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A a la Dominicana: The DR is breeding a new generation of athletes
Luis Felipe Lopez was one the most highly touted players to come out of New York City in many years. Dominican-born Lopez appeared on the cover of Sports Illustrated before he played a single college basketball game at St. John’s University and was named the next big thing in basketball. Although Lopez didn’t nearly live up to all the hype and expectations, he completed a respectable career at St. John’s and was eventually selected with the 24th pick of the 1998 draft by the San Antonio Spurs. Lopez was immediately traded to the Memphis Grizzlies, and made history that night by becoming the highest selected Dominican athlete in the NBA draft. Lopez’s success, measured by individual statistics and team accomplishments, could be labeled as a disappointment by some, but beyond that his eight-year NBA career is far more important than critics admit. Lopez’s success provided a new generation with an athlete they could look up to: an athlete, the most successful Dominican basketball player until then, who increased the popularity of the sport in the country.

Luis Alberto Flores was the next Dominican to follow in Lopez’s steps. Flores, born in San Pedro de Macoris, attended Manhattan College and went on to become Manhattan's all-time leading scorer, averaging 22.7 points per game. He was named All-Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference Player of the Year and Tournament Most Valuable Player in both in his junior and senior seasons. Flores was the nation’s top ranked scorer. He was then drafted with the 55th pick in the 2004 NBA draft by the Houston Rockets. Flores’ time in the NBA was limited because he eventually chose to sign a professional contract in Spain, but his college success and his choice of playing for the Dominican national basketball team made many in the Dominican Republic proud him.

Another major step for Dominican basketball came in 2005 when Charlie Villanueva became the highest Dominican player ever drafted to the NBA. Villanueva’s selection as an NBA player was what can be described as the combination of a great collegiate career that would translate into a quality NBA career, which Dominican basketball players had never been able to accomplish. Villanueva, who was born in New York City to Dominican parents, attended Blair Academy in New Jersey where he was named a McDonald’s All-American and New Jersey Co-player of the Year in his senior season. Villanueva then went on to play for the U-Conn Huskies. At U-Conn Villanueva was named Big East All Rookie Second Team in his first year and played an intricate part in the Huskies’ 2004 National Championship team. He became the first Dominican to win an NCAA basketball title. In his sophomore year, Villanueva was named Second Team All Big East. Villanueva would declare himself for the draft that same year, and his hard work was rewarded by his selection as the seventh pick in the NBA draft by the Toronto Raptors. Villanueva became the highest ranking Dominican ever selected to the NBA. He averaged 13 points and 6 rebounds in his first year and was second in voting for Rookie of the Year. He was also selected for the NBA All Rookie Team. On 26 March 2006 Villanueva set a career high and Raptors rookie record for points in a game with 48 in a 116-125 loss to the Milwaukee Bucks. His point total was the most by a rookie since Allen Iverson scored 50 in 1997. Villanueva suffers from the skin disease Alopecia aerate and his work off the courts to promote awareness of the disease earned him the Community Assist Award in 2006.

Francisco Garcia, who was born in Santo Domingo, continued the Dominican Republic’s newly found success in the NBA. The Dominican native, who moved to the Bronx, New York during his sophomore year in high school had a tremendous collegiate career. Garcia played his college ball at Louisville University, under the guidance of famed coach Rick Pitino and proved that there was no hype behind the 6’7 small forward. Garcia capped his college career by taking the Cardinals all the way to the 2005 Final Four, where they eventually lost to Illinois. Garcia’s 15.7 scoring average during his final year at Louisville and his potential were enough for him to be selected with the 23rd pick in the NBA draft by the Sacramento Kings. Garcia’s NBA career got off to a rocky start, but his dedication has earned the respect of both coaches and players around the NBA. He recently signed a fourth year extension with the Kings and his role on the squad only looks to increase in the following years.

Al Horford and Sammy Mejia are the latest Dominicans to achieve success at collegiate level and look to extend that to the pro ranks. Horford was part of the 2006 and 2007 back-to-back national championship team with the Florida Gators. It was the first NCAA team to repeat as national champions since the Duke Blue Devils did so in 1991-92 and Horford became the first Dominican to win two NCAA championships. In 2007 Horford, who was born in Puerto Plata, was selected with the third overall pick by the Atlanta Hawks. This is by far the highest selection of a Dominican player, and if Horford lives up to at least a small part of his hype, he will be a force to reckon with.
Mejia, though not as highly touted as Horford, finished a great career at DePaul University before being drafted with the fifth overall pick of the 2007 draft. Mejia finished as the fourth DePaul player with more than 1,000 points, 400 rebounds and 300 assists, one of 10 players in school history with 1,000 points and 300 assists and played more than 3,000 minutes while at DePaul. Mejia has a lot of hard work ahead if he wants to achieve a long career in the NBA, but the talent is there.

The future looks bright for Dominican basketball in the professional ranks. Louisville is once again fostering the talents of a top Dominican prospect. Edgar Sosa from New York could be the next Dominican selected to play professionally in the NBA. Sosa, now a sophomore, showed glimpses of his potential during the 2007 NCAA Final Four. In the second round of the NCAA Tournament against Texas A&M Sosa scored 31 points (the Cardinals scored a total of 69 points), 3 rebounds and 1 assist in a losing effort against the Aggies. And recently, Dominican Sports Minister Felipe Jay Payano met with NBA commissioner David Stern where both discussed the possibility of holding a set of NBA exhibition games in the DR. Hosting an NBA game in the DR would be a clear sign of the Dominican Republic’s added value on the international basketball scene. Although Commissioner Stern, who has received an official invitation to visit the DR from President Leonel Fernandez, said that a game would be impossible in 2007, he did say that the possibilities do exist for the country hosting a game in 2008.

There is no telling how Dominican basketball will develop in the next 20 years. Will the DR be a baseball powerhouse or just another mediocre-talent basketball pool, only time will tell, but the seeds of success have been firmly planted by the country’s basketball predecessors. Respect for this country in the international ranks is slowly building and the next step for Dominicans who aspire to play in the NBA will not just be making it to the league, but making a great career out of it. Who knows, in ten or fifteen years we could be seeing the first Dominican basketball player inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame in Springfield, Massachusetts.
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