ARLINGTON, Texas – Orlando Antigua stepped out of the Kentucky locker room deep within AT&T Stadium, two days before the Wildcats were to take the floor against Wisconsin in the Final Four.
He was immediately besieged by reporters and TV cameras.
For a few minutes, Antigua must have felt like John Calipari, who draws the same kind of crowd wherever he goes. But the Wildcats’ top assistant seemed to be enjoying the hub-bub, knowing full well such interest will be hard to come by starting next week.
Antigua was hired this week as the new coach at South Florida, a school that’s made only three NCAA tournament appearances in its history. He’ll go from a program pursuing its ninth national championship to one that’s won just one conference title, and from one of the sport’s heavyweights to a school that struggles for attention in its own hometown.
Antigua, who played at Pitt from 1991-95 and even served as an assistant boys basketball coach at Mt. Lebanon High School, will assume his new job full-time once the Wildcats’ season ends – Saturday night if they lose to the Badgers, or Monday night if they make the title game.
So what made a basketball backwater like South Florida so appealing?
“The combination of things,” Antigua said. “Knowing the commitment the university has made to the athletic department, to the facilities they have, to the players they’ve got on their current roster – the combination of those things allows you to be in a position to go out and compete.”
Antigua has certainly grown accustomed to winning programs.
He got his start in coaching at his alma mater, Pitt, spending five seasons with Jamie Dixon. He joined Calipari, also a former assistant at Pitt, in Memphis in 2009, and then followed him to Kentucky, where he has been instrumental in landing many of the Wildcats’ one-and-done stars.
Still, things haven’t always been so easy for the basketball vagabond.
He was born in the Dominican Republic and raised in a rough neighborhood of the Bronx. His family went through periods of homelessness, and as the oldest of three brothers, responsibility for keeping everyone together often fell on his shoulders.
On Halloween night in 1988, the 15-year-old Antigua was shot just a few blocks away from his family’s apartment. A prank gone awry left a bullet lodged behind his left eye. Doctors initially said it would be too dangerous to remove the slug, so it remained there for six years, until a doctor gently pulled it from his ear canal after a series of severe headaches that he thought came from swimming in the ocean.
After his college career, Antigua played anywhere he could find a court and a ball.
He became the first Latin American player with the Harlem Globetrotters, spending seven years traveling the world. He also played in the Puerto Rico Superior Basketball League, and was a member of the Dominican Republic national team.
All those varied experiences have helped Antigua connect with kids, making him one of the top nation’s recruiters and popular among the freshmen who arrive on campus.
“I don’t know if everyone wants to be a head coach, but I know he’ll be a great one,” Wildcats guard Aaron Harrison said. “I know he’s excited, and I’m excited for him, and proud of him.”
Fellow freshman Marcus Lee joked that Antigua is the only one with more energy than himself.
“He’s the most energetic person I’ve ever met,” Lee said, “and that’s saying something.”
The close bonds Antigua formed with his Kentucky players compelled him to ask South Florida athletic director Mark Harlan to allow him to finish out the NCAA tournament, even though it meant that he’d have to put off hiring a staff and getting to know his new players.
Antigua didn’t say whether he would remain the coach of the Dominican national team, which qualified for the World Cup for the first time since 1978. He did say he would establish recruiting networks in Latin America, a potentially untapped source of talented prospects.
“The world is getting a lot smaller in terms of basketball,” he said.
Calipari knows that he’s losing one of his top lieutenants, but he believes that South Florida is the perfect fit for Antigua.
“The school has unbelievable potential,” Calipari said. “He’s in a league that he can win. Being South Florida, one of his home bases is going to be the Dominican Republic, which he will be able to recruit. So now you’re talking South Florida with a little Latin flavor.
“They also need someone to excite their fans, their campus. Well, that’s him. That’s who he is,” Calipari said. “That’s why I say it’s a perfect fit.”