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Sports How first Puerto Rican Harlem Globetrotters basketball player El Gato got his nickname

Harlem Globetrotters player Orlando Melendez, or El Gato, puts Toronto children through a series of basketball drills at the MLSE Launchpad. In addition to entertaining audiences, the team supports charitable causes on their travels around the world.

Paul Attfield/The Globe and Mail

Like so many other kids throughout the 1980s and ’90s, Orlando Melendez grew up idolizing Michael Jordan.

From the high-flying dunks to the million-dollar smile, the Chicago Bulls basketball superstar cut a swathe through the world of professional sports like few before him.

But back in his hometown of Juana Diaz, Puerto Rico, for Mr. Melendez, the riches and fame of the National Basketball Association seemed a million miles away. And while he may have followed in Mr. Jordan’s footsteps in so far as sharing an alma mater in the University of North Carolina, his basketball career ended up going in a different direction.

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Mr. Melendez got his nickname “El Gato” after the stray cats that followed his trail of snack crumbs during his 3.2-kilometre trek to the nearest basketball court back home each day.

While he was playing professionally in Puerto Rico in 2008, a former NBA player coaching on the island recommended he try out for the Harlem Globetrotters. After impressing with his athleticism as well as his personality, he became the first Puerto Rican to play for the legendary basketball entertainers in their 92-year history.

It really hit home when he visited the island for the first time wearing the famed blue shirts and red-and-white-striped shorts of the Globetrotters.

Harlem Globetrotter Zeus McClurkin “To be a Globetrotter you’ve got to be a good basketball player, but at the same time you’ve got to be an incredibly good person.”

Paul Attfield/The Globe and Mail

“That was insane,” he says of the 2008 visit. “I didn’t think it was going to be such a big deal, being the first Puerto Rican.”

Now, instead of plying his trade for one of the 30 teams in the North America-based NBA, Mr. Melendez plays a starring role in some of the 400 shows that the Globetrotters put on internationally each year, with the team having so far played in 122 countries around the world.

It is a role that perfectly suits Mr. Melendez. While he has always been known for his dunks on the court, an equally important part of being a Globetrotter is community outreach.

As current teammate Zeus McClurkin puts it, “to be a Globetrotter you’ve got to be a good basketball player, but at the same time you’ve got to be an incredibly good person.”

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Currently on tour across Canada, the team is visiting schools, hospitals and community centres in living up to its well-known nickname as “Ambassadors of Goodwill.”

During a visit to the Hospital for Sick Children in Toronto, Mr. McClurkin and Mr. Melendez visited Maya Kolbasnick, who has a brain tumor. The 10-year-old Kitchener, Ont., girl was meant to sing the national anthem with her choir at the Globetrotters game, but was unexpectedly hospitalized with a complication to her shunt. (Uploaded Apr. 9, 2018, by Harlem Globetrotters)

The Canadian leg of the tour wraps up this week in Halifax before heading overseas to Europe and beyond. In addition to the games, the players will be working with children on education programs, around themes such as bullying and the importance of daily activity.

Earlier this month, both players put on a basketball clinic for local children at a community centre in downtown Toronto.

The team also operates what it terms a Smile Patrol, in which players visit hospitals to inspire the children who are unable to come out to watch the games in person. For Mr. Melendez, it’s a big part of the thrill of being a Globetrotter.

“As soon as we walk in [to a hospital] we get that real big smile from a little kid that maybe had surgery or is not feeling close to 50 per cent,” he says. “But somehow he or she will come out with that beautiful smile.”

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Doing good also takes on a very personal dimension for Mr. Melendez.

Globetrotter Zeus McClurkin works with Toronto children on basketball drills at the MLSE Launchpad, a facility that hosts community initiatives for MLSE's sports teams, as well as visiting teams.

Paul Attfield/The Globe and Mail

After witnessing the damage caused by hurricanes Irma and Maria first-hand last September in his native Puerto Rico, back on the island during a break in his schedule, he pitched in with his neighbours to help clear debris and remove felled trees, including one that fell on the roof on his grandmother’s house.

He was also personally affected by the aftermath of the hurricane when his other grandmother was taken to hospital with a stomach complaint a few weeks later. However, without electricity, as much of the island was, there was nothing they could do for her and she passed away.

The lack of power on the island is only marginally better today.

“There are people who still have no power,” he says. “I have a friend that just got power after seven months.”

El Gato is under no illusions, though. Just because he jokes and laughs as part of his job, he knows that there is still much work to be done. And as the first Puerto Rican to play for the famed basketball entertainment franchise, he hopes he can continue to keep global attention focused on his homeland.

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