The Westside’s Inner City Basketball Court echoed with shouts of encouragement, the sounds of basketballs bouncing off pavement, and pounding feet as schoolchildren gathered in matching “West Side Pride” T-shirts to learn the game from a homegrown talent.
International pro basketball player Orlando Mendez-Valdez returned to his old neighborhood to host a free training camp for local children Tuesday and Wednesday. The camp was open to children residing in the San Antonio Independent School District and/or the 78207 zip code and was limited to 50 spots each day, with fourth-graders through seventh-graders on Tuesday and eighth-graders through 12th-graders on Wednesday. The camp filled up quickly.
“I grew up here on the Westside. I went to Lanier High School down the street,” Mendez-Valdez said. “When I first started playing organized basketball, it was on these courts.”
Basketball has taken the 31-year-old guard far from the Westside. From Lanier, he went to Charis Prep in North Carolina and on to Western Kentucky University. After a successful NCAA career, Mendez-Valdez spent seven seasons in Mexico’s LNBP pro league, where he was a six-time All-Star and played on two league champion teams, Halcones of Xalapa in Veracruz and Pioneros of Quintana Roo in Cancun. In 2013, playing for the Mexican national team, he won the gold medal in the Americas Championship.
Mendez-Valdez spent the 2016-17 season with Maccabi Haifa in the Israeli Premier League, where his team advanced to the championship game. Now, in the offseason, he’s back where he began.
“I was brainstorming to see what I could do to give back to my community, and the best thing I do is basketball, so I thought this camp would be a good way to do that,” he said.
Mendez-Valdez knows the difference that self-control and determination can make in someone’s life, and the positive outlet that basketball can provide. Even if he’s a sports star, he clearly hasn’t forgotten where he came from or how he achieved all that he has.
“[Basketball] has a lot to do with the kind of person I am today,” he said. “The time management, the discipline – you have to build that in order to make a career of this sport.
“It’s about taking pride in who I am individually and where I’m from and applying it to life. I just want show my community that there are good people out here, and that it’s not about earning a quick buck. It’s about that pride. I’ve been so lucky, and I just want to give that back.”
He attributes his desire to give back to Abel Valdez, his adoptive father. Mendez-Valdez grew up in one of the state’s poorest zip codes, 78207, with median household and per-capita incomes roughly half those of San Antonio overall. Poverty and violence surrounded his youth and threatened to consume his future. Then, in the sixth grade, he met Valdez, a coach at Tafolla Middle School, who took to mentoring Mendez-Valdez, eventually becoming his legal guardian and giving him his last name.
Valdez was at the camp too, signing children in at a desk near the bleachers, offering breakfast tacos and camp T-shirts with a warm smile.
“This is really cool,” Valdez said, beaming helping a camper sign in. “I coached his dad. A lot of these kids, I coached their parents, you know. I can see it in their eyes, in their faces. In the way they move, too. He plays like his dad. It all comes back around, and that’s great to see.”
As the camp started around, children and coaches milled around the court, talking and laughing. Off to one side, children ran around and shot baskets. Other kids got organized into groups for warmups. A few young people turned up who weren’t on Valdez’s signup list, but he wasn’t going to turn them away.
“You know what? It’s ok, sir, it’s fine,” he said to the father. “I’ll just write her name in.”
The relaxed, close-knit community had the atmosphere of an extended family, and indeed, there were many familial connections. Parents and siblings, many of whom Valdez knew, watched from the bleachers as warmup drills occupied the court.
“We heard about the camp through my uncle, and we saw it as an opportunity so we came,” said Yahir Perez, a seventh grader and aspiring basketball player who came to the camp with his younger brother. “I’m basically here for training. I heard [Mendez-Valdez] went to Israel to play basketball, and I see they have a lot of experience, so I’m hoping they can teach me something.”
After warming up, the kids gathered at center court for an introduction by Mendez-Valdez. They sat enthralled as he spoke, hanging onto each word of motivation. He introduced the other coaches, friends and fellow athletes from the neighborhood, many of whom he had grown up with, highlighting their accomplishments and the ways they have contributed to the community.
After the introduction, the children split back up into groups to get to work, learning ball-handling skills and proper shooting form. In addition to the camp shirts, participants got their own basketballs to take home so they can keep practicing.
“I hope [the children] have a good time, that they enjoy themselves here,” Mendez-Valdez said. “I hope they take something away basketball-wise. But more importantly, as a person, I want them to take pride in their community and pay attention to what’s important around here.
“It’s important to see familiar faces around taking care of the community. I get fulfillment out of that. There’s not a feeling better than giving back.”