Tuesday, February 20, 2018
Sports

USF's Orlando Antigua develops leadership in a hurry

TAMPA — In the eyes of school registrars and census takers, Damaris Antigua was a single mom, tending bar three nights a week while raising three husky boys in a Bronx apartment. No record of a father at home, none.

But oh, he was there. How could they miss him? Guy was every bit of 6 feet 5, and only got taller. Maybe it was the technicality. Damaris wasn't actually married to him; the attachment was much stronger than that. It began with an umbilical cord.

Orlando Antigua, oldest of her three, was the de facto dad, the man of the three-bedroom apartment in New York.

"Even though he's only three years older than me as the youngest brother," Omar Antigua said, "he's always been that father figure since he was in high school."

When Omar and Oliver — the middle boy — were hungry, Orlando would whip up eggs or a bowl of Cap'n Crunch. When things got rough on a Webb Avenue game of hoops, stickball or manhunt, he intervened.

When grades slipped, Orlando would confine a sibling to the apartment until the F's became A's. Provider, protector, even punisher — Orlando had it all down before most have a learner's permit.

"Orlando definitely matured a lot earlier than most kids did," said Gary DeCesare, his basketball coach at St. Raymond High School for Boys, who lived with the Antiguas when an eviction forced them into an abandoned convent near the high school for a few months.

"He had to take responsibility for the family, which he did, and he was very dependable with his brothers."

• • •

So maybe USF's newest basketball coach never has presided over his own program, never has been the one making seven figures to diagram an isolation play during a timeout with four ticks to go. Maybe no loss has ever been laid exclusively at his Oxfords.

And maybe he never has been forced to deal with a litany of defections. So far, five scholarship players and a significant walk-on have bolted since Stan Heath's dismissal. No one's denying the ninth basketball coach in Bulls history will have a learning curve.

It's what Antigua, 41, won't have to learn — when to administer both tough and tender love, forging harmony in hard times, how to serve as the father a player never had — that many say ultimately will propel him and the Bulls to a new stratosphere.

"I think he knows how to deal with players. He knows how to motivate, he knows how to get them to soldier for him, and I think that's some of the key things," said USF assistant Rod Strickland, a 17-year NBA veteran who followed Antigua from the University of Kentucky staff.

"He's an X-and-O guy and all of that, but at the end of the day, you've got to get players that want to play for you and get them motivated to play hard. And I think he's great at that."

• • •

All three Antigua boys were born in the Dominican Republic, but they arrived in the Bronx with their mother around the same time Reggie Jackson was reaching candy-bar immortality at nearby Yankee Stadium.

The boys' father, also named Orlando, flitted in and out of their lives, Omar recalls, leaving Damaris as the lone breadwinner. To this day, she still works as a housekeeper at the Plaza Hotel in Manhattan, though she's closing in on 60.

"When we were kids and we had our greatest struggles, (the elder Orlando) definitely was never around," Omar said. "He would pop in once about every four years, so we knew who he was, but when times were tough he was never around."

Whether the younger Orlando, married with two kids of his own, was born with a paternal gene or embraced it out of necessity is unclear. This is: By age 10 he was the dominant male figure in a home that regularly included more than four.

To make ends meet, Damaris often rented out a bedroom, leaving the boys to share a room.

It became a cell of sorts for Omar when he flirted with straight F's in seventh grade. As punishment, Orlando didn't allow him to leave the apartment until his academics improved. A half-decade later, Omar graduated seventh in his class from St. Raymond.

The punishment was "his idea, his enforcement," said Omar, who ultimately earned degrees in economics and industrial management from Carnegie Mellon and now works for a medical-device firm in Miami.

"And he was only in 10th grade."

It was around this same time, on a Halloween evening, when Orlando never made it home.

On a neighborhood street corner, in front of an electronics store, some men were arguing with some boys. Orlando and a buddy moved in for a closer look, with Orlando standing on a car bumper for a better view. Someone threw an egg at one of the men, who pulled out a gun.

The .22 caliber bullet hit Orlando — innocent bystander — near his left eye. Oliver, home alone with Omar, took the call from the hospital.

"I thought he was dead. I was crying," Oliver said. "They called me: 'Your brother got shot in the head,' and I hung up the phone. I'm 12 years old. My mom's not home, she's working."

The ending is another preposterous chapter in the surreal Antigua narrative. Due to the bullet's location (it never penetrated his skull), doctors deemed it safer not to remove the bullet. It was extracted during his junior year at Pitt.

Yet the outlook gained from that incident remains embedded. Suddenly, Orlando not only had paternal chops well beyond his years, but a perspective to match.

"Even in college … when we had some tough times he would say, 'I'm not supposed to be here, man, so your problem ain't really that difficult,' " said Oliver, who also played at Pitt and has joined Orlando as a Bulls assistant.

"I think that helped shape all of us really, by what's appreciated and how to go about the daily obstacles in life."

• • •

Orlando's story, as most know, splits from there into a series of fascinating estuaries: student-body president at St. Raymond, Big East all-rookie team pick, first Latin American to make the Harlem Globetrotters roster.

But perhaps the most significant story line, as it pertains to the here and now, goes back to the Bronx, when a boy had to become a man at mach speed. USF needs perspective, parenting, an ability to assess the emaciated roster with an I've-experienced-worse prism.

The Bulls basketball family needs a dad.

"You've got a guy that's had unbelievable success in his life in everything that he's touched," said DeCesare, who watched the oldest Antigua help lead St. Raymond to its first city championship in 1991.

"He put his imprints on (the St. Raymond) program, and he's going to be a rising star in the coaching ranks and South Florida will win. He will definitely get the job done without a doubt, no doubt in my mind."

 
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