Garcia reminiscent of U of L great Derek Smith

I always rooted for Derek and I'll always root for Francisco. They personify not only the best of college basketball, but the best of the human spirit we all celebrate at this particular time of year.

Sometime last season I became convinced that Francisco Garcia could become my favorite Univeristy of Louisville basketball player since the late Derek Smith. Like Derek, Francisco plays with flair, passion, energy, and joy. He simply lights up Freedom Hall with his ebuillience.

Besides having point guard skills in a 6-foot-8 body, Garcia, like Smith, is a fearless competitor on both ends of the floor. The day will never come when Francisco backs down from a challenge. Put him on the other team's best scorer. Ask him to take the game's last shot. The kid has a heart as big as a basketball.

But on Wednesday night against Seton Hall, young Garcia showed an inner strength that that puts him in special category as both a player and a person. Less than 48 hours after the shooting death of his younger brother, Hector, in The Bronx, Garcia was the driving force in the Cards' 80-71 win over the Pirates.

He knocked down four treys in a 24-point night. He twisted and whiled his way to the hoop, dishing off four assists and repeatedly drawing fouls (he was 10 of 12 from the line). He worked the boards for five rebounds and was active on the wing in U of L's 2-3 zone.

"It really hurts because you don't like to see anyone suffer," said Coach Rick Pitino. "For him to keep his emotional strength to play tonight is just incredible to me."

The dense among us may question his values. Shouldn't he have gone home Tuesday to comfort his mother? Isn't a family tragedy more important than a game? But that kind of thinking is hogwash. To the contrary, his values are exemplary.

He sought comfort and solace cradled in the arms of his coaches and teammates, who are his extended family. Many of them, including Pitino, have a special understanding about life in the big city and its inherent dangers.

The truth be told, the basketball court is really home to Garcia and many other youngsters. That's where they develop their identify and build their confidence. And on this particular night, Garcia needed to be with his teammates, needed to hear the love and support from the crowd, needed to play as a sort of catharsis.

"I'm not surprised he played," teammate Alhaji Mohammed told the Courier-Journal. "You have to stay around your teammates and around people, because once you get alone, it all starts falling down on you."

Mohammed knows. His dad, a taxi dispatcher in Chicago, was shot while at work.

In the U of L media guide, under the category of whom he's most proud, Garcia lists his mother, Miguelina Garcia. His goal was to play in the NBA so he could get his mother and brother out of the South Bronx, maybe even move back to his native Domincan Republic.

"He kept talking that way and talking that way," Pitino said.

Now, with his brother gone, his mom will be alone. This might force Garcia to opt for the NBA draft sooner than he should or even wants to. But, in light of the circumstances, who could blame him?

In the best of all possible worlds, there would be another solution. Mrs. Garcia could move to Louisville to be near her son. Maybe get a decent job with Papa John's Pizza, Big O Tires, Kroger's or some other U of L supporter.

In the recruiting process, this would be an illegal inducement. But what about after a young man already is part of a program and is meeting all the requirements of a student-athlete? Is there any rule against Mrs. Garcia moving to Louisville and going to work here?

If there is, it begs the question of exactly when the legitimate needs and welfare of a student-athlete take moral precedence over the NCAA rules.

For the moment, though, all we can do is offer our sympathies to Franciso and his mom. What has happened to them is as incomprehensible as why Billy Minardi, Pitino's brother-in-law and best friend, had to be in his World Trade Center office on the morning of Sept. 11, 2001.

Unlike Garcia, Derek Smith wasn't a big-city kid. Yet poverty can be just as stark in Hogansville, Ga., as it is in New York City. When he came to U of L at age 16, he didn't have the right clothes and was too bashful to do interviews. When he left, he was a a poised and polished leader who had played on a national championship team and two other Final Four teams.

When Smith died of a heart attack in August, 1996, Franciso Garcia wasn't even of high school age. They never met, but I promise each would have recognized something of himself in the other's game, spirit, personality, and zest for life.

I always rooted for Derek and I'll always root for Francisco. They personify not only the best of college basketball, but the best of the human spirit we all celebrate at this particular time of year.

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