On a May morning in north Minneapolis, Dawson Garcia joined hands with friends at a neighborhood gym. They bowed their heads in prayer and then bonded with sweat and swishes on the basketball court.
Garcia officially joined the Gophers men's basketball team this weekend. But nearly every morning for months before that he worked on both his basketball and spiritual game in Minnesota — something he needs now more than ever.
"It just keeps me grounded and on the right path," said the 6-11 North Carolina transfer and former McDonald's All-America at Prior Lake.
He's finally a Gopher. He feels it's a blessing to be able to help build the program and get to do it near family members who mean everything to him.
Coach Ben Johnson, who has known Garcia since he was in ninth grade, welcomes his prized transfer to campus with the rest of the U basketball team to start summer school Monday.
"But I don't want him to feel like it's a one-man show and he's got to put everything on his back with the weight of the world," Johnson said. "And just knowing Dawson, he's not the type of kid who expects that, either. He just wants to come here and work."
The Dawson Garcia who takes the practice court in maroon and gold this week is not the same one who left his home state two years ago. Needing something besides basketball, Garcia started relying even more on his faith.
Training with Hoops and Christ, a basketball and religious outreach program based in Minneapolis, has helped provide solace in the 20-year-old's life since he returned in January — midway through last season at North Carolina — when his family began suffering during the pandemic.
"One thing I've noticed from him in the last couple months is his resiliency to push through everything he's been going through," Hoops and Christ founder Chauncee Hollingsworth said. "He's in the gym nonstop. … But he also surrounded himself with a good church community that played a huge part, with our program as well."
Garcia spends evenings in worship and communion with peers at Bethel's Rock Church in Apple Valley. Hoops and Christ fills his mornings with prayer, followed by intense dribble and layup combos, and heavy doses of shooting and conditioning. That weekly routine tested his body and eased his mind.
Garcia is still waiting on the NCAA to approve his hardship waiver to be eligible to play immediately. This is his second transfer, after he moved from Marquette to North Carolina a year ago.
Earlier this year after leaving the Tar Heels, Garcia reached a "low point" watching people he loves suffer. His grandmother died, and his father recovered but had a long, scary battle with COVID-19.
"I was in a rough spot with everything going on in my family," Garcia said. "Feeling like I had to be there for them, and they needed my help. I will definitely say, faith definitely helps in those times."
NBA can wait
Sharing the gym with his former Marquette teammate Theo John, Garcia's tank top dripped sweat as he repeated a jab step, crossover and jumper combo until eight out of 10 shots filled the net from farther and farther out.
"Staying locked in is the biggest key," said Garcia, who went through similar drills while training in Memphis with former NBA player Mike Miller last summer. After declaring early for the 2021 NBA draft, Garcia participated in a pre-draft combine and worked out for NBA teams before deciding to instead transfer to North Carolina.
"It was a good process, and I learned a lot," Garcia added. "Felt like it really grew my game."
Pro scouts are intrigued by Garcia's perimeter skills for his size. He has three-point range, can facilitate and score off the dribble, like a nearly 7-foot guard. At Marquette, he earned Big East All-Freshman Team honors in 2020-21. He has averaged 11.5 points and 6.2 rebounds, and shot 36% from long distance in 43 games over two college seasons.
With his decision to leave Chapel Hill, Garcia missed the Tar Heels' NCAA tournament run that went all the way to the championship game, where they lost to Kansas. Now, it's another offseason starting over with a new team. But this time, there are more familiar faces.
"It's home," Garcia said. "I'm around a bunch of guys I grew up with. I'm so familiar with this area with so many people [who support me]. It's a great thing. I'm excited."
Finally, a hometown fit
Garcia attended games at Williams Arena growing up, so he described finally committing to the Gophers this spring as "a very emotional feeling."
Gophers fans first envisioned that happening two years ago. For the Class of 2020, Garcia was the state's best prospect behind Minnehaha Academy's Jalen Suggs. But Johnson, who was an assistant under Richard Pitino for five seasons, had left Minnesota to join Xavier's coaching staff in 2018. A scholarship offer for Garcia didn't come until after that. He made a tough 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 get to put on that Minnesota jersey."
When Garcia decided this spring to transfer for a second time, Johnson was quick to make contact.
"We talked about our system and our style and how I know he can fit in and be a good piece to what we're trying to do," Johnson said. "He's just ready to get to work. Ready to hone his craft and get better. That kid's always been about improving. Loves to compete, loves to be in the gym."
The Gophers, who finished 13-17 in Johnson's inaugural year, desperately needed an all-conference-caliber addition. The lone returning starter is leading scorer and rebounder Jamison Battle, but forwards Parker Fox, Isaiah Ihnen and Treyton Thompson are also back.
"Those guys have a relationship going all the way back," Johnson said. "So it felt right for him. I think that's big, especially when you're making a transfer. You want to feel a part of it."
Garcia's father, Dave, knows what it's like to leave home to play college sports. A Colorado native, he played basketball and became a standout quarterback at Black Hills State in South Dakota. That's where he met Dawson's mother, Stacey, a homegrown basketball star.
Their son's journey now comes full circle.
"Although it's been tough, it has 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 his family still needs his support. He prayed for them each morning before Hoops and Christ sessions.
Putting both faith and basketball at the center of his life gave Garcia stability and strength. He's hoping to bring that to the Gophers.
"I just want to help take Minnesota where it's headed, in [the right direction]," Garcia said. "I feel like if we put in the work ... worry about being our best individually, everything will take care of itself."