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.”
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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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