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Juan Mendez – Canada’s Best Kept Secret

He has scored more points in college than Steve Nash, Jamaal Magloire, Todd MacCulloch and Rick Fox. He was the third-leading scorer for Team Canada during the 2004 Four Nations Tournament in China. He is currently the third leading scorer in the NCAA and is averaging a double-double, with 24 points and 11 rebounds a night. If he played hockey, you would know his name, his stats and favourite foods, but basketball is the sport he chose and with that came obscurity and anonymity; until now.  This is the story of Montreal’s Juan Mendez, a 6-8, 245lbs power forward who currently plays for the Purple Eagles at Niagara University.

Juan Mendez was born on September 23, 1981, in Little Burgundy, Montreal’s rough and tumble southwest neighbourhood. Mendez, the son of Dominican immigrants, Geovanis Mendez and Maritza Watkins, and the 12th of 13 children, grew up learning the value of hard work, which was instilled in him from a young age. Mendez was taught that if you wanted something bad enough, you needed to work hard to get it, a lesson that has stayed with him to this day.

By all accounts, Mendez was a big kid who was dunking by the age of 13. In order to improve his skills, Mendez built a rim outside the family’s home so he could practice whenever he wanted. Only problem was, it was 13 feet high. Mendez reasons “it was the only place I could find a ledge to hang the rim” and “you would have done the same thing.” Realizing that he needed more competition, Mendez started spending countless hours at the YMCA in Montreal competing with older players as well as local university players. At one of these games, Mendez was introduced to Aubin Goporo, who was the assistant coach and has now become the head coach at Florida Air Academy. Goporo had successfully recruited Mendez by convincing his mother to entrust her then 15-year-old son in his care. With that, Mendez was off to Florida to attend FAA, a military style prep school with a proud basketball history and a varsity team that had not lost a home game since 1998.

Upon his arrival to FAA, Mendez struck up a friendship with a Puerto Rican point guard named Alvin Cruz, who he states is “like his brother from another mother.” They became roommates and were inseparable on campus, says Goporo “if you saw one, then you saw the other. They were always together.” That chemistry was transferred onto the court where Mendez and Cruz had an immediate impact, leading FAA to a record of 80-7 in the three years that they were together.

By their senior season, FAA went 33-0, easily winning the Florida Class 3A title. They finished the season ranked No.14 in the nation by ESPN and No. 1 in the state of Florida by Adidas. With a successful prep career completed, Mendez and Cruz made a pledge to play together wherever that took them. When Cruz was recruited by Niagara University, a division one school in a Mid-Major Conference, both chose to take their talents to the Eagles, in upstate New York, over a number of other suitors.

Niagara University prides itself on a long and proud basketball tradition. It is the Alma Mater of NBA Legend Calvin Murphy who left his name and legacy in most of the record books at Niagara. Things started slow at first for Mendez during his freshmen year. He was the sixth man coming off the bench, but got his chance to start his last six games. His strong play towards the end of the season however got him named the MAAC’s Sixth Man of the Year and honoured on the MAAC All-Rookie Team. Mendez, still not content, hit the gym to bulk up and worked on his game. “I was not satisfied with just being here, I wanted to leave a mark and help the team, so I spent the summer working hard in the gym.”

All the extra work paid off by his sophomore season when Mendez’s all-around game improved greatly, to where he led the Purple Eagles in points, rebounds, and blocks. That summer, Mendez was invited and played for Team Canada in the Pan American games, even though he had the choice of playing for Dominican Republic, his parents’ native country. “It was a great experience because it was the first time I had ever played for my country. I was really proud of that. But it was also the greatest learning experience, since I had never played for the senior team before.”

Even though the success and growth carried through to his junior year, the result in the post-season MAAC Tournament was the same as his sophomore year; another heart breaking and disappointing one-point loss to Manhattan in the final game of the tournament. The winner of the MAAC Tournament received an automatic entry into the NCAA tournament. Although Niagara did get to play in the NIT tournament, they lost a close game to Nebraska in the second round.

After the loss to Manhattan last year, Mendez and his teammates got to watch Manhattan upset the fifth seeded Florida Gators, which was a great source of motivation for the team and Mendez himself. The following summer, Mendez once again worked on his game by practicing his outside shot and added a three point shot to his repertoire. He also played in the Four Nations Tournament representing Canada. His best game came against a Yao Ming led Team China, where he recorded 19 points and 5 rebounds. “The first time I went up against Yao, he blocked me and I realized I had to use my quickness because he is not that quick around the basket.”

Entering his senior season, Mendez had high expectations for himself and his team. He recently became the second all-time scorer in Niagara history, behind only Calvin Murphy. In the process, he also surpassed Michael Meeks of Canisius College who had earned fame as the leading Canadian scorer in NCAA history. While proud of his achievements, Mendez is still hungry and realizes that there is always room for improvement. “It’s great that I am getting all this attention, today alone I have done interviews for four hours, but I really want to make it to the tournament, having lost by one in the MAAC finals the last two years is hard.”

Regardless of how Niagara finishes the season, Mendez has made history as a Canadian basketball player and is realistic about his future. “I know there are not a lot of 6-8 power forwards, that’s why I worked on my outside shooting.” Mendez is up for the challenge and possesses an admirable work ethic and talent, as well as maturity to take his game to next level, whether it’s in Europe or the NBA.

 

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