A journey of faith and basketball brought Dawson Garcia home

One May morning in north Minneapolis, Dawson Garcia joined friends at a neighborhood gym. They bowed their heads in prayer, then bonded in sweat and rustles on the basketball court.

Garcia officially joined the Gophers men’s basketball team this weekend. But almost every morning for months before that, he worked on both his basketball and his spiritual game in Minnesota — something he needs more than ever.

“It keeps me grounded and on track,” said the 6-11 transfer to North Carolina and the former McDonald’s All-America at Prior Lake.

He is finally a Gopher. He thinks it’s a blessing to be able to help build the program and to be able to do it close to his family members who mean everything to him.

Coach Ben Johnson, who has known Garcia since he was in ninth grade, is welcoming his valuable transfer to campus with the rest of the U basketball team to start summer school on Monday.

“But I don’t want him to feel like it’s a one-man show and he has to blame it all on the weight of the world,” Johnson said. “And just knowing Dawson, he’s not the kind of kid who expects that either. He just wants to come here and work.”

The Dawson Garcia training on the court in maroon and gold this week is not the same one who left his home country two years ago. Needing something other than basketball, Garcia began to rely on his faith even more.

Training with Hoops and Christ, a Minneapolis-based basketball and religious outreach program, has helped bring comfort to the 20-year-old’s life since returning in January – midway through last season in North Carolina – when his family began to suffer during the pandemic.

“One thing I’ve noticed about him over the past two months is his resilience to go through everything he’s been through,” said Hoops and Christ founder Chauncee Hollingsworth. “He’s in the gym all the time. … But he’s also surrounded himself with a good church community that has played a huge role, with our program as well.”

Garcia spends her evenings worshiping and fellowshipping with her peers at Bethel’s Rock Church in Apple Valley. Hoops and Christ fills his mornings with prayers, followed by intense dribbling and layup combos, and heavy doses of shooting and conditioning. This weekly routine tested her body and eased her mind.

Garcia is still waiting for the NCAA to approve his hardship waiver so he can play immediately. This is his second transfer, having moved from Marquette to North Carolina a year ago.

Earlier this year, after leaving the Tar Heels, Garcia hit a “low point” watching the people he loves suffer. Her grandmother passed away and her father recovered but had a long and frightening battle with COVID-19.

“I was in a tough spot with everything going on in my family,” Garcia said. “I felt like I had to be there for them and they needed my help. I will definitely say that faith really helps at those times.”

The NBA can wait

Sharing the gym with former Marquette teammate Theo John, Garcia’s tank top dripped in sweat as he repeated a jab step, crossover and jumper combo until eight out of 10 shots filled the net for further and further.

“Staying locked down is the biggest key,” said Garcia, who underwent similar drills while training in Memphis with former NBA player Mike Miller last summer. After declaring himself early for the 2021 NBA draft, Garcia participated in a pre-draft combination and worked for NBA teams before deciding to transfer to North Carolina instead.

“It was a good process and I learned a lot,” added Garcia. “I felt like my game really grew.”

Professional scouts are intrigued by Garcia’s perimeter skills for his height. He has three-point range, can facilitate and score the dribble, like a nearly 7-foot guard. At Marquette, he earned Big East All-Freshman team honors in 2020-21. He averaged 11.5 points and 6.2 rebounds, and shot 36 percent from long range in 43 games over two college seasons.

With his decision to leave Chapel Hill, Garcia missed the Tar Heels NCAA Tournament which ran until the championship game, where they lost to Kansas. Now it’s another offseason starting again with a new team. But this time there are more familiar faces.

“This is my home,” Garcia said. “I’m surrounded by a group of guys that I grew up with. I know this area so much with so many people [who support me]. This is a good thing. I’m excited.”

Finally, a hometown fit

Garcia attended games at Williams Arena growing up, so he described his final commitment to the Gophers this spring as “a very emotional feeling.”

Gophers fans first imagined this two years ago. For the Class of 2020, Garcia was the top prospect in the state behind Minnehaha Academy’s Jalen Suggs. But Johnson, who served as an assistant under Richard Pitino for five seasons, had left Minnesota to join Xavier’s coaching staff in 2018. A scholarship offer for Garcia only came after that. He made the difficult decision to sign with Marquette.

“But I have a lot of love for Minnesota,” Garcia said. “And now I have a lot of gratitude that I can put on this Minnesota jersey.”

When Garcia decided to transfer for the second time this spring, Johnson was quick to make contact.

“We talked about our system and our style and how I know it can fit in and be a good part of what we’re trying to do,” Johnson said. “He’s just ready to put in the work. Ready to hone his craft and get better. This kid has always been looking to improve. He loves to compete, loves being in the gym.”

The Gophers, who finished 13-17 in Johnson’s inaugural year, desperately needed an all-conference caliber addition. The only returning starter is leading scorer and rebounder Jamison Battle, but forwards Parker Fox, Isaiah Ihnen and Treyton Thompson are also back.

“These guys have a relationship that goes way back,” Johnson said. “So it was good for him. I think it’s important, especially when you make a transfer. You want to be part of it.”

Garcia’s dad, Dave, knows what it’s like to leave home to play varsity sports. A native of Colorado, he played basketball and became a standout quarterback at Black Hills State in South Dakota. It was there that he met Dawson’s mother, Stacey, a local basketball star.

Their son’s journey is now complete.

“Although it’s been tough, it’s been good for Dawson to be back home,” Dave Garcia said this spring. “But it’s bigger than basketball with everything going on.”

Garcia said her family still needs her support. He prayed for them every morning before the Hoops and Christ sessions.

Putting both faith and basketball at the center of his life has given Garcia stability and strength. He hopes to bring that to the Gophers.

“I just want to help take Minnesota to where it’s headed, by [the right direction]”, said Garcia. “I feel like if we try to do our best individually, everything will happen on its own.

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