Manny Garcia used to be in his own head in more ways than one.
The transfer student from San Francisco de Marcoris, Dominican Republic had come to the United States and Notre Dame de La Salette Boys Academy in Georgetown. He found himself in the town 15 miles south of Danville thanks to a connection made with well-traveled and experienced parochial school coach John Spezia.
Garcia arrived in the U.S. just for his sophomore year of high school, specifically looking for a basketball opportunity. He found himself in his early days at the school learning the basics of the English language, struggling to communicate with classmates, the priests at the school and his teammates.
That frustration carried over to the court.
“I was trying to learn,” Garcia said. “I couldn’t pick it up right away. I was getting into my head, so mad.”
Communication trouble; different rules between FIBA’s international rules basketball and those in the states; as well as the U.S.’ different styles of play would leave Garcia flustered. Spezia said something as simple as a poor pass from a teammates or a personal mistake would send Garcia into a distracted state. Conversations were often had by using phone translations.
“Coach sometimes would take me out,” Garcia said. “Coach liked to say ‘a knucklehead.’ I was getting frustrated with rules the league had, the way that it is. When I came here, that thought process, I’d get frustrated a lot. Junior year it was way better and now my senior year I don’t even think about stuff that makes me frustrated.”
Spezia in particular remembers a not-so-affectionate conversation with the then-sophomore after a technical foul, forcing him to sit out at least four quarters of action and telling Garcia it wouldn’t happen again or there’d be serious consequences.
Garcia never picked up another tech in his high school career.
He settled in eventually. The Dominican national was mentally and physically receiving help from the likes of classmates, teammates — Garcia was especially grateful to the class of 2019 seniors — and priests in the school like Father Daniel Chavarria.
“These last two years, I’ve been developing my English and getting better … I picked up the English (more quickly) than I did the basketball I think,” Garcia said.
“That’s what a part of what he had to overcome,” Spezia said.
Manny Garcia became not only a captain, but he also catapulted himself into a position to continue the dream he procured from his elder brother.
Carlos Garcia took a journey that wasn’t too different from his younger brother, heading from his native Dominican Republic to Kentucky to play high school basketball. His journey, however, stopped there.
Spezia’s coaching career has given him to exposure to players of all sorts of backgrounds: He has coached basketball at the professional level, international level, at colleges (he’s a Hall of Famer as the former athletic director and men’s basketball coach at Danville Community College) and has conducted camps all over the world.
“I’ve done camps and clinics in the Phillipines, Italy, England, I was a pro coach in England, Just got done two years ago coaching the Antigua-Barbuda national team,” Spezia said. “I’ve had kids from Israel, Czech Republic, Brazil, and I guess this goes back to … guys like Manny, it’s that this is a great opportunity for them.”
As someone whose immediate family has experienced the upheaval of taking up a new life in the United States, Spezia can understand on a certain level what a player of his like Garcia may be going through.
“It reminds me of my dad (coming) from Italy when he was like 16 years old,” Spezia said. “You can imagine … he had some brothers over here, but he never saw his mom and dad, never saw them again (or) his sister and he came and worked in a coal mine. Here’s a kid (Garcia) that’s going three or four thousand miles, barely speaks the English language and has overcome all those obstacles.”
Manny was the lone Spanish speaker among his peers, and that was far from easy. But he picked up the language, and the basketball came later, as he honed the skills he learned from his brother. It was his brother who helped him connect with Spezia, which helped lead him to east-central Illinois.
Since then, Manny has put up quality numbers with his lengthy, nearly 6-4 frame. During a shortened season this year that included games vs. private/parochial schools, programs unaffiliated with the IHSA and in a league in Terre Haute, Indiana, Garcia averaged 18 points, 12 rebounds and 3 assists per game. As a junior he averaged 16 points and 11 rebounds per game against competition that ranged from 1A to 3A programs to other homeschooled basketball squads.
“My brother always says I’m the one keeping his dream up because he couldn’t finish like he wanted to go to college and get to the high levels,” Garcia said.
Given the historic timing lining up with the current recruiting cycle, much is uncertain. Colleiate programs around the country will have athletes returning who would have otherwise exhausted their eligibility, but new rules issued by colleges have allowed players to not count this athletic season toward their eligibility.
Spezia used the example of Trent Frazier at Illinois.
“Trent Frazier could come back even though he’s a senior. … You know what that does … that cuts out the guys, the scholarships those guys at the high school level could possibly get.”
So Spezia has been working with Garcia in the offseason. Five days a week of lifting and after-class basketball workouts. The longtime coach has enough contacts in the field to feel confident that Garcia can get on a team, whether it’s NCAA, NAIA or JUCO Ball, or playing prep school basketball for a year.
“I appreciate how coach Spezia took me from the islands to come here, play for him and go to a good school and get a diploma from this school,” Garcia said. “He’s helping me to be a better player and a better person. I appreciate what he’s done for me and what he’s still doing for me.”
“He’s a slasher. He can get to the basket,” Spezia said. “He’s a rebounder. He’s aggressive. He’s developed a pull-up jumper. His footwork is really good, we’ve really worked on that.”
As an off-guard wing-type with court vision similar to that of a point guard, Garcia could surely find a role somewhere. His personal attitude toward the game and being a teammate is enough to make a coach gleam.
“I don’t consider myself the best player, just effort. Everybody has a little bit of effort to demonstrate out there,” Garcia said. “Like OK, I’m the ‘athlete’ on the court, but that doesn’t mean anything. People who are not athletes can do what I do on the court. It’s based on effort, that’s what I think.”
After not seeing his family for nine months, from the start of the pandemic to December, heading home over the holidays was a nice reminder of the type of support he’s received from afar.
But given his status as an international student, he’s still got to find a way to get school paid for with financial aid, giving him limited options to stay stateside.
“Not being a U.S. citizen, it’s hard for me to pay tuition [and] things like that,” Garcia said.”I’m looking for … I’m not minding wherever they offer me. It could be Alaska, it could be anywhere. Just need that full ride. I want to be here. I want to develop as a player, a student and as a person.”
Garcia has developed immensely at Notre Dame La Salette Boys Academy. He’s still trying to realize his own basketball dreams, while also carrying on his brother’s dreams.