Hoop Dreams, Hollywood Stardom


How the Leelanau School changed actor Ramón Rodríguez

By Jacob Wheeler
Sun editor

Ramón Rodríguez spun the basketball into the air and stuck out his right index finger to catch the moving sphere and hold it aloft. This was the trick that once landed him a spot on a Nike commercial, and eventually led him to Hollywood stardom. Since then he has played a bit part in the HBO series The Wire, acted with Denzel Washington and John Travolta in The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3, and stars in the current Fox TV series Gang Related.

But on Saturday, June 7, during the Leelanau School’s commencement ceremony on the Graduation Green, the basketball took an errant turn, bounced off the stage and rolled downhill into the Crystal River. “Oh no!” reacted Rodríguez. “That wasn’t supposed to happen.”

Instead, a Leelanau teacher retrieved the ball, and Rodríguez tried again, this time spinning it onto a pen held by graduating senior, and on-stage volunteer, Justin Ruble. The crowd went wild at the trick.

At age 34, Rodríguez was the school’s youngest ever commencement speaker—by far—and perhaps the one most likely to connect with the senior class, many of whom already knew him on television and on social media. In May, the New York Times wrote of Rodríguez’s “rakish good looks”; a couple days before returning to Glen Arbor he appeared on Conan, and agreed to send more ladies Conan’s way if the late-night talk show host would help the actor get more followers on Twitter.

The initial failure to spin the basketball onto the pen seemed like the perfect metaphor for a high school graduation, and for the actor’s own life journey: “if at first you don’t succeed …”

Rodríguez, a New York City native who grew up between Puerto Rico and his single mother’s tiny apartment on the hard-scrabble streets of Manhattan’s Lower East Side, came to the boarding school in the woods outside Glen Arbor as a junior and graduated in the class of 1997. “I remember landing here at night, and it was dark,” Rodríguez said. “I’m coming from a place where there’s light and energy, and always things going on. I thought I was gonna get attacked by a wolf or a bear!”

He was an excellent basketball player. (Rodríguez had learned of the Leelanau School through a mutual friend of Brooklynite Saron Lincoln, a dominating center who starred there five years earlier. Throughout the ’90s, the boarding school attracted talented hoopsters who left New York City to get a high school education.) But when Rodríguez arrived in Glen Arbor, Leelanau’s basketball team was in disarray after losing four of the starting five to graduation the previous year. Rodríguez played point guard, but the team—comprised mostly of the previous year’s Junior Varsity team—lost every game of the regular season. During his senior year, Rodríguez led the region in scoring, but the team wasn’t much better.

Still, Leelanau gave him a high school education, and a chance to escape from New York and “a bunch of friends who were up to no good,” he reflected. “Leelanau changed my life. It opened up the blinds for me in so many ways.”

“I used to think that everything revolved around New York City and my block. But learning that there’s an entirely other place out there that’s gorgeous and beautiful—the dunes, the lake—it gave me a silence and helped me get in touch with myself. Leelanau took me from a place where I was lost and set me on a path where I had attention and focus in school.”

Rodríguez brought wizardly ball-handling skills with him to Leelanau (“In New York you have to be a great ball handler.”) but he said the focus in Northern Michigan on shooting and fundamentals upped his game. When he returned to the City, a cousin pointed out that his jump shot and passing had vastly improved.

With no clear path to college, and little money in the family to pay for it, Rodríguez sent out basketball highlight reels (which then Leelanau faculty member Heidi Solmose had filmed) to colleges. He visited any schools that showed a remote interest in him, and was often asked to play, one-on-one, against the team’s starting point guard. Some of his competitors thought he was trying to steal their spot, and played rough.

Rodríguez eventually landed a scholarship to play point guard for two years at Wheeling Jesuit University in rural West Virginia, a setting that sometimes felt as rural and homogenous as Northern Michigan. “They couldn’t figure me out,” he laughed. “They asked me if I was black. Or if I was Mexican.” When his coach was fired, Rodríguez had no path forward on the basketball court. He returned to the Big Apple, got a sports marketing degree from New York University (NYU) and, eventually, an internship with the New York Knicks. But not until he spun the ball for Nike did the acting career begin to break his way.

I asked Rodríguez which of his on-screen accolades give him the most pride. But the answer wasn’t his starring portrayal of “Ryan Lopez” in Gang Related, or “John Bosley” in Charlie’s Angels, or “William Martinez” in Battle Los Angeles. No, he was most proud of making it out of New York City and succeeding in life, though the decks were never stacked in his favor. He got to see America, and the world, play college hoops, get a degree from NYU and not burden his hard-working Puerto Rican immigrant mother with paying for school.

The future looks bright for Rodríguez, and he’s a rising star in Hollywood. Gone, for now, are the cornrow braids that he wore on the basketball court in college (he had a crew cut at Leelanau School) and in his early acting roles (“Renaldo” on The Wire). The short hair has helped him land bigger, and complex, roles.

“There aren’t many doctors with cornrows,” Rodríguez laughed. “It was great to play those roles. But as soon as I changed my look, and cut my hair, I presented myself as a different character. Then I got the role in Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen, and I got The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3 with Denzel. There was more I could do; I had more range.”

“I don’t want to represent Latinos just as being one specific thing because that can absolutely propel an image in Hollywood and in society. I want to change the perspective people have.”

Rodríguez also hopes to dip his toes in screenplay writing and directing. He’s been working on a screenplay with fellow Puerto Rican-New Yorker, Rosie Perez, about the complex relationship between him and his father, from whom he was estranged for 14 years (including during his time at Leelanau). “It’s a very tough story, very interesting. That experience has been cathartic for me, therapeutic.” Rodríguez recently returned to visit his father in the mountains of Puerto Rico and made peace.

“I’m hoping that my story will help people get over their own issues, help them pick up a phone and call a loved one,” Rodríguez said. “The moral is about letting go and accepting people for who they are, flaws and all.”

Ramon-Selfy-webRamón Rodríguez’s return to Leelanau School 17 years after graduating was a cathartic experience for the Glen Arbor boarding school as well. Alumni director and science teacher Joe Blondia, who stayed in touch with Rodríguez and introduced him as the commencement speaker on Saturday, said “sometimes you wait 17 years to learn of the influence Leelanau has on students.”

Photos by Cris Pina-Gautier / Family Reflections Photography

“Aren’t I too young to be your graduation speaker?” the Hollywood actor playfully asked the graduating seniors. “Don’t I have to be old to do this?” Rodríguez confessed that he was more nervous for this speech than he was for the Conan appearance earlier in the week.

“Be open to ideas,” the star told the 20 graduates. “I didn’t know what I wanted to do when I left here. I just went back to New York City and told friends, ‘we gotta get outta here! The world doesn’t revolve around our block.”

Then the dashing actor ran up to the senior class and posed for a “selfie” photo on his cell phone, which he soon Tweeted, to the delight of his growing fan base.