Two complete strangers, linked for two years by talent and anticipation, will finally meet Tuesday. Felipe Lopez. Allen Iverson. El Senor. Bubbachuck.
Mere freshmen, they are heralded as the saviors of the Big East, a once-mighty basketball conference gone soft. They are compared to the game's greats.
But they have never met, not on the streets, not on the basketball court. This changes Tuesday when Lopez and St. John's face Iverson and Georgetown at USAir Arena in Landover, Md.
The matchup is long anticipated. Phones in the Georgetown ticket office rang busy throughout Friday, and the national media is descending, despite the sprained right ankle that makes Iverson questionable for today's game against Villanova.
Iverson and Lopez, both among the Big East's top five scorers, appear amused by all the fuss.
``It's not me against Felipe Lopez,'' Iverson said. ``It's Georgetown against St. John's.''
Indeed, Lopez is a 6-foot-5 wing guard, Iverson a 6-1 point guard. They will not match up against one another.
But just the thought of getting them on the same court sends the hype-meter haywire. A television analyst compares Lopez to Grant Hill. A rival coach compares Iverson to Isiah Thomas.
Is Lopez as good as his lofty reputation?
``I don't know,'' Iverson said. ``I've never seen him play.''
``I can't say, `Oh, yeah, I'm better than Iverson,' '' Lopez told the Hartford Courant. ``He might be better that night, or I might be better. It's what you do on the court and how you handle yourself. That's what matters the most - not all this talk.''
The talk began two years ago when Lopez and Iverson were touted as the nation's best high school juniors, Lopez in New York City, Iverson in Hampton. When Parade Magazine named its 10-player All-America team, Lopez and Iverson were the only juniors.
Normally, two such players would meet on basketball's summer circuit, a grueling odyssey of camps, all-star games and tournaments. But it never happened.
Iverson and Lopez attended different camps. Their summer-league teams could not agree on a site for a game, although Washington, D.C., was proposed as a compromise.
Lopez, who played in a holiday tournament in Norfolk last season, continued to earn raves as a senior at Rice High School. A native of the Dominican Republic, he moved to the Bronx five years ago and became a genuine hero in New York's Dominican community.
They call him El Senor, and when Rice won the New York City Catholic championship last season, Lopez wrapped himself in the Dominican flag. In November, he made the covers of Sports Illustrated and The Village Voice, a rare double.
In 1993, the National Supermarket Association, which represents Hispanic grocers, honored Lopez at a black-tie dinner.
``In the 30 years I have been in this country, I haven't seen anyone who can portray the Dominican community the way he can,'' association spokesman Alfredo Rodriquez later said.
Lopez's heritage prompted priceless recruiting gimmicks: then-Seton Hall coach P.J. Carlesimo speaking Spanish during a visit to Lopez's home; St. John's broadcasting its games in Spanish.
Meanwhile, Iverson, a.k.a. Bubbachuck, missed his senior season because of legal problems. But he and Lopez were linked again when Lopez signed with hometown St. John's, Iverson with Georgetown.
St. John's and Georgetown, the former beasts of the Big East, dating back to the early 1980s and the Chris Mullin-Patrick Ewing days. Hard times soon followed, for the programs and conference. Georgetown and St. John's have advanced past the second round of the NCAA Tournament only once each since '89, and the last Big East Final Four team was Seton Hall in '89.
Lopez and Iverson are supposed to reverse those trends.
Despite that burden, both are excelling. Entering this weekend, Iverson was the Big East's No. 3 scorer at 20.3 points per game. Lopez was No. 5 at 19.5, both ahead of the conference record for freshmen - 18.4, set by Syracuse's Lawrence Moten in 1992.
Iverson is only the second player in coach John Thompson's 23 seasons at Georgetown to score 30 or more points in consecutive games. The other is Reggie Williams. Lopez scored 35 points at Syracuse on Tuesday, equaling David Robinson's Carrier Dome record for a Syracuse opponent.
Iverson leads the Big East in steals, Lopez is second in free-throw percentage. They lead their respective teams in shots attempted, minutes played and star quotient.
When Lopez and St. John's played in Madison Square Garden for the first time, in the ECAC Holiday Festival, 19,524 turned out, the tournament's first sellout in 11 years. Georgetown's average home attendance may exceed 10,000 for the first time since Alonzo Mourning's senior season in 1992.
Watching Lopez's Big East debut against Pittsburgh, ESPN's Bill Raftery compared him to Grant Hill. Lopez scored 22 points in that game and tossed in a few shoulder shimmies for good measure.
Iverson's conference debut was no-less electric. He scored 30 against Providence, 12 in the final nine minutes as the Hoyas rallied for a 76-74 victory.
``He's easily the best guard to come into the college game in at least the last 15 years,'' Providence coach Pete Gillen said of Iverson, ``maybe even the best since Isiah. ...
``He might be the greatest guard alive, dead or yet to be born. He's unbelievable. He's only a freshman, but he's going to be a superstar.''
Neither Iverson nor Lopez is there yet. Each has more turnovers than assists. Each is shooting worse than 44 percent from the field.
Their teams reflect that inconsistency. Georgetown (12-2, 5-1 in the Big East) lost to Arkansas and Connecticut by a combined 38 points. After a 7-0 start, St. John's (8-5, 2-4) has lost five of six.
Such is the price of youth. But it is a price St. John's coach Brian Mahoney and Georgetown's Thompson are glad to pay.
``Even if he didn't play basketball, I think people would have a great feeling for this young guy because of his personality,'' Mahoney told the Chicago Tribune of Lopez. ``That's one of the major reasons, when he did decide to come to St. John's, that the people in this town got excited. They were happy for themselves.''
Said Thompson of Iverson: ``He's been everything I wanted to be, on and off the court.''Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times