State Colleges

USF coach Orlando Antigua breaks new barriers

South Florida coach Orlando Antigua calls a play to his team against Alabama in the first half of an NCAA college basketball game, Tuesday, Dec. 2, 2014, in Tuscaloosa, Ala.
South Florida coach Orlando Antigua calls a play to his team against Alabama in the first half of an NCAA college basketball game, Tuesday, Dec. 2, 2014, in Tuscaloosa, Ala. AP

The .22-caliber bullet sits in Orlando Antigua’s trophy case, along with the 2012 national championship trophy he won as an assistant coach at the University of Kentucky.

Antigua, in his first season as men’s basketball coach at the University of South Florida, keeps the bullet as a memento of his rough upbringing in the South Bronx, his miraculous recovery from a drive-by shooting and his unlikely rise to become one of two Hispanic DivisionI coaches in the nation. The other is former Miami High coach Frank Martin, now at South Carolina.

The bullet was lodged in Antigua’s skull for six and a half years after he was shot near his left ear on Halloween night in 1988, at age 15, as he hung out with friends on a neighborhood street. He was a highly regarded basketball player at St.Raymond’s High School at the time, in the midst of a growth spurt that would get him to his current 6-7 frame.

Doctors decided removing the bullet might cause more damage than leaving it in, so there it stayed, causing Antigua debilitating migraines for years. It wasn’t until his junior season at Pitt, where he starred from 1991 to 1995, that he had it removed. He was on a trip to Puerto Rico, got horrible ear pain and thought it was an infection. Turned out it was the bullet, which had moved. Though the bullet is out of his head, the memories remain, and he uses that experience to inspire his players.

Antigua, a 41-year-old native of the Dominican Republic, will be on the sideline Saturday at the BB&T Center in Sunrise as his USF Bulls play Florida State in the Orange Bowl Classic double-header. The other game features University of Florida against Wake Forest.

“I keep that bullet with my trophies because it brought me a lot of recognition throughout my career and has given me a new appreciation for life,” he said. “It’s a memento that people with similar backgrounds can relate to. It was an obstacle, a card I was dealt.

“Obstacles are different for each kid, but them knowing my background and history, they know when I’m communicating with them — I’m coming from a point of experience. The challenges life throws at you, whether it be a single-parent home or being shot or struggling academically, whatever your personal challenge is, you can overcome it if you attack it with hard work and passion.”

That is a lesson Antigua and his younger brothers, Oliver and Omar, learned from their mother, Damaris. She came to the United States in 1978, when Orlando was 5, and worked as a barmaid in a Dominican night club for more than 15 years. She left the house at 5p.m. and returned at 6a.m. They bounced around from apartment to apartment, and at one point, when Damaris couldn’t pay the rent, their church took them in.

“My mother demonstrated to us the definition of sacrifice and hard work,” he said. “The number of hours she worked to try and make things happen with three boys, a middle school education, coming to a new country and trying to figure out everything. It’s incredible her resilience, her passion and her work ethic.”

Damaris recently moved from New York to Tampa to be closer to her sons. Oliver works as an assistant coach on the USF staff, and Omar is a pharmaceutical rep in Miami. Both played basketball in college — Omar at Carnegie Mellon and Oliver as a walk-on at Pitt. The brothers are excited about having a reunion this weekend.

After leaving Pitt, Antigua spent seven years touring with the Harlem Globetrotters, the first Hispanic player on the roster. He was later hired as an assistant coach at Pitt and Memphis, and then joined John Calipari at Kentucky. He was a top recruiter there from 2009 until March 2014, when he signed a five-year deal with USF believed to be worth nearly $5million.

“As kids growing up in the community we grew up in, the vision was day-to-day, try to survive the neighborhood,” Antigua said. “I was blessed and fortunate to have a lot of people looking out for me, challenging and pushing me to get better. It’s afforded me an unbelievable life, and now I’m in a position where I can empower kids who had similar backgrounds.”

He also hopes to inspire young Hispanic coaches to move up the ranks.

“There are a ton of good young Latino assistants coming up. I hope they can get the opportunities I got,” he said. “A childhood friend of mine just visited, and we were like, ‘Do you believe this? From the Bronx to college head coach?’ I’m one lucky guy.”

Orange Bowl Basketball Classic

When: Saturday.

Where: BB&T Center, Sunrise.

Schedule: 2 p.m. Florida State (5-5) vs. South Florida (5-4). Followed by 5 p.m. Florida (6-4) vs. Wake Forest (5-5).

Tickets: Stadium box office, TicketMaster, 305-341-4701.

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