The first time ‘El Gato’ Melendez saw the Harlem Globetrotters was on TV.

But he wasn’t watching a game, and had no idea the basketball players running around with Scooby-Doo existed in real life.  

“I didn’t even know they were real until my mom told me,” he said.

And at the time, he couldn’t have predicted that someday, he would be one of them, making history in 2008 as the team’s first Puerto-Rican-born player. That honor is one he takes seriously, as he said he represents not only the U.S. territory, but Hispanic people across the country and around the world.  

“If we get the opportunity, and we work hard for things, you can do anything you want to do,” he said.

Tuesday was a chance for him to spread that message to a group of Seattle students.   

Melendez was the Academy for Precision Learning in the University District, ahead of the team’s games in Western Washington later this month. The independent K-12 school serves students across the autism spectrum in an inclusive setting alongside peers on a typical development path.

It’s a subject Melendez knows well, with a daughter on the spectrum as well.

“To see the type of education, the support that these kids have is amazing,” he said.

The 6-foot-8 Melendez towered over more than 100 students as he presented the ABCs of bullying prevention: action, bravery, and compassion.

“I know everybody here knows that bullying is bad,” he said, as he peppered tricks and quips through a half-hour interactive presentation.

The 38-year-old has visited more than 70 countries since joining the Globetrotters, after playing collegiately at North Carolina and for several years professionally, predominantly in his native Puerto Rico.

Melendez was in the U.S. territory during both Hurricane Irma and Maria, and will soon head home to spend Christmas in the commonwealth as his family recovers from a “hard hit,” emotionally and mentally. His grandmother was among those to pass away in the aftermath of the storms.

For those that want to help, Melendez encouraged people to donate to reputable organizations on the ground in Puerto Rico — mentioning Puerto Rico Rises in particular — and to keep the territory in their prayers.

“It doesn’t have to be big,” he said.

In the meantime, he’ll keep up his travels, talking to young audiences like the one he wowed on Tuesday.

“I think building experiences — not just personal, but building experiences for other people — is the best part of my job.”

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