Orlando “El Gato” Melendez is many things. He’s a former North Carolina Tar Heel. He’s a former professional basketball player. And now, he’s the first native Puerto Rican to play for the Harlem
Melendez started playing basketball at a young age in Puerto Rico. He used to walk two miles to the local basketball court just to get some playing time in. Endeavoring to find a better way to get to the court, Melendez eventually asked his father for a shortcut. On his new route, an encounter with some local felines became a lifelong nickname.
“I asked my dad for a shortcut and he said to cut through the sugar cane fields,” Melendez said. “One day I go fix a ham sandwich, and I’m walking through and drop some of the ham. Next thing I know there’s a bunch of cats following me all the way to the basketball court, and then my friends started asking me, ‘Hey, what’s going on with the cats?’ and they started calling me ‘El Gato,’ which means the cat in Spanish.”
After Melendez took part in an exchange student program that allowed him to play his senior high school season at McDowell High School in North Carolina, the University of North Carolina Tar Heels offered him a basketball scholarship. While in college, he was a member of the 2000 Tar Heel team that reached the Final Four.
After college, Melendez played professionally in many different countries and leagues. He eventually found his way to a Harlem Globetrotters tryout, where he impressed recruiters and was granted a spot on the team. It was a move that made him the first Puerto Rican-born Globetrotter ever.
“It’s something amazing. It goes beyond the Puerto Rican part, now I’m representing Hispanics and Latinos,” Melendez said. “I’m the only Latino on the team right now. It’s something amazing when you represent your land and your country to do the great things we do as Globetrotters. It’s a privilege and an honor to do so.”
For those uneducated about the Globetrotters, they are a group that merged athletics and entertainment. They perform seemingly impossible feats with a basketball and incessantly clobber their unfortunate opponents the Generals.
They do all this with microphones attached so they can perform like actors on a Broadway stage and produce funny and interesting storylines for attendees to follow throughout the night. Sometimes they even bring attendees on the court to take part in the performance. Like any other player, Melendez
had to undergo a transition from competition to entertainment.
Players don’t emerge out of college with the tools that are needed to make a successful Globetrotter.
“The hardest part was going from being competitive to showmanship,” he said. “At first it was so hard because you want to compete, and then, ‘Hey, hold on, slow down, we need to do this.’ At first it was so hard to do that transition, but thankfully I’ve got great teammates, great coaches, and we made it.”
The history of the Globetrotters and the social role that the team has played throughout its existence is not lost upon Melendez. He recognizes his responsibility to carry on the name of the Globetrotters and its socially conscious history.
“We were transcending history, from following Martin Luther King back in the day to his rallies, to playing a game where one side of the stadium is white and the other side is black and through the whole integration. It’s just something that will never be erased from the books of history, and for us to keep doing it all around the world, for 122 countries and territories, it’s just something amazing.
Melendez went on to elaborate on the value he places on the conversation he’s had with Globetrotter great Curly Neal. He said that comparing where society is at now to how it was when Neal was playing was a testament to the progress that’s been made.
Melendez knows that the history of the team is a burden to bear for the current members,albeit a positive burden. He is prepared to carry the Globetrotter legacy forward.
“We have played for 91 years around the world, not just in the United States. Now, we are representing the United States all over the world in the right way. It takes more than 30 guys to do that, but for us, it’s
something to go out there and tell people what we have done and the reasons we did it.”