Garcia leads Cardinals in dedication to brother

Updated: December 15, 2003, 6:05 PM ET
By Andy Katz | ESPN.com

LOUISVILLE, Ky. -- Francisco Garcia walked off the court, kissed two fingers, pounded his chest and pointed toward the ceiling of Freedom Hall.

There were 3.6 seconds remaining in No. 25 Louisville's 73-65 victory over No. 1 Florida in easily the most emotional game he has ever played. Garcia, who played a sensationally balanced game with 21 points, five rebounds, four assists and four steals, walked directly to Louisville coach Rick Pitino and gave him a hug, and then proceeded down the line of his coaches and teammates on the bench.

He looked like he could cry. No one would have blinked if he did.

This was almost too much for anyone to deal with -- and yet Garcia handled a most distressing time by playing two games this week at a level he had never reached before in his career.

Monday night, Garcia got word that his brother, 19-year old Hector Lopez, was shot and killed in an apartment building in the Bronx, N.Y., six years after the family moved from their native Dominican Republic.

During the next two days, according to his roommate and teammate Taquan Dean, Garcia was mostly in his room.

"There was nothing I could say," Dean said."Finally he came out and let everything out."

Although word spread fast after the shooting, the Cardinals held a meeting Tuesday morning where Pitino made sure the rest of the team knew about the tragic event. No one was quite sure if Garcia would play against Seton Hall on Wednesday night. He did and led the Cardinals with 24 points in a nine-point victory.

On Thursday, he was off to New York for a funeral, with Pitino by his side. Pitino said Garcia wasn't sure there would be a funeral so soon, since his brother's death was a criminal investigation.

On Friday, the pair returned to Louisville. Pitino, who had suggested Garcia sit out both games, thought the week was too much for him to take.

"When we met at the airport, he cried the entire time, the entire flight, the entire drive,'' Pitino said of the trip to New York. "The next day, he couldn't come out of the locker room for practice. He was in there. I let him stay in there and told him to sit this one (game against Florida) out. We'll win. Don't worry. Twenty minutes later, he had gathered himself and he was out there. He's a remarkable young man.''

Garcia played with emotion, precision and selflessness throughout the week. He was easily the choice Saturday for the player of the game, a poignant honor for Garcia. The game was the second annual Billy Minardi Classic, organized by Pitino in memory of his brother-in-law who perished in the 9-11 attacks at the World Trade Center. Garcia accepted an award from Minardi's family after the game, once again holding back tears as Pitino watched with the team.

"Everything I do now is in the memory of his name,'' said Garcia of his brother, whose name he had scrolled on his shoes in both games this week.

"I know he wants me to be out there.''

Garcia said his mother -- who urged him to stay in Louisville -- was going to take his brother for burial in Santo Domingo.

"My brother-in-law and his (Garcia's) brother are smiling somewhere,'' Pitino said. "Tragedy can bring out the worst and the best. I told him (Garcia) it's healthy to cry because that means you loved him. Get it out. I told him that each day you would celebrate his life and do things to honor him. I told him that you're living in Minardi Hall (on Louisville's campus) right now because I wanted my brother-in-law's legacy to live on forever. You'll make it someday and you'll do something for your brother's legacy and establish something for him.

"Right now, cry, cry a lot,'' Pitino said. "It won't get easier right now, but it will get better.''

Garcia said his mind wandered when someone else was at the free-throw line during a lull in the action.

"This has changed me a lot, made me stronger and will make me work even harder,'' said Garcia, who spoke to his brother last Sunday night, the day before he was killed. "My mom is still there (in New York) and I've got to do it for my mom. I will always have him in my heart but I'll keep working and keep going.''

Louisville assistant coach Vince Taylor said the team drew inspiration from Garcia.

But the emotional toll was only part of the motivation for the rest of Garcia's teammates. He made passes to post players inside at the right time. He set up shooters on the wing. He was aggressive around the basket. He was on the court for loose balls.

"He's making everyone around us better,'' Taylor said. "He's showing so much heart for what he's done. How can we not feed off of this?''

Pitino said Garcia continues to prove that he can become a great player, even while he learns when to take shots and when not to, as well as continuing to work on an already lean body. The 6-7 sophomore arrived at Louisville at 162 pounds, and in one year is up to 182. Pitino said once he gets into the 190s, then "the sky's the limit for him.''

But for now, emotional has enveloped the Louisville locker room. By the end of Pitino's news conference, he said the team would need a day off.

"We all hurt for Francisco,'' Pitino noted.

Once everyone had cleared out following Saturday's game, Louisville issued a news release: redshirt senior forward Ellis Myles' father had died in California.

The grieving will continue for Louisville's program.

Maybe it will be Garcia's turn to lend a shoulder for Myles. Myles, like everyone else on the team, had been there for Garcia this week. Pitino will have to be a rock yet again.

In the process, Louisville won two games this week. It matters mostly because this team is finding a way to come together at a tough time for each other. Somehow, you just know after feeling it in the air Saturday -- this team and this program will continue to be strong.

Andy Katz is a senior writer at ESPN.com.

Andy Katz | email

Senior Writer, ESPN.com

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