Forest Grove's diminutive point guard uses his size to his advantage by keeping opponents off-balance
America is filled with basketball hustlers. From California's Venice Beach to Harlem's Rucker Park, players who no one thinks can possibly be good step onto the court.
Those players' appearance is a mirage, though. With the ball in their hands, they defy all expectations.
Forest Grove High has its own hustler in Michael Garcia, a 5-foot-5 point guard. Garcia (who's listed at 5'6') may be the smallest player on the Vikings squad, but when game time comes, Garcia turns into a playmaker.
'People are kind of surprised,' Garcia says, 'because they don't expect my 5-5 self to be that good.'
That may sound cocky, but the soft-spoken sophomore has the numbers to back up his words. Garcia is the Vikings leading scorer, averaging 11.8 points per game and 3.4 assists. He is shooting .349 from the field, .793 from the free throw line and has made 27 of 63 3-pointers (.342). In conference play, Garcia has stepped up his game, averaging 14.3 PPG, shooting .361 from the field and .400 from the 3-point line.
Last Tuesday, Garcia had a break-out performance, scoring 22 points and leading the Vikings (6-10) to their first Pacific Conference victory in two seasons.
'He's kind of a coach's dream,' Vikings coach Greg Evers says. 'He's a kid who loves the sport. He's a great kid on and off the court. He plays with a smile on his face and he's a talented kid.
'He's a great shooter, a great little ball handler. He's about 5-5 in shoes, probably. But, he's a quick little sucker and everybody loves playing with him. Fans love to watch him run around and do his thing. He's an enjoyable player to watch.'
Garcia's success this season began when he got his confidence up during summer ball while balancing his time playing hoops with training for cross country.
As good as he has been for the Vikings on the court, Garcia is a ready-made distance runner. As a freshman, he ran on a competitive varsity cross country team, placing eighth in the Pacific Conference district meet, with a season best time of 16:47.0.
Garcia struggled a bit during his sophomore cross country season, while he battled tendonitis in his left knee. By the end of the season, though, he had almost regained his freshman form, finishing 14th in the district meet with a season-best time of 17:00.0.
Garcia ran track during his freshman year at Forest Grove. A midseason bout with pneumonia sidelined him for a time. But, he still won the 800 meters in the Pacific Conference JV meet with a time of 2:17.83.
While his size makes him naturally more suited to running, Garcia has been in love with basketball since elementary school.
'Basketball has been my biggest sport since I was little,' Garcia says. 'Since fifth grade, I just loved playing and just loved the feeling of getting on the court.'
With his knee now completely healthy, Garcia plans to compete in both sports while at Forest Grove.
'I feel like I can manage my time and do both sports throughout high school,' Garcia says.
Still, Garcia's passion for basketball has made him shift his focus toward preparing his body for the court. During the cross country season, Garcia weighed just 110 pounds. After starting a weight training program this winter, Garcia says he is now up to 125 pounds. Carrying extra weight will make it harder for Garcia to run long distances, but it is critical for him on the court.
'Size is a factor (for Garcia),' Evers says. 'It isn't necessarily height. Being a runner isn't going to lend him to being more physically strong. He's been weight training, but for him to get bulkier and bigger, that's going to be difficult.'
It may be a challenge, but, Garcia plans to keep trying to pack on weight even after the basketball season ends.
'I'm going to try to stick with the workout program and just try to get my body used to (running with the extra weight) so I won't have to go back and forth between sports,' Garcia says.
College basketball players at Garcia's height are few and far between. But, Evers feels that Garcia has some of the tools that could land him on a collegiate squad.
'I just got through watching Western Oregon University play and he's quick enough,' Evers said, last Saturday.
Evers says that as the Vikings continue to develop talent and experience around Garcia, it will make the point guard more likely to attract the attention of college coaches.
'There's so much focus on him right now and teams are really trying to take him away because he's such a part of what we do,' Evers says. 'The thing I'm waiting for is when he has a higher level of supporting cast. That will lead to whether or not he can play at the next level because right now it's easier to take him away and the focus is on him from the defensive standpoint.'
Garcia is confident that even at 5-5, he has the ability to play in college.
'If I work hard and I stay dedicated to it, I can (play at the next level),' Garcia says.
Garcia has set out a list of goals to reach on the court.
'By the end of my senior year, I want to have made the playoffs,' Garcia says. 'I want to be first-team All Conference and third-team All State, at least.'
Can he make it?
From Los Angeles to New York, hustlers come and go. Usually such a player's career ends when he can no longer fool anyone into thinking he lacks talent. That moment is fast approaching for Garcia. For now, he will continue to hustle opponents.
'I've just got to believe that size doesn't matter,' Garcia says. 'I've got to use the advantages that I have-some of my quickness. I can't make excuses because I'm small.'