PHARR — Basketball has been a part of Elijah De La Garza’s life since the day he was born.

The son of a high school basketball coach, Elijah De La Garza attended his first basketball game at three days old.

His parents, Zita and Romeo De La Garza, spent the months leading up to Elijah’s first birthday trying to get their oldest son to take his first steps. His parents tried cheering and jumping to get Elijah to walk toward them, but he wouldn’t let go of the couch and venture off on his own.

But on his first birthday, Elijah received a gift from an aunt — a set of three balls in a box — a soccer ball, a football, and a basketball. When he opened the box, the basketball fell out and rolled away from Elijah.

“He didn’t pay attention to any of the other balls. He got up in the middle of my parents’ living room with all these presents all around him, and walked straight toward the basketball,” Elijah’s mom, Zita, said. “We were just in awe. ‘Did he just do that?’ We’d been trying for months to get him to walk to us, and all it took was a basketball getting rolled away from him. He got up, walked to it and he never slowed down. He had that ball in his hand. He would sleep with basketballs all through elementary, even through junior high. Once he took a step toward that ball, it was his life.”

From that moment forward, De La Garza has been dedicated to basketball. From daily workouts aiming for 500 made shots, to the weight room, to running through drills with his father, his love for hoops started early on.

“I just love the game, I love everything about it. I love working on my game; basketball has always been my favorite sport since I’ve been young, so I just love the game,” De La Garza said. “I like giving the game respect and working for it. It’s fun for me any time I can play basketball. It’s always an amazing time.”

De La Garza’s junior season on the hardwood was just that — amazing. The PSJA North point guard and three-year letterman set career-high marks across the board as he led the Rio Grande Valley in scoring with 22.7 points per game, finishing the year with 768 total points. He also ranked second in the RGV in assists with 4.0.

After leading the PSJA North Raiders to a 28-8 overall record, De La Garza is The Monitor’s 2019-20 All-Area Boys Basketball Offensive Player of the Year.

“It’s a great recognition. I felt confident in myself throughout the whole year. I knew I was playing well and it feels good to be able to get this award to build on for next year,” he said. “It felt good to come out as the top scorer because of all the work I put in, and for everybody that’s supported me all year — the coaching staff, my teammates, my parents, my brother and sister, grandparents, friends.”

PSJA North’s Elijah De la Garza (5) drives to the basket in a Non-District game against Edinburg Vela at PSJA North High School on Tuesday, Dec. 3, 2019, in Pharr. (Joel Martinez | jmartinez@themonitor.com)

But as much as basketball had been a part of his daily life, a broken finger prevented De La Garza from practicing for six weeks to start the season, causing him to miss PSJA North’s first two non-district games.

“I wanted to play so bad. Every day in practice, I wanted to get in there but I couldn’t,” he said. “I was going back to the doctor every week to get my hand checked out. I missed two games, so when they gave me the OK, I came back, I was in killer-mode. I was excited to be back on the court.”

De La Garza scored 22 points in his return to the court, and kept up his play throughout the season. De La Garza posted double-digit points in all 34 games played, scored 20 or more points 20 times, and scored 30 or more five different times, while shooting 53% from two-point range, 43% from three-point range and 81% from the charity stripe.

De La Garza grew up modeling his game after one of his favorite players, fellow lefty Manu Ginobili. Now, he looks at guards like James Harden, Damian Lillard, Devin Booker, Kyrie Irving and Stephen Curry. But when De La Garza’s in action, his footwork, finesse, and basketball IQ is off the charts as he plays with an assertiveness, much like the late Kobe Bryant.

“I watched Kobe a lot and I liked how he had that killer mindset. Every time he got it going, he had that killer look, and that’s how I feel when I get it going. I feel like no one can stop me. I just go hard and the game comes to me,” he said.

Since the season ended, De La Garza has still been working out on a daily basis, running through practices with his father Romeo, an assistant coach at PSJA North, for three hours a night.

“It’s special. Not many kids are able to be coached by their dads, but it’s a special feeling because we go through everything together,” De La Garza said. “I love him so much and he does everything for me. I look up to him a lot. That’s my guy.”

With his junior season in the books, De La Garza is now up to 1,973 points scored during his three varsity years.

“I’m proud of what I did, but I’m not satisfied,” De La Garza said. “I’m going to keep on working so I can do bigger and better things next year. It feels good to do what I did this year, but if I keep on working, I’m going to be able to do bigger and better things.”

bramos@themonitor.com