New Mexico State walk-on Joe Garza is living out his dream playing in the NCAA tournament

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Wednesday March 15th, 2017

During the hot, sticky summer of 2016, when Joe Garza was bent double on the New Mexico State track, gasping for air and throwing up after endless windsprints—a workout he put himself through in an effort to get into top shape—the 6-foot, 175-pound guard couldn’t help but ask himself, “is this worth it?”

Yes, the local product, a graduate of Las Cruces High had always dreamed of playing for the hometown Aggies. Didn’t every little boy? Probably not all of them were as dedicated as Garza though, who showed up to Aggie games with his brother and screamed his lungs out in order to get a free t-shirt (he had a pile of NMSU gear long before he joined the team), who played summer pick-up games with Aggie players and asked them what it would take to be a college player (“shoot until your abs hurt,” was the advice, which took more work than Garza could have ever imagined).

But after leading Las Cruces High to its first state title in 37 years, there was no scholarship offer from the Aggies. So much for Garza’s dreams of playing in the NCAA tournament and representing his community. He had opportunities at the next level: a scholarship offer from a Division-II school, and a chance to walk-on at a junior college in California. But the D-II offer fell through, and Garza didn’t have the money to attend school out of state. Leaving town made no financial sense considering the academic aid Garza was offered at NMSUfull tuition and books — so he enrolled as a student, and nothing more.

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“Intramurals, that’s what I had to look forward to,” he says now. “And local leagues. That was pretty much it.”

Then his aunt, a longtime support of the Aggies women’s basketball team, connected him with women’s coach Mark Trakh. In two years as a practice player for the NMSU women, Garza made some of his best friends in school, and got his basketball fix.

“I think as a practice player I got a better understanding of the game, because you’re on scout team all the time, running other teams’ offenses and defenses,” he says. “But as far as playing basketball, it was just fun; I wasn’t working hard on my individual game.”

Then, while “messing around in the gym” last spring, newly hired men’s coach Paul Weir approached Garza, and asked him to stop by Weir’s office later. That afternoon, Weir laid out a plan for Garza to walk-on to the men’s team. “Really, it was just a random opportunity,” Garza says. That’s not quite how Weir thought of it.

Sam Wasson courtesy of New Mexico State

“When I became the head coach I was trying to create a culture change in a myriad of ways, and everything I wanted, Joe really resembled,” Weir says. “He’s hardworking, very unselfish and a winner. I thought he could be of tremendous value to us.”

Another factor in Weir’s decision to reach out to Garza: William Benjamin, Garza’s high school coach at Las Cruces. A former NMSU standout who led the Aggies to four consecutive postseason appearances from 1990-93 — including a run to the Sweet 16 in the ’92 tournament — and a member of the New Mexico State All-Century team, Benjamin called Weir and made a pitch on behalf of Garza (and without Garza’s knowledge).

That’s how Garza, a junior with one year of eligibility remaining, wound up on the NMSU track alone last summer, putting himself through punishing workouts to get ready for practice. “This level of basketball, there’s a different expectation,” Garza says. “And you know, when you get knocked down to the floor during practice, no one helps you up.”

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His statistical contribution has been minimal: He averages just 7.3 minutes per game for the Aggies, who will play No. 3 seed Baylor in the first round of the NCAA Tournament on Friday in Tulsa. His best game came in the non-conference, when he went 3-for-4 from three in just eight minutes of play against Air Force in NMSU’s 78-70 win on Nov. 30. But Weir says getting fixated on the box score is the wrong approach.

“I would hate to sum up Joe’s contributions in one game,” Weir says, pointing out that despite limited minutes, Garza was elected a captain by his teammates this season. “His leadership, work ethic and passion for the game has rubbed off on his teammates, and their success is just as much a reflection of his value as a shot he happens to make.”

Benjamin, Garza’s high school coach isn’t surprised by any of his former player’s success. He joined about 50 other fans and alumni, plus the school band, in bidding goodbye and good luck to the Aggies Wednesday morning. Benjamin went, he says, “for one reason and one person. I just wanted to give him a hug.” Of course he’s proud, he says. But more than that, he’s so, so happy for a kid who dreamed big and worked hard to make those dreams happen.

“I think high school coaches in our community would be fools to not use Joe as an example for all their athletes,” Benjamin says. “He’s self made, because he worked hard and stayed focused. He’s given other kids in our community an opportunity to dream that they can do it, too.

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“It doesn’t even matter if he gets on the court Friday. Just the fact that he gets to go and soak it up, be in that environment. He’s going to have that forever. I played on the team that went to the Sweet 16 and I still remember the whole thing.”

In some ways, it’s still surreal to Garza. Las Cruces is home to just around 100,000 people but feels “even smaller than that” according to Benjamin. As the local hero, Garza is stopped in grocery stores and outside of games by young kids who also hope to play for the Aggies some day, an aspiration he understands. The best moments, he says, are when kids ask to take a picture with him. “It makes me feel like I’m doing something special,” he says.

He knows that feeling is likely to be topped Friday, though.

“My dream of playing college basketball was basically dead after high school,” Garza says. “For years, it was always about watching the tourney with friends, watching big games and maybe you’d see guys you had known in high school. Now I’m part of that. Now I don’t get to fill out a bracket but I play for one of the teams in the bracket.”

It’s hard to believe, he says. It’s also better than he ever imagined.  

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