Orlando “El Gato” Meléndez is the first Puerto Rican born player to ever play for the Harlem Globetrotters basketball team. Standing 6 feet 8 inches tall, Meléndez plays forward, not just in the game, but in his life.
El Gato grew up in a Puerto Rican neighborhood where the nearest basketball court was two miles away. As he made his regular trek to the court, a crowd of cats would gather around him — so the young Meléndez earned the name El Gato. The name stuck with him at his local court and would stay with him as he went all the way to the Harlem Globetrotters.
Prior to playing for the Globetrotters, Meléndez played college basketball for the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, making it to the Final Four in 1998 and 2000.
“It is an honor to be a part of the Harlem Globetrotters — [to] represent Puerto Rico,” Meléndez said. “It is a big, big weight on my shoulders. I am very happy, but this is a great responsibility.”
Melendez’s pride for his country and team shined throughout his interview. This is his third season playing for the Globetrotters and when was asked what his most memorable moment has been, Meléndez told a story about playing in front of his hometown.
“We played on the same exact court where I used to play. …It was great to have my whole family there and people I knew since kindergarten,” he said.
His second most memorable moment was when he played in Brazil in the Olympic stadium when a large bat flew down from the rafters.
“People thought it was part of the show. A bunch of 7-feet-tall men running around. One player had a chair over his head,” Meléndez said.
While Meléndez enjoys the performance aspect of the game he most appreciates that the Globetrotters take the opportunity to give back. When asked what the benefit of playing with the Globetrotters was compared to a competitive team, he said, “Playing with the Globetrotters is more than winning and losing. You always win.”
He spoke on the team's effort to visit kids in hospitals and even mentioned that he was en route to talk to kids about bullying in school and in the community.
With two daughters of his own, it’s no surprise El Gato is a positive influence on children. When told, “You must be the coolest dad ever,” he responded, “Yeah maybe, but what matters with my daughters is being a good father to them. When I’m with them, I am not El Gato.”
When Meléndez is not being a basketball player or a father, he’s an interior designer. He and his business partner own a company called nBaxter Designs. Meléndez hopes to expand their company to a worldwide brand. Traveling around the world to play basketball has afforded him unique inspiration for design. “I get to see what’s trending, from traditional to modern.”
The Harlem Globetrotters will be coming to the John Paul Jones Arena March 3 to celebrate their 90th anniversary. They will be wearing the traditional patriotic uniforms — high socks, short shorts and all.