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Meet the maker of hoops legends

Image: Howard Garfinkel (© Courtesy of Five Star Basketball Camp)
Howard Garfinkel taught many of the game's greatest players and coaches about basketball.
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Reid Forgrave

Reid Forgrave has worked for the Des Moines Register, the Cincinnati Enquirer and the Seattle Times. His work has been recognized by Associated Press Sports Editors, the Livingston Awards for Young Journalists and the Society for Features Journalism. Follow him on Twitter.

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NEW YORK CITY

The man who has impacted more lives of college basketball players and coaches than anyone else over the past half-century walks in off the streets of Midtown Manhattan.

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Howard Garfinkel — or “Garf,” as he’s universally known to his former players like Michael Jordan or his former coaches like Bobby Knight — pulls up a chair inside the Carnegie Deli. He lives just down the street, and this is his favorite New York Jewish deli, so Garf doesn’t even have to look at the menu before he orders the pickled herring.

He’s an old man now, 83 with coke-bottle glasses and age spots on his forehead. But instead of talking about the old times from his 5-Star Basketball Camp, the greatest teaching camp in hoops history, Garf instead goes on and on about all the amazing shots he’s seen just this season. He raves about Ben Brust’s 40-foot buzzer-beater for Wisconsin that sent a February game against Michigan into overtime. It wasn’t a heave that happened to go in, but a 40-foot runner with perfect form, the most beautiful shot Garf’s ever seen. That is, until he saw a high school kid from New Rochelle drill a 55-footer at the buzzer to win the New York state title.

Garf shakes his head: “Once you think you’ve learned it all, that’s when you realize you know nothing.”

Next week, on the day of the NCAA title game in Atlanta, the 2013 class for the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame will be announced. Garf will not be one of the inductees. This is a rather large omission. First, because Garf is getting on in his years; he won’t be around forever to see his contributions to the game officially recognized. And second, because his contributions have been simply enormous.

He started 5-Star in 1966, and for decades it was the top summer camp in the country. No single person has helped more young, unknown coaches get their first big breaks than Garf has, and ditto for the huge number of high school players who were first noticed at the 5-Star Camp and ended up with college scholarships.

Two of the four coaches in the Final Four, Michigan’s John Beilein and Louisville’s Rick Pitino, got their starts through Garf (Pitino is one of 12 finalists for induction). John Calipari of Kentucky was a 5-Star product. Florida's Billy Donovan played there and was a counselor. Roy Williams of North Carolina spent summers coaching there. So did Dick Vitale, and Hubie Brown, and Bobby Knight, and Tom Izzo, and Larry Brown. And the players: John Wall and Grant Hill, Moses Malone and Kevin Durant, LeBron James and Isiah Thomas and Chris Paul — and Michael Jordan, who got half off the camp’s admission because he waited tables.

“He ran what really became kind of a birthplace for the great players of the game,” Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski told FOXSports.com. “It was kind of a place where you have a rite of passage from being a good high school player to becoming a great player, and the same thing for coaches.

“I’d go there to recruit and watch players,” Krzyzewski continued, “and it wasn’t an all-star camp. It was a hard-working camp. It was the best camp ever for those top kids. They made them work. They made them know about team. And for a coach to be given an opportunity to speak to THE camp, it was like you’re performing at the Oscars or the Grammys. And he gave me that opportunity.”

There’s a common feeling today in college basketball that fundamentals have been lost. The AAU culture that promotes showcasing talents of high school players more than drilling fundamentals is typically considered the main culprit. The antidote? A modern-day Garf.

It’s impossible to turn back the clock to when Garf was printing up and mailing out the original scouting service for East Coast basketball, which he called High School Basketball Illustrated. It’s silly to think the shoe-company-endorsed showcases of today will ever go back to valuing fundamentals over flash.

But, according to some of the most prominent minds in college basketball, that’s exactly what the sport needs. While the NBA is pure entertainment, the best players in the world showing off their skills — hello, 24-second shot clock — the college game needs to go back to being more about teamwork.

“It has hurt basketball that Garf’s not doing these things for the game anymore,” Calipari told FOXSports.com. “That’s what he did: He changed how kids were taught. He gave kids an opportunity to be taught by the best in the world at this camp.”

“We gotta get back to it somehow,” Calipari continued. “Summer basketball stuff has become more of the showcase stuff. To win championships in 5-Star, they were wars. They were wars. You learned to coach, and the players understood that in the 5-Star tournament, the minute you lost — how about this novel idea? — you’re out. You’re not playing four games a day, losing three and playing the next day. You lost, and you were out.”

 


 

The number of Hall of Fame or Hall of Fame-caliber coaches who owe their start to Howard Garfinkel is astounding.

FOXSports.com spoke to several of them, asking to share stories about Garf and talk about the impact he’s had on the game of basketball. They spoke of his camp as a petri dish where the most passionate, talented young coaches could learn from each other. They spoke of how maddening recruiting could be, because Garf never put numbers on the camp’s jerseys — a symbol of the camp’s team-first mentality.

More than anything they spoke of the stations: Every day each player went through 12 stations to practice a specific fundamental, and the hardest workers skipped lunch or skipped taking a nap for extra work at Station 13. Here’s what those coaches said:

Billy Donovan, Florida head coach, two-time national champion, and one of only four people to appear in the Final Four as a player and win a national championship as a coach:

“It was more than just a showcase. He was ahead of his time. It was a skill-development camp. Play two games a day, but mostly it’s great speakers, individual workouts, the stations. I don’t know if there’s been another camp like it in the game. A lot of stuff we did was very tedious stuff. The block-out station, the defense station, the free-throw station. You were taught the importance of these things and forced to do them. We only played two games a day, which only took 2½ hours of the day. The other 10 hours was all work.

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“Now these camps will last three days. This was seven straight days, playing on blacktop, doing stations. It was a one-week absolute grind.”

Roy Williams, North Carolina head coach, 2007 Hall of Fame inductee, the only coach to lead two programs to at least three Final Fours apiece:

“My first year as an assistant coach at North Carolina, I went to Honesdale, Pa. It was August or September of 1978, and (former UNC assistant) Eddie Fogler and I went to the 5-Star Camp. I’d heard about Garf, knew his name, but I got there and I was just blown away by this active, wacko, caring personality that did so many things for so many young people. He’s done a lot of things for coaches, but just the access he brought kids, for college coaches to see them, the visibility he brought for kids, especially in those times when there were so many sleepers. A guy could show up at 5-Star and nobody would know about him.

“The first thing I think of with Garf is his passion for uncovering the hidden jewel. He got a great kick out of telling college coaches, ‘Hey, you gotta see this kid.’ When Michael Jordan went to Garf’s camp, almost nobody knew about him. We’d recruited him, but he was basically unknown. He went to Garf’s camp, and that’s when he exploded on the scene.

“I was the first one to call him on MJ. I called Garf and told him he’d be something special (and suggested Garf invite Jordan to 5-Star). Coach (Dean) Smith asked me, ‘Why’d you tell him to do that?’ At that time we were really the only people who’d seriously, seriously tried to recruit him.”

Larry Brown, Southern Methodist head coach, 2002 Hall of Fame inductee, and the only coach to win both an NCAA and NBA championship:

“I’m one of Garf’s first finds. I played for Garf on a team called the New York Nationals. He tried to recruit me and get me to go to NC State. My mom was pissed at him. She wanted me to go to North Carolina.

“For years I went to 5-Star (as a coach) and used to speak to campers. I always thought his camp was as good as any because they didn’t just throw out a ball. They taught kids. They put them in stations. They taught them how to guard and rebound, all the fundamentals. You wouldn’t just let kids play. You’d teach them how to play.”

John Calipari, Kentucky head coach, 2012 national champion:

“I was a waiter at 5-Star (as a high school junior). You’re excited to be a waiter because you got half off your admission.

“I wasn’t a great player. But I played hard, I did all things he liked, and he took a liking to me personally. Without him and 5-Star, there’s no way I would be coaching in Kentucky. I was in Moon High School in western Pennsylvania; not exactly a basketball hotbed. There was no AAU, so there was no opportunity to be seen back then. How could I ever get an opportunity to be a Division 1 coach? . . . And not only giving college coaches the opportunity, but so many players got scholarships because of Garf and went to the next level because of 5-Star.

“If you can’t coach, you’re not making it, but he puts you on the stage to be seen. If Garf thinks you’re lazy or a bad guy, he’ll have nothing to do with you. If he doesn’t think you know basketball, he’ll call you ‘Kid.’ He won’t even know your name.

“All of us got fired at least five times at 5-Star. You weren’t where you’re supposed to be? ‘You’re fired, you’re out, don’t call me.’ I got fired five times. I was late once: ‘Calipari’s fired. I don’t ever want him back to the camp. He’s fiiiiiired.’ But knowing him he never really fired anybody. If he did, they shouldn’t have come in the first place.”

Mike Krzyzewski, Duke head coach, 2001 Hall of Fame inductee, all-time wins leader in college basketball, four-time national champion:

“He’s somebody who will not come along ever again, and no one was there before him. He truly is one of a kind.

“The game is about five playing as one. The game is about the pass, about the help, about the talk. It’s about connecting the things that make our game special. When you were at 5-Star, there was a culture there. There was an environment bigger than any one individual. No matter how good you thought you were, you had to make sure your ego was somehow interwoven into the game’s ego. In today’s day and age, a lot of times with a player’s ego, a player doesn’t realize the game has ego, and that the game is bigger. You were taught that at 5-Star, the beauty and history of the game, the nuances of the game.

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“They’d have games outside, not just inside, and I love that because under the lights, in all these different courts, the kids would be sweating, and they’d glisten. One night we were watching a game, and Grant Hill was in it. Grant was one of the top players, but most people wouldn’t say he was the best player (in the camp). Howard and I were watching. We look at each other. We say at the same time, ‘He’s the best. He’s beautiful.’ It was like he and I both saw him at that level for the first time on that outdoor court, even though we’d seen him before.

“I’m sure Howard had many of those same moments with other coaches. If I told that story in front other coaches, they’ll say, ‘I had that moment with him.’ It’s not like he just went to the so-called ‘big-time coaches.’ Those are infinite moments, and Howard did that with every coach.”

 


 

At the Carnegie Deli, Garfinkel polishes off his pickled herring and starts talking about those old times. He grew up in Manhattan, less than two miles from this deli, and remembers paying 50 cents to get into Madison Square Garden to sit in the end balcony and watch local college games. And even though he went to two games of this year's Big East tournament (he sat right behind the Cincinnati bench, as head coach Mick Cronin was a 5-Star product), he doesn’t like games at Madison Square Garden any more. Too much music. Too much noise. Can players even communicate on the court?

The first team Garf coached was soon after World War II. The coach of a YMCA team in Queens got sick with five games left in the season. Garf took over. The team was terrible. In one game, the other team had only four players — and beat Garf’s team by 20.

But for the second annual YMCA tournament at the end of that season, Garf found his recruiting niche. Before the tournament he got a hold of some other good players in the area. He found a few JV players at what was then the best basketball high school in New York City, St. Ann’s Academy. Garf’s Queens YMCA team fielded a whole new team for the tournament — and won.

“To this day it was the greatest thrill I’ve ever had, winning that tournament with JV players,” Garf said. “Mike Krzyzewski has now won four national championships. But he couldn’t be any happier for any of those four than I was with my JV team winning.”

One thing that could make him happier would be a well-deserved induction into the Hall of Fame. It’s not something he claims to care about, nor is he worried about being around for it. At the Carnegie Deli, a friend calls and tells him he’d like to visit him in New York in two weeks. “Coupla weeks?” he spits into his cell phone. “I may not last a coupla weeks.”

Garf has plenty of advice for how to improve today’s college game. One of the biggest is the lack of teaching in the summer; today’s players need a 5-Star more than one more player showcase. Another problem is players too often lack a mid-range game.

One of the worst problems? The one-and-done rule. There can never be another college basketball dynasty with the one-and-done rule, Garf said.

“They gotta put in a two-year rule, he said. “Two-and-done, I could live with. It should be three.”

His phone rings, and Garf answers. “Sure, 9 o’clock. I’ll be there early.” He covers up the speaker: “It’s Knight,” he said.

It's getting late. Garf has been talking more than two hours. And Bobby Knight is waiting for him on the other side of town, so Garf has to get going.

Follow Reid Forgrave on Twitter or email him at ReidForgrave@gmail.com.

Tagged: Wisconsin, North Carolina, Kentucky, Florida, Winthrop, Brown, Howard

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