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Orlando Mendez-Valdez spoke with me in a FaceTime video interview from a massage therapy room in Prague. As midnight approached in the capital city of the Czech Republic, he recalled the climb from a Westside barrio to an international basketball stage.
On Tuesday, he begins a quest to reach the Olympics. If the Mexican National Basketball team prevails in a six-team FIBA Qualifying Tournament, it will advance to the Summer Games in Rio de Janeiro.
The odds are long. To qualify, Mexico must beat favored Italy without 6-foot-10 Gustavo Ayón, its best player, who is attending to family matters. Mendez-Valdez, a 6-foot-0 shooting guard, is attending to a swollen left thumb, the result of a severe spider bite while training in Cancun, where he plays for the Pioneros (or Pioneers).
Though Mendez-Valdez is right-handed, the swelling affects his dribbling and shooting. “I’m stronger with my left hand,” he said. He shoots with both hands, using his left thumb to push the ball. He understands the difficulty of the Olympic Qualifying challenge, but also how to overcome long odds.
Mendez-Valdez flunked 6th grade at Tafolla Middle School, but earned a bachelor’s degree in physical education from Western Kentucky. He was too short and slow to attract Division I recruiters at Lanier High School but became a pro basketball star in Mexico. He grew up in a shanty on an unpaved road — “it was horrible, like a Third World country,” said the surrogate father who raised him — but now lives in a gated community and owns multiple rental properties.
Against overwhelming international competition, on a national team that struggled for decades, Mendez-Valdez has found a way to win. He owns gold, silver and bronze medals from around the world.
The crowning moment came in Caracas, Venezuela. Mexico entered the 2013 FIBA Americas Championship as a replacement for Panama, which had been disqualified. Mexico upset Venezuela in the opening game, defeated Paraguay and the Dominican Republic, and shocked heavily-favored Argentina to reach the final. Then Mexico beat Puerto Rico, 91-89, to capture gold.
“I was in tears,” said Mendez-Valdez, 30. “That was the most satisfying medal we’ve won as a national team.”
No one imagined a future gleaming with gold. In his youth, Orlando Mendez, as he was then known, grew up in 78207, one of the poorest zip codes in Texas. According to 2015 U.S. Census Bureau data, residents in 78207 had the lowest median earnings per worker in the state, $24,683, and the second lowest median household income, $22,894.
If poverty was impossible to escape, so was crime. When he was 12, the boy saw a poker game next door erupt in violence. One man drew a gun in the dark and fired. The victim, struck in the chest, collapsed and died outside, so close to young Orlando he remembers the distance to the body. “Seven feet,” he said. “I just froze.”
The horror was unrelenting. “I saw a woman cry out for help at my doorstep with multiple stab wounds,” he said. “I saw a guy die from an overdose. I saw a guy get run over by a train in my backyard and lose his leg.”
Violence spilled onto the outdoor basketball courts. Lou Martinez, a former Lanier teammate, recalls a pickup game that turned bloody. For reasons unknown, a gang of five or six appeared and jumped a player, pummeling him. “They beat him until I thought he was dead,” Martinez recalls. An ambulance arrived. The player survived. ”And we just went back to playing ball,” Martinez said.
Beatings and shootings were part of the neighborhood culture. Growing up in 78207, Martinez, now the basketball coach at San Antonio College, and Mendez-Valdez thought all kids lived on high-alert, watching for trouble. “When I left the area,” Mendez-Valdez said, “I started to realize it was not normal for kids to witness the things I saw.”
If not for a middle school coach, the kid who lived by the tracks, and across from a cemetery, may never have gone to college. He certainly wouldn’t be playing pro ball. Orlando Mendez met Abel Valdez in 6th grade P.E. Recognizing a skilled basketball player and wayward student, Valdez became a coach and after-school mentor, helping the kid with hoops and homework.
The boy’s mother noticed a change. With one son in prison for manslaughter and a second headed in that direction for dealing, she asked Valdez to become Orlando’s legal guardian. Valdez obliged and took the boy into his home. “He needed to get out of that environment,” Valdez says.
The boy grew up to become San Antonio’s Player of the Year in 2004. He went to prep school in North Carolina, transferred to Western Kentucky and added the last name of the only father he’s ever known.
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When the national media discovered him, Orlando Mendez-Valdez was leading Western Kentucky to the NCAA Sweet 16 in 2008. After winning Sun Belt Conference Player of the Year honors and graduating, he turned down a near six-figure job to pursue pro ball in Mexico, where his parents were born.
His ascent from barrio to basketball star is the stuff of movies. Who would have thought? Now here he is, relaxing in Prague, contemplating a possibility no one imagined in his youth. It’s a long way from San Antonio to Rio — more than 5,100 miles — but it would not be wise to bet against him.
“Anything,” he insists, “is possible.”
The neighborhood nods and smiles. For 30 years, the favorite son has proven that the impossible is but a door to the next dream.
This article was originally published on July 5, 2016.
Top image: Orlando Mendez-Valdez age 17, third from left, celebrating a tournament victory with Lanier High School teammates in 2003. Photo by Abel Valdez