Monday, March 30, 2009 | 2:10 a.m.
- Findlay Prep star sets sights on national championship, beyond (3-26-09)
- Four from Findlay Prep advance to postseason (3-17-09)
- Possible Oak Hill showdown for Findlay Prep in Bethesda (3-13-09)
- Findlay Prep takes over top spot in USA Today hoops rankings (3-10-09)
- Findlay in familiar territory after 30-0 season (3-6-09)
- Findlay finds support for scheduling local programs (3-5-09)
- Rudd leaves Findlay Prep (3-4-09)
- Findlay caps 30-0 regular season with 107-57 thumping (2-27-09)
- Rudd, under suspension, won’t play for Findlay tonight (2-27-09)
The pain was almost unbearable, a great challenge. Another hurdle. Carlos “Yao” Lopez winced. He almost cried.
It had nothing to do with being benched by Findlay College Prep basketball coach Mike Peck this season. It had everything to do with sitting in that seat at Living Dead Tattoo on Rainbow.
A few weeks ago, Lopez had a smiling basketball, donning a crown with twinkling stars above, etched in ink on the inside of his right biceps.
The artist ensured that the eyes on the ball that peek up at Lopez perfectly matched Lopez’s. She told him not to look, that it would hurt even more or make him feel queasy.
“She thought I’d throw up,” said Lopez, 18. “I said, no, I want to look. I saw the process. It was cool. I never thought of a tattoo. I never liked tattoos.
“But I needed something to represent that I got to college, to represent my progress in life and that I’m doing well. It’s like a crowned prince. A symbol. I got tough. I sucked it up.”
It took two hours and cost $160, and he’s not finished. When Findlay returns from the ESPN RISE National High School Invitational in Maryland after this weekend, he will have U-N-L-V inked behind the ball.
Lopez will play for the Rebels next season. He talks to his mother, Glydys, in Puerto Rico about how far he’s come and his good fortune.
“Going to college will be special,” he said. “The tattoo means a lot to me in many ways. Many ways.”
A pillar of the Pilots
Lopez arrived in Las Vegas 2 1/2 years ago and almost left after two weeks. He didn’t understand English and couldn’t comprehend remaining in this strange place.
He weighed 175 pounds, and he didn’t see a future in basketball or school.
Fifty pounds later, Lopez is a pillar of the 3-year-old Findlay program. He is the last of the original Pilots.
“We’ll miss him sorely,” Peck said.
Peck and assistant coach Todd Simon talk about the value of having a few players like Lopez every season, and not just because he’s the rare elite player who puts the team first in everything.
Not just because he’s always barking out directions and picks and other nuances of the game to his teammates from his defensive post back by the basket.
(UNLV coach Lon Kruger must be salivating to finally have a big man like that on his roster.)
But what’s unique about Lopez is that he learned to relish every second of his experience at the Henderson International School, with which Findlay is affiliated.
He has coached the Henderson International fifth- and sixth-grade boys team, and the 6-foot-10 center has befriended everyone who is half his size on the small campus.
“We have to identify guys who enjoy the small-school experience, the pep assemblies and talking with fellow students,” Peck said, “guys who enjoy coming to school in the morning and want to get the most out of it.
“That’s been so important to Carlos’s success and development. It speaks volumes. You need guys like that. Some of that is contagious, and others will get on board faster.”
Until last month, Lopez lived with an English as a Second Language (ESL) professor to aid his transition to the tricky language and adapt to the area.
The plan couldn’t have worked better, and Lopez is ecstatic to be able to stay in Southern Nevada, which he considers his adopted home, and play at UNLV next season.
Last month, however, on the heels of the departures of Willie Hankins and Victor Rudd, and the arrival of power forward Tristan Thompson, Lopez moved into the home in which the rest of the Pilots live.
It’s a short walk up the street from Henderson International.
Lopez made the move to make the most of his stretch run as a prepster and to further promote chemistry and harmony on the Findlay squad as it aims for its first national championship.
“We’re a family,” he said. “We don’t have anybody but each other. Other kids go home to their families, their mothers and fathers. We don’t. We have each other.
“I’m so proud of each of my teammates. I love being here.”
But he has his limits. In the care packages Glydys Lopez sends her son, he savors the pasteles, meat and rice mixed in banana-leaf packets, the most. A teammate will ask him, What’s that?
Nothing there, Lopez says. Nothing special. And he’ll hide them in a corner of the freezer.
Lopez capped his second consecutive 30-0 regular season with 16 points a month ago in a 50-point pummeling of Impact Basketball Academy.
He started and had his finest game of a roller-coaster campaign in which Peck benched him for a stretch. Wanting to do too much, as a senior, burdened Lopez. He thought too much.
Two games into Lopez’s benching, Peck showed him tapes of a few games in which his errors were glaring.
“I was like, Wow,” Lopez said. “I said, Coach, you’re absolutely right. It opened my eyes. I thought I was doing everything right, that there was no reason for me to be on the bench.
“Coach likes that I do all the little things, like playing defense, taking charges, stealing the ball and talking to my teammates. I wasn’t doing that. I wasn’t running the floor. I got back to doing all that.”
Lopez, who also battled finger and ankle injuries, averages 8.5 points and 6 rebounds, and he leads Findlay with 51 blocked shots.
Once he realized that Avery Bradley, D.J. Richardson and Cory Joseph can carry the scoring load, Lopez settled into a complementary role as an all-around pest.
Two weeks ago, former Findlay teammate and future Rebels teammate Brice Massamba marveled at how Lopez is starting to fill out, in his chest and arms, in a visit to the school in the Henderson foothills.
Lopez’s dervish spins, power moves to the rim and block-out tactics will come in handy in what many believe will be an April 5 showdown in the ESPN title game against Oak Hill (38-0) and center Keith Gallon.
At 6-9 and 290 pounds, Gallon, who will play at Oklahoma next fall, belies his “Tiny” nickname.
Lopez said he’ll have plenty of help, too, against Tiny, with Thompson and junior forward Godwin Okonji. When pressed, Lopez smiled.
“He’s a big challenge,” Lopez said of Tiny. “I like playing against guys who think, just because they’re bigger, they’ll dominate me. It’s not just about how big you are, it’s about how much you have inside of you.
“I just love the challenge. I’ll just go play my game. And he better bring his game. That’s all I have to say … Findlay Prep is ready. I hope Oak Hill is ready.”
The Pilots were 32-0 a year ago when they lost to Hargrave Military Academy by two points in the National Prep Championship at Fordham in the Bronx, N.Y.
“We’re three games from the championship,” Lopez said. “And this actually is my second time, so I want to make it right. I want to get the championship.”
Then he’ll smile during every second when that U-N-L-V is tattooed onto the underside of his right biceps to complete a perfect chapter.