Orlando Antigua was and is many things. Immigrant to America as a toddler, shot survivor as a teenager, McDonald’s All-American, and Pittsburgh standout. And today for the second time the assistant coach in Kentucky.
But there is one thing Antigua is not and never will be.
“I get a call from the Harlem Globetrotters,” Antigua begins, sitting down in his own punch line that fills the room with laughter. “I asked, ‘Are you sure you have the right man?'”
It was the fall of 1995 and Antigua had just completed a stellar career at Pitt, scoring over 900 points for 400 rebounds. While others worked on future NBA careers, Antigua fulfilled a promise to its mother Demaris, who 17 years earlier had brought her three boys from the Dominican Republic to Bronx, NY in search of a better life.
“I made a promise to my mom that I would graduate before I did anything,” said Antigua. “Well, it took me an extra semester to finish. I didn’t have anything specific about a contract or a game opportunity so I decided to graduate and wait until December to see if something comes up. If not, I’ll keep working and trying to keep up with an NBA summer league team. “
Then the phone rang, a representative of the world famous Harlem Globetrotters. Yes, the same mostly African American globetrotters who have entertained audiences with their basketball wizardry for generations. Curly Neal. Meadowlark Lemon. We grew up with all of them.
The team, founded in 1926, hadn’t added a non-black player or Hispanic to their roster since 1942.
“They said to me, ‘We are looking for a man of your size, personality, skills and work ethic. You will learn the tricks and all that stuff, ”said Antigua. “I just know that I wasn’t a flashy player and not very extravagant. But I was energetic, enthusiastic and played hard. “
Although the NBA was an obvious target, Antigua soon began to consider the uniqueness of the opportunity that fell into his lap.
“It’s just human nature for us to want to leave a mark and somehow remember our name,” said Antigua. “That was kind of an opportunity to do that.”
One major problem remained, however. Antigua was only two weeks away from graduation.
“They wanted me to come to a mini-camp in Phoenix that coincided with the final in Pitt,” he said. “I told them I really appreciated the opportunity, but I’m finishing those 18 credits and there is no way in the world that I can make it.”
Antigua assumed that its fate was sealed. At the other end of the phone call, the representative hung up and immediately informed team owner Mannie Jackson, himself a former globetrotter, of the situation.
“The guy called back and said, ‘Mannie really appreciates your trying to finish. Focus on your finale. ‘”
Conclusion: If Antigua couldn’t come to the globetrotters, they would come to him. As fate would have it, the team was scheduled to be in Pittsburgh on December 24th before a game on December 26th. They wanted to meet with Antigua.
“So this is Christmas Eve and I’m at Duquesne University trying out the globetrotters,” Antigua said. “I did well enough that they brought me back for another practice session on Christmas morning, and I’m playing my first game as a globetrotter on December 26th in Pittsburgh. It’s crazy.”
The whirlwind romance was good for Antigua, who admitted their ulterior motives.
“I think I’ll do this because it will be a chance to make my mark in history as the first Hispanic to play for the globetrotters,” he said. “It will keep me in shape and prepare me for summer when I can see what NBA opportunities arise, and it will put a few bucks in my pocket.”
Then a funny thing happened.
“After two weeks, I got a bonus,” he said. “A month later I got another bonus that was really nice. So I guess as long as I get bonuses I don’t have to look anywhere else. What was supposed to be short-term would take seven years and travel around the world. “
The beginning of the cyclone had become a full blown storm for the globetrotter they called “Hurricane”.
Before Antigua put on red, white and blue, he visited more than 40 countries as part of the Harlem Globetrotters tour. On the way he appeared on the “David Letterman Show”, combined basketball skills with Magic Johnson and shook hands with Nelson Mandela, the Nobel Prize winner who was imprisoned for 28 years for speaking out against South Africa’s apartheid policies.
“I got the chance to play Nelson Mandela on his birthday,” said Antigua with a smile. “Just to shake his hand, unbelievable. You could feel the aura over him and you just knew that he was someone special. “
Antigua never developed the ploy to amaze audiences – “I was in a supporting role for the master performers like Sweet Lou Dunbar and Paul Gaffney.” – but he was still a globetrotter.
“You take three years to become a true globetrotter because of the lifestyle, travel, requirements and ability to appreciate the heritage and history of what you represent around the world. You can only understand that after you’ve been with the team for a few years, ”said Antigua. “But as soon as you have completed your third year, you will receive a ring indicating that you are a globetrotter. Nobody can take that away from you. “
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