiced their support included Cleveland Cavaliers star LeBron James, Houston Rockets guard Chris Paul, Golden State Warriors coach Steve Kerr, Boston Celtics legend Bill Russell and Los Angeles Lakers owner Jeanie Buss.

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