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Cook: Like at Pitt, Antigua always handles bounces with aplomb

Sunday, March 03, 2002

If the other 118 Pitt basketball alumni in town last night for the end of the Fitzgerald Field House era were smart, they fought to close to Orlando Antigua at the game against West Virginia.

He clearly has the best stories.

Antigua wasn't the greatest Pitt player. That would be Don Hennon or Billy Knight or Charles Smith, all of whom were at the final game at the field house and were introduced with the others to the sellout crowd at halftime. Antigua never played in the NBA and didn't make the millions Smith did.

He just had the most interesting career in basketball.

Antigua's six-plus-year run as the first and only Hispanic member of the Harlem Globetrotters came to an end last month when he abruptly retired. He woke up in Houston Feb. 2 and realized he was tired of the travel, the grind of a game in a different city every night and the separation from his wife, Dana, and daughter, Olivia, 2, in Green Tree. So he played that night, told team officials he was done and took the first flight to Pittsburgh the next morning.

"I just knew it was time," said Antigua, 28. "It was time to grow up, start being an adult, move on to the next phase of my life. The Globetrotters allowed me to be a kid for all those years."

Antigua still can't believe the Globetrotters called to offer him a job in December, 1995. "It wasn't like I was a flashy player. I remember asking them, 'Are you sure you have the right guy? Don't you want [Pitt teammate] Jerry McCullough?' "

For sure, Antigua didn't think the gig would last so long. "I was hoping for a couple of months. I thought it would be nice to have on my resume, a conversation piece that would help get me in the door when it came time to get a job."

Instead, it took Antigua to 39 countries, to every continent but Asia. It got him personal audiences with Muhammad Ali and Michael Jordan and Denzel Washington and too many other beautiful people to mention. It got him on the Letterman show, where he showed Dave a few ball tricks, on the Sinbad show, on the Regis and Kathy Lee show. It got him in an Adam Sandler movie, "Little Nicky," and in national television commercials for Burger King and Kraft's Miracle Whip. It even got him picked as one of the 100 Most Influential Hispanics in the 2001 Hispanic Business Magazine.

"My greatest memory is easy," Antigua said. "It was getting to meet Nelson Mandela in South Africa and shake his hand and entertain him on his birthday in 1997. You could just sense something totally special about him. I don't get carried away with celebrities, but he has an aura about him. He's a special human being."

The Globetrotters couldn't have done better than Antigua. So what if he was a middling talent as a college player? They could teach him ballhandling skills. He became so proficient he made it to their coveted Magic Circle, the highlight of any Globetrotters' show. What the team didn't have to teach him were people skills. The Globetrotters aren't just about basketball. They're about entertaining families and spreading good will. Antigua was a natural. It's hard to imagine Pitt producing a higher quality person.

Antigua was a crowd favorite when he played for the Panthers from 1991-95. Maybe it was because he always played so hard and always looked like he was having so much fun. More likely, though, it was because of what he had overcome. Everybody knew he had been shot in the head as high school sophomore in New York City, an innocent bystander to a street argument. They also knew his family had been homeless during his senior year of high school.

Antigua came to Pitt and thrived. He made the Big East All-Rookie team as a freshman and played on the Panthers' previous NCAA tournament team as a sophomore. "I never thought it would take us nine years to get back."

His final two years weren't so memorable. Paul Evans was fired as coach after the Panthers went 13-14 in 1993-94.

"What a mistake," Antigua said. "All he did was win and graduate his players. He just didn't play the politics game."

Ralph Willard took over for Antigua's senior season. The Panthers went 10-18. The losing was tough, but Antigua never stopped smiling. He kept working toward his degree in social science. Everyone who knew him knew he would be successful.

But one of the 100 Most Influential Hispanics?

"My mother is the one with the amazing story," Antigua said. "She never finished elementary school in the Dominican Republic, was left alone when my father bailed out on us when I was 4, couldn't speak English, moved our family to New York when I was 5 and raised three sons in the Bronx, all of whom graduated from college and are successful in life."

Antigua's brother, Oliver, who played and coached at Pitt under Willard, is a high school teacher and coach in New York City. Another brother, Omar, is a Carnegie Mellon graduate and works for a pharmaceutical company in New York.

Orlando Antigua will start a new job in sales next week with Cavanaugh, a full-service promotional products agency in West View. His boss will be Pat Cavanaugh, another former Pitt player and his old workout partner. You can argue Cavanaugh has been as successful as any of the players who came back this weekend. Certainly, he might be the most intelligent.

He hired Antigua, didn't he?

Ron Cook can be reached at rcook@post-gazette.com.

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