Our secret star

MIKE ULMER -- Toronto Sun

, Last Updated: 8:18 AM ET

Juan Mendez can run, jump, shoot and rebound, but his greatest talent is the one most often overlooked.

"He has as good a pair of hands as anyone I've ever seen," said Joe Mihalich, his coach at Niagara College in Niagara Falls, N.Y.

"He catches everything."

There is, Mendez jokes, an easy explanation.

One supper table in Montreal and seven siblings.

"It was crazy," said Mendez, soon to be the highest scoring Canadian in NCAA Division I hoops history. "It was fun, at times rough, but fun, all eight of us trying to get attention from our parents."

His family includes 13 kids.

Maybe it's no wonder Mendez left home in Grade 9 for Air Academy, a Florida prep school. At last, a little breathing room.

Despite four years toiling literally within view of the Canadian border, Mendez has operated as a States secret.

A 6-foot-8, 240-pound senior, Mendez quietly has turned in consistently dazzling numbers at Niagara

At one point, he was a better than 60% career shooter. His percentage remains an excellent 55.9 and Mendez's range extends to the three-point line and beyond.

This season, his 25.9 points a game are second best in the nation. Last night against the St. Peter's Peacocks -- yes, Peacocks -- Mendez needed 38 points to usurp Brampton native Michael Meeks and stand first overall among Canuck hoopsters who have played in the States.

Meeks, who played at Canisius College in Buffalo from 1992-1996 banked 1,827 points in his career, more than current NBAers Steve Nash (1,689 at Santa Clara) and retired NBA players Todd MacCulloch (1,743 at Washington) and Rick Fox (1,703 North Carolina).

"I'm not really thinking too much about the record, to tell you the truth," Mendez said.

"I'm more worried about what we have in front of us now on the schedule and doing what I'm supposed to to do ... help us win games and get to the NCAA tournament."

Even if he isn't a hockey player, the Juan Mendez story has a Canadian feel.

He plays a bruising style that would be at home on a hockey rink. His parents are immigrants from the Dominican Republic and while Mendez was born in Montreal, he has felt the pull of his parent's homeland.

Mendez turned down an offer to play by for the Dominican Team in the 2003 Commonwealth Games.

"My parents wanted me to play for the country they were born in but it was important for me to represent Canada," he said. "This is the country I was born in. This is the country I come back to whenever I can."

Mendez has a terrific future on the national team but, despite his great offensive numbers, he needs to improve dramatically before he can play in the NBA.

"He's a four man, a power forward who can shoot it," Mihalich said.

"He runs well, rebounds well and can play a very physical game but whether he plays in the NBA will depend on how well he can develop the other parts of his game. He needs to work on putting the ball on the floor and playing better defence.

"If he was 6-foot-10, he'd be a first-round draft choice in the NBA but he is 6-foot-8."

For now, Mendez is cherishing his status as one of the NCAA's most productive scorers and the focal point of the Purple Eagles offence.

"It has been fun, really fun playing here," he said. "People take the game seriously in the United States, it's a big part of the sporting scene. There's that hoopla around it.

"People have so much respect for the game."


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