Julian Lopez

To those struggling: Don’t let adversity define you. Change your response.

  • BY Kimberly Hawkins
  • PHOTOGRAPHY BY Garvin Tso | Graphic Design by Gus Yoo
  • May 9, 2024

Julian Lopez played basketball before he could walk. 

“It’s everything I ever knew,” said Lopez. “I could shoot around and play all day, every day. It brought me peace. And throughout the years, it taught me how to compete, be organized, work hard, be passionate — all types of things. 

In August 2018, Julian Lopez’s dream of playing collegiate basketball materialized. The 6-foot-4 shooting guard was awarded a scholarship to join Cal State East Bay Men’s Basketball. But a team-mandated physical uncovered a serious health problem. He was diagnosed with a rare congenital heart defect that could be deadly if not treated. Off the court and in and out of doctor’s offices, the 18-year-old was scheduled for open heart surgery. 

“I was in shock,” said Lopez. “It didn’t make any sense to me.”

Put simply, Lopez's right coronary artery was wrapped around his heart. His condition, anomalous aortic origin of a coronary artery, is the second leading cause of sudden cardiac death in young athletes in the United States. 

Leading up to his surgery, Lopez prayed and tried to keep a positive outlook for his family, who were understandably deeply concerned. It was the recovery that Lopez says he struggled with most — physically, mentally and emotionally. 

“It was just so frustrating not being able to do the most simplest of things,” said Lopez. “I went from being an athlete to not being able to stand up, eat, or do anything on my own for a bit. I lost over 20 pounds within a week of the surgery. My body had never felt so weak before, it didn’t make sense how all of a sudden I couldn’t do anything no matter how hard I tried.”

Moment by moment, Lopez made it through. He credits his family and basketball, including his coach and teammates. He said learning to lean on others took a while, but it is one of his greatest lessons. 

“It has taught me that life is precious — not to take anything, especially family and those you love for granted because anything can happen in this world. And it also taught me that I can do anything as long as I work hard and put effort into it. I worked hard to get back on the court and be healthy, and now thankfully, I am healthy and haven’t had an issue with my heart since before the surgery.”

“As a coach, it is our responsibility and privilege to teach and guide our student-athletes on and off the court,” said Head Basketball Coach Bryan Rooney. “With that said Julian represents one of the best parts of coaching — when our players reverse the roles and teach us very important lessons.  I have learned so much from Julian and I am forever grateful for his example. Probably the most impactful lesson he has taught me is one of loyalty. Throughout the many ups and downs, Julian always stayed loyal to his teammates. They knew they could count on him through thick and thin.”

Lopez returned to the court and, on May 12, will wrap up his athletic and academic career. Lopez will receive his master’s degree in business marketing and management. This is his second degree from Cal State East Bay. In 2022, he received a bachelor’s degree in psychology. 

“Everything we go through, both good and bad, is for a reason, and it is just a part of our long journey of life,” said Lopez. “Adversity and challenges don’t determine your life, but how you respond and choose to live things out.”

“Julian is a tremendous example of the power of positivity and faith,” said Rooney.  “During the recruiting process, well before any of his health challenges, I was always impressed by how Julian was able to bring people together. Those same two qualities were on consistent display during his recovery and served as inspiration for me and our entire program.  True to form, several years later Julian continues to inspire through his example.”