El Gato Melendez is the first and only Puerto Rican-born player to ever play for the Harlem Globetrotters.
The nearest basketball courts to where El Gato grew up in Puerto Rico were two miles away, and in order to get there to play pickup ball, he had to run … and then run back home when he was done playing. His grandfather and father were runners, and El Gato ran track and field growing up, so running is in his blood. “But that’s still a long way to run every day and still play basketball, so I wanted to find a shorter way to go,” says El Gato.
When he was about 14 or 15, on his way to the courts one day, he followed some stray cats that he saw run into a sugarcane field. Next thing he knew, the cats had taken him right to the courts.
“I started running through those sugarcane fields every day, because the distance was shorter, and the cats would follow me every day. I would show up at the courts with all these cats at my feet, so the guys started calling me ‘El Gato,’ which is Spanish for ‘The Cat,’ and it stuck.”
He relishes the opportunity that being a Harlem Globetrotter gives him. “As a Latino, I can make a difference in the lives of others and be an inspiration, showing kids that you can really make your dreams come true,” he says.
El Gato played basketball and volleyball growing up in Ponce and Juana Diaz in his native Puerto Rico, and then he played his senior season of high school basketball in Marion, N.C. He went on to play college basketball for the storied North Carolina Tar Heels, where he appeared in Final Fours in 1998 and 2000. He has also played with the Puerto Rican national team during his career.
He loves architecture and interior design and would one day like to grow his current partnership and experience to a national level.
No matter where life takes him, you can probably bet that El Gato will land on his feet.