Ever since he wowed the country with a 25-point performance against Gonzaga in the 2009 NCAA tournament, Orlando Mendez-Valdez might have Western fans wondering where the former Topper guard went.
For at least a few days, the now-professional Mexican basketball player returned to Bowling Green for the first time as an alumnus — an experience he said brought back both positive memories and feelings.
“I can’t lie — I miss a lot,” he said.
Mendez-Valdez now plays for the Halcones (Falcons) Uv Xalapa, a member of the Liga Nacional de Baloncesto in Mexico.
He said the team is strictly professional, with no scholarships and no classes, but Xalapa, like many Latin American professional teams, is tied directly to the Universidad Veracruzana in Mexico.
The Falcons won the league championship on March 10, their third title in a row and fourth since the club’s inception in 2003.
Mendez-Valdez said he signed with the team after following a close friend’s advice, and this season — along with the money that came with it — worked out nicely.
“I already knew what I was getting myself into with that kind of team, but (the championship) was huge,” he said. “All of Latin America was watching.”
Athletics Director Wood Selig said he could see that sort of success coming from a player that “showed nothing” after his freshman season and eventually developed into one of Western’s most memorable faces.
“Some people are just leaders. Some people are just winners. Some people are just competitors and refuse to lose,” Selig said. “Orlando is all of that rolled into a very athletic basketball player.”
Mendez-Valdez averaged 13.0 points in 23.8 minutes a game for Xalapa, enough to earn him an invite back for next year’s team as well as a tryout with the NBA’s San Antonio Spurs.
With all that has changed in less than a year, Mendez-Valdez still has his same sense of fashion. He wore a white T-shirt, worn jeans and fine-tipped gelled hair on his first full day back in Bowling Green.
Mendez-Valdez is also engaged to volleyball player Aquila Orr and has set a June 19 wedding date.
Until then, Mendez-Valdez said he’ll continue to live in his apartment in Mexico, where he relies on a laptop to communicate with his friends and family in the United States, once he leaves the country again on Sunday.
Head Coach Ken McDonald said it’s been difficult but worth it to keep in contact with his former senior leader.
“I told him I disowned him — that he was no longer one of my boys,” McDonald said, laughing. “We were laughing about that, because he doesn’t have a phone, so he said we’d either have to Skype, or I could text him at some random number, and he would get it.”
Mendez-Valdez said he’s not sure where he’ll be playing basketball next year, whether it be for Xalapa or an NBA D-League team. But he’s not looking past the big day or the nerves that come along with getting married.
“It’s just having my family there, having her family there, having alcohol — it’s going to be fun, and I hope in a good way,” he said.
A leading issue
Leadership issues rose within Western’s team before the season even started, then again when the Toppers took their second loss to Indiana State.
And every time it seemed Western lacked a proverbial shirt-grabber, McDonald was reminded of what Mendez-Valdez brought to the Toppers’ 2008-2009 NCAA tournament squad.
“You take a guy like that off a team, and of course you’re going to miss him,” McDonald said. “You hope some of the returning guys can fill that void, and you hope also someone’s going to step up and really take over some of that role. That’s a tough role to fill, though.”
Mendez-Valdez hoped to catch the Toppers’ Jan. 23 contest against Middle Tennessee, one of the lone ESPN-broadcast games of the season. He didn’t see the game, but he ended up hearing about it — mostly from McDonald, senior guard A.J. Slaughter and senior forward Jeremy Evans — the people Mendez-Valdez said he most keeps in contact with.
Western lost that day, 84-74, marking the third game of a season-high five-game losing streak.
Again, McDonald addressed a potential lack of leadership along with effort. Mendez-Valdez, now a self-proclaimed Western “fan,” said those struggles can’t always be measured from an outside perspective.
“A lot of fans don’t see what’s behind closed doors,” Mendez-Valdez said. “I witnessed it first hand and there can be a lot of things going on — a lot of distractions, a lot players not getting along in the lockeroom, so I don’t like to judge.”
But Selig doesn’t mind either judging or measuring the importance of what Mendez-Valdez — or someone with a similar sense competitiveness — could have brought to this season’s Western team.
“Our run in the NCAA Tournament with his leadership during Ken McDonald’s first year, much of it was due to outstanding senior leadership by OMV,” Selig said. “I don’t mean to discount any of our seniors this year … but I think the intangibles that Orlando brought to our program were dramatically missing from our squad this year.”
The professional ranks
He gets paid. His personal life is in line. And he’s living the good life in Mexico, playing professional basketball for the country’s top league.
But winning championships in Mexico for Xalapa still isn’t college, where Mendez-Valdez “grew up” and became who he is today.
“I miss getting ready for games. I miss hyping each other up and playing to go to the NCAA tournament,” he said. “Now being professional, it’s a little bit different. Most guys would rather have a bonus check than a ring.”
Before he was able to miss college, Mendez-Valdez missed out on some opportunity. The same knee he had surgically repaired before his senior season needed more work after his Sun Belt Conference Player of the Year run, when he averaged 14.2 points per game.
So he said there were few opportunities to perform in front of scouts after nearly carrying Western to the Sweet 16 for the second season in a row while recovering again. He made it on a professional roster anyway, and McDonald said Mendez-Valdez’s climb back is both a testament to his work ethic and his natural athleticism.
“He’s a special kid now,” McDonald said. “First of all, he’s a complete player, and he’s one of the better players I’ve ever been around. I’ve been around some pretty good guys, but he’s right up there.”
Although he’s playing more basketball than ever now, Mendez-Valdez insists he could be better by combining his knowledge of the game now with his physical fitness at Western.
“I think in college I was in the best shape (of my life), but I think I’m a lot smarter as far as the game goes,” he said. “I’m a lot better shooter and my skills have increased just because of the time I’ve put in the gym and as many games as we play.”
Mendez-Valdez’s quick-earned success didn’t come without some positive repercussions, either. In addition to working out an NBA tryout with the Spurs, the former Topper said he spent some time with the Mexican national team and may try to earn a spot on the nation’s 2012 Olympic team.
“I was there to experience being with them for a couple of weeks, and to be honest, I didn’t like the feeling I was getting from it,” Mendez-Valdez said. “I wouldn’t mind playing and representing Mexico if I had the right players and the right teammates having my back.”
Life in Mexico
Mendez-Valdez is in a different place now, but he said his lifestyle hasn’t changed as much as he anticipated with a move to Xalapa, Mexico.
“I think a lot of people are closed-minded. I was one of them as well,” he said. “I’ve been there with my family, but I always went into the lower end of Mexico. Coming to this team in that state, I was exposed to a high society. I think in Mexico there’s just no in between.
“You’re either rich or you’re poor, and I’m just lucky to be around people in a high society.”
Xalapa, a city in the state of Veracruz, sits in the southern half of Mexico. Mendez-Valdez’s Halcones Uv Xalapa is the only professional team in the city.
McDonald said he’s glad the Xalapa didn’t judge after they looked at Mendez-Valdez’s 6-1, 180-pound frame and unique fashion sense like some did in the college ranks.
“They saw how he dressed off the court and stuff,” McDonald said. “He probably gets a bad rap for the gelled hair and maybe the look he has, but he’s a very good athlete. He’s faster than you think, and he’s more athletic than you think.”
Mendez-Valdez now has to ponder what he’ll do next season — either return to play for Xalapa, where he’s earned a spot on the roster, or attempt to live the dream and shoot for an NBA D-League roster.
Whichever path, Mendez-Valdez said his soon-to-be wife, Orr, will follow him.