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A Cinco de Mayo basketball series celebrates Latino ‘brotherhood’ and a Kansas City coaching legend

A man wearing red sweatshirt leans forward to a group of men assembled around him. Some are sitting courtside in a gymnasium and others are standing near him as he talks.
Lawrence Brooks IV
KCUR 89.3
Mike Garcia, in red, KC Valiente coach and organizer of the Tony Aguirre Latino Men's Basketball Tournament, during a recreation league game timeout at the Sylvester Powell Community Center in Shawnee, Kansas, on April 25, 2024.

Latino men's basketball has been a Westside tradition since the 1950s. An iconic basketball tournament that honors a former youth coach in the neighborhood, Tony Aguirre, has been paired with Cinco de Mayo weekend celebrations to raise money for local Latino sports.

Basketball coach Mike Garcia still remembers the first place he played youth sports in the Westside with the Guadalupe Centers.

“It was actually the Sacred Heart Gym at the time,” Garcia said. “They would lease the gym from the parish and the Guadalupe Centers basically ran the gym.”

“I was 7 years old,” he said.

Garcia, now 52, has been involved in the social service agency’s Tony Aguirre Latino Men’s Basketball Tournament for 30 years. Since 2000, the former Westport High School basketball standout has been a player and coach for KC Valiente men’s team, who are seeking their fifth championship in a row.

“This year, we'll have approximately 14 teams,” Garcia said. “We've been bigger in the past, it dips just depending on the year.”

“Since COVID, things have changed. But we were trying to pick this back up,” he said.

For 71 years, the Tony Aguirre tournament, now held on Cinco de Mayo weekend, has brought in all-Latino teams from cities like Wichita, Chicago and Houston. Garcia said it’s the longest running tournament on the Midwest’s Latino men’s basketball circuit.

The tournament's namesake was a youth sports legend in the Westside neighborhood, who coached generations of Latino kids in basketball, baseball, softball, and football — including Garcia, who joined one of Aguirre’s teams as a child.

Legendary youth sports coach Tony Aguirre, second from the right, at one of the last Latino Men's tournaments he attend before his passing on March 19, 2006. The longest running Latino Men's Basketball Tournament in the Midwest is now named in his honor.
Guadalupe Centers
Guadalupe Centers
Legendary youth sports coach Tony Aguirre, second from right, at one of the last Latino men's tournaments he attend before his death on March 19, 2006. The longest running Latino men's basketball tournament in the Midwest is now named in his honor.

“He looked at me and he goes, ‘Do you want to play basketball?’ I said yes. He goes, ‘Get in line,’” Garcia said.

“One thing I remember about Tony, there were no strings attached. What he did for this community primarily was out of the kindness of his heart.”

Born Anthony J. Aguirre in 1929, he grew to be an exemplary athlete in several sports. At the age of 17, instead of pursuing college athletics he chose to remain on Kansas City’s Westside to volunteer coaching kids.

Aguirre was known in the community as "FISH," an acronym for his guiding principles — friendship, intelligence, sportsmanship and honor — which he tried to instill in every young person who entered his arena.

To celebrate his decades of dedication to his community, a sports scholarship for Hispanic youth was established in his honor in 1988 and a community center was built in 2000.

Garcia said, even when Aguirre was a kids’ coach in his 50s, his athletic prowess was still something to marvel at.

“In the process of showing us, he would do things to just blow our minds — a trick shot here, a pitch there, football plays,” he said.

Garcia no longer laces up his sneakers to hit the hardwood, but he’s proud to have followed in the footsteps of his mentor.

“He truly is a hero,” he said. “When you look back on it, the way he took care of his kids he was just a man of his word. If he said he was going to do it, he did it. If he said he was going to be there, he was there.”

Aside from coaching, Garcia has organized the Aguirre tournament since 2022. The volunteer work is one way he stays close to the Westside, where he grew up. The neighborhood is now undergoing rapid change.

“It's tough, gentrification,” he said. “But a lot of us got to, you know, dig in and just try to save our community, fight for our culture.”

‘A springboard to something’

Garcia’s name rings bells in Kansas City basketball circles, and he’s helped many players improve their futures through the sport. But it’s not just about wins and losses, he said.

“You can go to college, because I know the NBA is a far-fetched dream for a lot of people,” Garcia said. “If this can be a springboard to something, so be it.”

“You can get jobs outside of basketball that can relate, like sportscasting, coaching, training, and sports medicine,” he said.

KC Valiente veteran Mike Hutchingson Mejia is the embodiment of that. A chance encounter put the former Pittsburgh State University player in Garcia’s sights.

“I actually ran into him at a barbecue restaurant when I was still in high school,” said Mejia, who now coaches boys and girls basketball at Argentine Middle School and trains college athletes.

KC Valiente veteran Mike Hutchingson Mejia driving to the basket on fast break during a recreation league game at at the Sylvester Powell Community Center in Shawnee, Kansas on Thursday, April 25, 2024. The team plays in this league and others to prepare for the Tony Aguirre Latino Men's Basketball tournament and other tournament's in the Midwest Latino Men's circuit.
Lawrence Brooks IV
KCUR 89.3
KC Valiente veteran Mike Hutchingson Mejia drives to the basket during a recreation league game at the Sylvester Powell Community Center in Shawnee, Kansas, on April 25, 2024. The team plays in this league and others to prepare for the Tony Aguirre Latino Men's Basketball Tournament, and other tournaments throughout the Midwest.

“I was with my mother and he said that he's going to put me on his team as soon as I am done with college, and that’s what he did,” Mejia said.

Standing 6 feet, 7 inches tall, Mejia joined Garcia’s squad in 2008. The opportunity helped prolong a basketball career Mejia thought was surely over after college. His performances at Latino men’s tournaments in Chicago, Dallas and Houston eventually caught the attention of professional scouts.

“I played for the Toros of Nuevo Laredo, in Mexico. Then I played for the Correcaminos in Tamaulipas state. And then I played in Chihuahua for Meoqui,” said Mejia, 37. “I ended up connecting with uncles, cousins, and aunts down in Chihuahua that I didn't know I had from knowing my mom and her background.”

‘They wouldn’t allow Latinos to play’

Steve Guardiola of Omaha, Nebraska, has been involved with the Latino men’s circuit since he was 15. He said, in Nebraska, the leagues began because racism barred them from competing elsewhere.

“It was started in 1954 by a man named Lino Oropeza here in Omaha,” Guardiola said. “Because, back then, they wouldn't allow Latinos to play high school basketball.”

The 55-year-old is a former player for the Omaha Orgullo, which means “pride” in Spanish. His team is still hoping to win the Kansas City tournament for the first time, but Guardiola admitted KC Valiente has an advantage that’s hard to overcome.

“When I was younger, I was one of the taller Mexicans — at 6’3” — competing in these tournaments. And then Leno (Mike Garcia) started cheating, bringing the Mejia brothers,” Guardiola said with a laugh.

Five men stand together, side by side, on a basketball court. They are posing for the camera. One man on the right is holding up a framed shirt with the number 55 on it and the name "Guardiola" on it.
Mike Garcia
Mike Garcia
Steve Guardiola, at right, gathered with players and coaches of his former team, the Omaha Orgullo. They retired his jersey number during Omaha's 70th Latino Men's Basketball Tournament.

Despite the gamesmanship, Guardiola said these basketball tournaments are a conduit for connecting Hispanic communities all over the region.

“These tournaments are what you make of them. And the camaraderie amongst most of the teams is a brotherhood,” he said.

Tony Aguirre died in 2006, but Guardiola said he’s blessed to have met him on his frequent trips to Kansas City’s Westside. He said what the Guadalupe Centers is doing in Aguirre’s name helps keep Latino kids from the trappings of street life.

“They have an amazing program going on. They are able to do way more than what we do up here,” he said.

For Garcia, it’s an honor to carry on Aguirre’s legacy of using basketball to guide the next generation of Latino youths.

“This tournament started back in segregation. Not only did you have segregation, you had a language barrier,” he said. “And over the years, we continue this tradition of Latino basketball.”

The Tony Aguirre Latino Men’s Basketball Tournament is Saturday, May 4, and Sunday, May 5, at the Tony Aguirre Community Center, 2050 W. Pennway St., Kansas City, Missouri 64108, and Guadalupe Centers High School, 1524 The Paseo, Kansas City, Missouri 64108. For more information, go to the Guadalupe Centers’ website.

As KCUR’s race and culture reporter, I work to help readers and listeners build meaningful and longstanding relationships with the many diverse cultures that make up the Kansas City metro. I deliver nuanced stories about the underrepresented communities that call our metro home, and the people whose historically-overlooked contributions span politics, civil rights, business, the arts, sports and every other realm of our daily lives.
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