As the first Puerto Rican-born member of the Harlem Globetrotters exhibition basketball team, Orlando "El Gato" Melendez is proud of many things he's accomplished in his 39 years, but perhaps one of his most celebrated achievements is bringing up his two daughters, Gaby, 9, and Aimara, 15. The pride and joy can be seen ever so clearly in one of his recent posts on Instagram, capturing what he says was "one of the highlights of his year."
In the video, which he posted on November 5th on his Instagram page, he's with his youngest daughter Gaby on the basketball court of his alma mater, University of North Carolina Chapel Hill. While he's filming, he encourages Gaby to start dribbling the ball towards the net that's more than twice her height from the starting point of half court. Although she misses her first attempt, Gaby soon after sinks what her dad calls her very first "bucket" (the ball in the net). Gaby can be seen so in shock of what she's just accomplished, that it brings tears into the eyes of her pro-basketball playing father.
What makes this moment so monumental, however, isn't just the fact that Gaby got a basket without the usual help of her dad lifting her up. According to Melendez, it's the fact that she's overcome so much in such a short time and has superseded every expectation cast her way.
Back in 2009, Gaby was born prematurely at just 26 weeks old, weighing a mere 1 pound. Upon news of his second daughter's sudden arrival, Melendez walked away from the game of basketball and from the Harlem Globetrotters to be a father full-time. "Being a dad and helping with everything was a lot—it was to the point where every 30-45 minutes we had to feed her because she was so little, weighing just 5 pounds when we took her home from the hospital," he tells Parents.com. "That whole crazy time I was there trying to be a normal person, get a regular job and be there all the time, but she thrived and we knew we were raising someone special."
That wasn't the only challenge thrown Gaby's way at an early age. "When she was three years old, her mom and I learned that she was on the autism spectrum, so she's had to go through quite a deal of therapy and doctor's visits through the years," Melendez explains. "It was a lot of information for us as parents and it was difficult to have to learn how to cope with the things that can happen with autistic children and the sensory behavior struggles she would likely face."
Now, to see his little girl not only thriving but finding joy and success in the very sport that has given him such an amazing career and has made him an international star, is about as rewarding as it gets for Melendez. "Just hours before the video was taken, she was riding a 1,200-lb horse because she's training to ride jumpers and then to see her score a basketball and have such a happy and surprised reaction that she got it in, I had tears in my eyes, I really did," he says.
Perhaps one of the sweetest parts of the video, in addition to the happy ending, is when Gaby first shoots and does not actually get the ball in the net. It's her dad's incredibly positive and uplifting reaction, a resounding "Good job!" that became the motivating factor for Gaby to try again and, this time, succeed. "The thing is that you learn through the years, and not just with kids with some type of special needs, but every kid, that giving people encouragement to try is one of the most important things in life," Melendez explains. "When I told her 'good job,' she gathered herself and found a better place to shoot and made it. I was so, so proud."
While Melendez doesn't get as much quality time to spend with both his daughters as he'd like, it's moments like these that he hopes make meaningful marks that they remember and cherish forever.
El Gato Melendez and the Harlem Globetrotters are currently on their national tour with games in over 250 cities through April, including the Barclays Center in Brooklyn, NY on December 27. Tickets for this performance can be purchased on barclayscenter.com or by calling Ticketmaster at 800-745-3000. Find their full schedule at HarlemGlobetrotters.com.