RIO GRANDE VALLEY – For nearly four decades and counting, Gabriel Valdez has been creating a basketball legacy in the Rio Grande Valley.
Valdez was widely considered the best high school player in the Valley in the mid 1980s as he starred for the Weslaco High Panthers. He earned a scholarship to play NCAA Division I basketball for The University of Texas Rio Grande Valley legacy institution Pan American University, where he became an All-American South Conference honoree by the end of his career.
He has led boys and girls basketball programs in Weslaco ISD to massive success during his coaching career. Valdez has accumulated more than 800 wins as a head coach and guided 31 winning seasons in 32 years as a coach.
On Saturday, the legendary hooper was inducted into the RGV Sports Hall of Fame along with David Longhofer, Albert Ochoa, Richard Thompson, Joe Solis, Laura Vasquez, Larry Caldwell, and Tony Guerrero at the Brownsville Event Center.
“I give praise and glory to my God, because without Him, today would not be possible,” Valdez said in an emotional speech. “My love for the sport of basketball and my expectations have taken me on an incredible journey. It has been an honor to represent my family and I hope have made you all proud. This is an amazing honor and an extremely high point in my career, but the remainder of my story is yet to be written.”
Valdez grew up playing baseball, but in eighth grade he met former Weslaco High boys basketball coach Rene Garza, and the coach ignited Valdez’s love for basketball. Garza, also a member of the RGVSHOF, introduced Valdez at the reception.
It became Valdez’s goal to become the best basketball player the Panthers ever had, and one could argue he succeeded. He averaged 17 points per game as a sophomore, 19.6 as a junior and 28.5 as a senior. He was the team captain his final season in 1987, leading Weslaco High to a 31-2 record and a bi-district title.
Valdez earned All-State recognition as a senior and won every MVP award possible throughout his career. But he still believed some people doubted his abilities when he joined the Broncs’ team.
“I honestly felt the perception was that I was picked up more as a token, like, ‘Hey, he’s the best player coming out of the Valley, let’s put him on the roster and keep people happy.’ But that wasn’t the way it was for me. I knew I could play,” Valdez said.
For three seasons, Valdez came off the bench. He tallied 22 points and 18 assists his freshman season, averaging six minutes per game. As a sophomore, he scored 141 points and recorded 35 assists and 42 rebounds.
It wasn’t easy to go from a high school star, playing every minute of every game, to being a role player. He planned on transferring after his sophomore season, but head coach Kevin Wall convinced him to stay following a red-hot finish to his season. He scored 17 and 19 points against New Orleans and Lamar, respectively, then notched a career-high 22 points against Southwestern Louisiana – all scored in the second half – in the final games.
“It was tough at the beginning. I probably had to work 10 times harder than anyone,” Valdez said. “I always took the role that God gave me. Every year I improved, so it was tougher and tougher for Coach Wall not to play me. It led into my senior year when I was in a captain role. It was satisfactory for me.”
The 1989-90 season, Valdez’s junior year, was the Broncs’ first playing as the University of Texas Pan American and one of their best. They went 21-9 overall and 7-3 in the ASC, losing the nationally televised conference championship game to New Orleans. Valdez played every game that season, averaging 26 minutes coming off the bench. He was the No. 3 scorer, averaging 11 points per game (329 total) while leading the team in shooting percentage (56.7%). He broke the Broncs’ all-time record for consecutive free throws, sinking 27 straight.
Valdez started all 28 games his senior season. He led the team with 453 points (16.2 PPG) and tallied 97 assists and 83 rebounds. For the fourth straight year, he led the Broncs in free throw percentage, shooting 84.3% at the line – he made 83.3% as a freshman, 92.3% as a sophomore and 84.3% as a junior. He was tabbed to the 1990-91 All-ASC Third Team and received UTRGV’s prestigious Lou Hassell award, given to the most outstanding male athlete.
“It was a blessing to play at a DI level and to excel at it. A lot of kids don’t get that opportunity and I was fortunate enough to use my God-given skills to show that us Hispanics can play,” Valdez said.
The guard still holds the program record for career free throw shooting percentage at UTRGV – making a whopping 85.4% of his free throws (226-264). Free throws are now “like a religion” for the teams he coaches and a major point of emphasis to help win games.
Valdez briefly played semi-pro ball overseas, but a knee injury in 1991 ended his playing career. But he saw it as God leading him to his true calling – coaching.
His first head coaching gig was with the Weslaco High Lady Panthers from 1994-2002, then he spent four seasons leading the Weslaco East boys. He took over the boys program at his alma mater in 2006. He has created a tradition of success with the Panthers, winning 10 district championships – including back-to-back titles the past two seasons – and achieving four 30-win seasons.
Valdez said his journey shows that dreams do come true. His philosophy of “you don’t have to be big to play big” led him into the UTRGV record books and has anchored his stellar coaching career. As he celebrated his induction into the RGVSHOF, Valdez thanked his family, friends and the thousands of players who have shaped who he is today.
“I’ve had a great coaching career, but it’s not about me. I’ve had the pleasure of sharing the sport with outstanding young men and women full of love for basketball, dedication, perseverance, respect, grit and fight,” Valdez said. “You put me on a court with a whistle and I can be there for hours. For some reason, I can get kids to believe that they’re way better than they first think they are. It’s something the Lord blessed me with. We’ve been pretty successful and I’m very fortunate.”
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