Arnold Vera Jr. came from Rio Grande City to achieve one of the most unusual careers in the history of top-level college basketball.
He showed up as a “walk-on” player with no scholarship to try out for the Pan American Broncs in 1973.
The new coach, Abe Lemons, didn’t know the heavy, 6-foot-6 freshman’s name.
Lemons heard that Vera had left the nearby Pizza Hut “for eating too many pizzas.”
So the coach always called him “Pizza,” a nickname that stuck. Lemons had to find out his real name, when he soon tested the football-type player in an NCAA Division One basketball game.
Pizza was shocked when Abe jumped up in the middle of the game and said, “Pizza, go get ‘em.”
“Vera entered the game, knocked down three baskets, pulled down seven rebounds, and turned the team around before fouling out,” wrote authors Bob Burke and Kenny Franks in their book “ABE LEMONS, COURT MAGICIAN.”
This excellent, accurate and entertaining book can be found by writing the Oklahoma Heritage Association, 2010 NW 14, Oklahoma City, Oklahoma 73103, or try the Internet.
Many Valley people are quoted and mentioned in it.
Lemons’ book quotes many players, and “Pizza” more than average. The next season the Broncs won three games in a trip to Georgia and a big Atlanta newspaper wrote, “A chubby sub (Vera) hit the winning basket with one second left on the clock at Georgia Southern.”
Lemons quipped at breakfast, “Tomorrow, they are going to call him a chubby starter,” and Pizza helped win another big one at Georga Tech. The Broncs earned their best basketball record ever, that year, and Pizza played a big role.
Arnold Vera Jr. died with his family by his side at M.D. Anderson Hospital in Houston on Saturday, May 16, 2009.
His large family and many friends numbered in the hundreds for a celebration of his life at Sacred Heart Catholic Church in Edinburg on May 22 after a reception at Memorial Funeral Home in Edinburg May 21.
He had served as Public Works Director in the cities of Edinburg and Mission, and many never forgot his brilliant career as a walk-on who helped the Pan American Broncs triumph in basketball.