Ken Rodriguez is a San Antonio native who covered his first Spurs game in 1981 for The Daily Texan, the University of Texas student newspaper. He spent 26 years in the newspaper business -- 21 of them covering sports -- before joining the marketing department at Our Lady of the Lake University in 2009. His Spurs.com column will appear every Wednesday. | En Espanol
There's not much hope in the old neighborhood, a patchwork of small, broken homes on the city's West Side. Residents on this gritty back road are surrounded by landmarks of blight: a cemetery in front of them, railroad tracks behind them, a creek on the side. One man calls it, "The Bermuda Triangle of Trouble," and he would know. That man, Abel Valdez, used to visit one shanty often, a place that belonged to the mother of a boy named Orlando, a boy who never met his biological father.
Orlando struggled in school, had one brother incarcerated, a second brother headed for prison and no one expected the kid would amount to much. But one day he left the 'hood, moved in with Abel and shattered expectations.
The boy did not drop out of school. He graduated from college, rejected a near six-figure offer to work in Kentucky and followed a dream to Mexico. Today, Orlando Mendez-Valdez is a made-for-Hollywood story – a professional basketball player who rose from poverty to become a tournament MVP his first season.
How did he make the climb? Orlando's mother, Maria Guel, was losing her older sons to drug and manslaughter charges and asked Abel for help. The assistant coach at Orlando's middle school offered his home and a father's hand. As a sixth grader, Orlando showed promising basketball skills but lacked structure. So Abel entered him in the Spurs Youth Basketball League (SYBL), a program that attracts more than 20,000 participants each year. "At that age," Orlando recalls, "I was still struggling with my attitude and being disciplined. The league helped me develop into a more mature player."
|The Spurs Youth Athletic League celebrates its 20th anniversary this year.
Founded in 1991 by Spurs Coach Gregg Popovich and Kids Sports Network President Frank Martin, the league draws thousands of boys and girls ages 5-to-16 from across Central and South Texas. Known for requiring participants to make drug free pledges, the league is funded by the nonprofit Spurs Foundation with financial support from Pizza Hut and Valero.
Distinguished league alumni include: Former Spur Devin Brown, former Silver Star Tai Dillard, and former Western Kentucky star Orlando Mendez-Valdez.
Formerly known as the Drug Free League, the Spurs Foundation financially supports the SYBL, providing jerseys, certified coaches training and other benefits. Orlando needed the top-notch instruction on values. He also needed to embrace the league's mandate: No drugs, alcohol or tobacco allowed. "Reading the drug free pledge before every game made an impact on me," Orlando says. "It was really a chance to stay away from all the bad influences and continue on the right path." On the alley-like road where Orlando once lived, temptation lurked on the corner. Horror knocked on the door. One morning he awoke to a loud banging. When he opened the door, a half-naked prostitute stood before him, bleeding from multiple knife wounds.
Another time, he peeked out the back door and saw a train run over a man on the tracks, severing both legs. Even now, years after taking Orlando out of that neighborhood, Abel hears bits and pieces of stories he's never heard. "Orlando saw people get shot," Abel says. "He saw people get killed. He saw prostitution. He saw stabbings. He saw a lot of things a child should not witness."
Abel, 38, lived in a West Side neighborhood, just above the poverty level. He did not have a wife or kids or a job that paid lots of money. But he opened his heart, became Orlando's legal guardian and gave him encouragement, discipline and vision. Stay in school, Orlando, and you can make it big.
The boy grew, his game improved and people took notice. Abel did not know about AAU competition – a virtual must for aspiring college players – so he kept the boy in SYBL."If it weren't for the Spurs Youth Athletic League, my family and my coaches," Orlando says, "it would have been easy for me to live a very different lifestyle."
No one knew how good Orlando would become. After playing a few years in SYBL, he made the varsity at Lanier High School as a freshman. The Voks – with no player taller than 6-foot-3 – upset a Chris Bosh-led Dallas Lincoln team in the state semifinals, 50-48. Three years later, Orlando Mendez – as he was known then – averaged 23 points, seven rebounds, six assists and 5.5 steals per game. That was good enough to win Greater San Antonio Player of the Year honors. But not good enough to land a Division I scholarship. Some said he was too short (6-foot-1). Some said he was too slow. Others cited his ethnicity and said his failure to play AAU ball robbed him of critical exposure. Orlando forged on, attended a prep school in North Carolina, then received an offer to play for Western Kentucky. He also changed his name – adding "Valdez" in honor of Abel.
It took Orlando Mendez-Valdez three years to win a starting spot, and when he did, the national media swooned. "He's a really, really good basketball player," one Chicago Tribune columnist wrote. As a senior, Orlando won Sun Belt Conference Player of the Year honors, earned honorable mention All America honors and led Western Kentucky to the Sweet 16. But no NBA team drafted him.
Still, the climb from poverty continued. Orlando graduated with a degree in physical education and no one beamed like Abel. "The kid wasn't expected to graduate from high school," says Abel, who now works with emotionally-disturbed children. "A teacher told me he wasn't capable. So for him to get his degree in four years – I'm just awfully proud."
Pride is a good word. Orlando took his game to Mexico, averaged 16 points and four assists, and won MVP honors in the league tournament. He joins former Spur Devin Brown and former Silver Star Tai Dillard as SYBL alums who've played pro ball. "He's in a tropical paradise," Abel says of Orlando's home in Xalapa, known as the City of Flowers. "Parrots are flying around. It's lush and green. He's taken care of."
Orlando appreciates the comfort and lifestyle but hopes to compete in a different of venue. "My ultimate dream to play in the NBA is very much alive," he says. He nurtures another dream, too, one that will take him back to his youth. He wants to become a high school coach, a mentor who helps turn at-risk kids from poverty to purpose. In truth, he wants to be like the man who opened his home and handed him a ball. The man he will always call "dad."