EDINBURG — A technical foul was called toward the end of PSJA Southwest’s first game of the season.
“No. 21,” the referee shouted.
The technical had significance beyond two free throw shots and the ball. Had Junior Garcia gone any further, nearly 12 months of work would have gone to waste. For a brief moment, his temper flared, reverting to the teenager he once was. Basketball was almost suddenly over for him.
Javelinas coach Abel Estrada had a short leash on Garcia, who was already working on his “second chance.” One mistake — one outburst or fight — and he was off the team. Those were the conditions.
“He changed right then and there. At that specific moment, I saw somebody different on that bench. Like he cared,” Estrada said. “Everything he had worked for, he had just lost it in a split second.”
For three years, Garcia was nowhere near the basketball court on Tuesday and Friday nights. He was ill-mannered and spent more time in the hallways than in the classroom.
Those days finally ended this season when the 6-foot-3 Garcia decided to put on the Javelinas uniform for the first time and showcase his talents as he led Southwest to its first playoff appearance in program history.
Before he averaged 18.7 points per game (17.1 in District 31-5A) and 12.5 rebounds (11.5 in district), Garcia had to work hard for the right to even play basketball anywhere but the park. It was that hard work, the final results and the inspirational story that made Garcia a clear choice as The Monitor’s Newcomer of the Year.
The combo guard who had a breakout district performance this season hails from a part of town in South Alamo known as “Little Mex.” He had an interest in playing as an incoming freshman, but it didn’t take long for his off-the-court behavior to separate him from the game.
“I started my freshman year, still in sports, but I wasn’t in the classroom,” Garcia said. “I was always in the halls, hanging out with bad kids. I was good at it, but I didn’t really care about sports.”
That attitude stuck around and cost him a chance again when he tried out for the team. It didn’t work out. He tried to play elsewhere, and he was back to no good.
“My sophomore year, I tried out. I had a temper,” Garcia said. “The coach told me, ‘You can’t bring that to the team.’ I was, like, ‘OK, whatever.’”
Garcia crossed paths with the sport once again, under worse circumstances.
Garcia was nearly kicked out of Southwest as a junior for improper behavior and was sent to Central, the district’s disciplinary alternative education program.
That’s when he was gifted a second chance. Not to play basketball, but to serve as the team’s manager to complete assigned community service.
A helping hand in the administration on campus decided Garcia might get more value from helping a team rather than shaving his head and learning under strict supervision.
He was around Estrada, but the coach regularly reaffirmed a hard “no” when it came to playing on the team because of Garcia’s continued behavioral issues.
He didn’t travel with the Javelinas, but it was the closest he was to organized basketball since middle school.
“We didn’t think he was going to change his whole style of living and just start caring about school … (and) about the program,” Estrada said. “Like they say, sometimes you find a diamond in the rough. That’s exactly what ended up happening.”
Garcia didn’t have the grades or even the credits to be considered an option for the team his senior season. Estrada didn’t want to give Garcia or his support system false hope.
“It was an extraordinary surprise because I met with his dad beforehand and I told him, ‘There’s no way in the world this kid will play for me, and I don’t want you to start thinking that he will play for our team. He needs to fix credits, he doesn’t show up for classes,’” Estrada said. “He was a firecracker, where something goes bad and all of a sudden he’s gone for four or five days.”
Estrada’s primary role was solely to help him find the path to graduate — not to teach him how to drive to the rim or to offer him a spot on the roster.
The Javelinas coach even had a meeting with Garcia’s father, Ramon Garcia, to explain the situation and to make sure it was clear he wasn’t recruiting him to play. Schooling came first, and Estrada was part of the solution, overseeing his progress.
“I told his dad, ‘I’m trying to help him out to graduate,’” Estrada said. “I’m like a mentor. He’s going to be my mentee. I’m going to help him out.”
The only glimmer of hope Estrada had left was a slightly cracked open door, if Garcia could make what he called a miraculous turnaround.
“If for some miracle he does a great job and starts changing tremendously and starts passing and becomes eligible, by all means we’ll give him an opportunity,” Estrada said.
The younger Garcia’s attitude, drive and, most importantly, commitment changed from night to day. He had to continue his improvement academically for months before basketball season came around again in October 2018.
“When he brought me that report card that he was passing and everything else was up to par, I was like, ‘Wow,’” Estrada said. “It’s a great feeling for a kid that’s out there that you think that they don’t have a chance and all of a sudden something clicks and something happens — an opportunity.”
Garcia said hearing the adults discuss his future — or lack thereof — was a wake-up call.
“My dad gave me a choice: ‘Either get your stuff right or don’t. You can drop out of school and we can get your G.E.D.,” Garcia said about the conversation that opened his eyes. “I looked at him. I didn’t want to be a dropout and not have a future.”
The rest was history. PSJA Southwest earned its first playoff berth, thanks to a win on the last game of the regular season. Garcia scored 15 points in the Javelinas’ win over Mission Veterans on Feb. 12 at home.
“Whatever they need me for, I did the job for them,” Garcia said. “We made it to the playoffs. Everyone was excited, the school was excited. We were on the news for, like, a week. Everyone was talking about it. It was fun, it was crazy. We had the fame, the publicity and everything.”
In February, he celebrated a storybook moment in program history. In May, he’ll celebrate his own story at graduation and look toward the next chapter.
“There’s sometimes when a sport needs a kid and sometimes a kid needs a sport,” Estrada said. “And right now, this kid needed basketball.”