Luka Garza: The Iowa men’s basketball program’s humble, team-driven all-time leading scorer
The senior broke Roy Marble’s 32-year-old Hawkeye men’s basketball scoring record on Sunday, the latest accomplishment in a career full of them.
February 22, 2021
Luka Garza is a self-described basketball nerd. That explains why, as a kid, he would sit in his basement and immerse himself in his father’s VHS tapes, studying the game’s greats, including Hakeem Olajuwon and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. When he became a Hawkeye, Garza added another name to his basketball homework: Roy Marble.
Marble, a star guard on the Iowa men’s basketball team from 1985-89, became the program’s all-time leading scorer in 1989. For more than 32 years, the 2,116 points he scored as a Hawkeye have been the program’s standard.
So, when Garza arrived at the University of Iowa, he had already known whose shoes had run up and down the court at Carver-Hawkeye Arena.
“Wherever I’m at,” Garza said, “I’m going to want to know the history of who played there.”
On Sunday, past and present converged, and Garza made history himself.
In the second half of Iowa’s victory over Penn State in front of a nearly empty home arena, senior point guard Jordan Bohannon lobbed a pass as Garza slid toward the basket, and Garza dropped the ball over the front of the rim for two points.
“Garza – at the rim…” Luka Garza, your new all-time @IowaHoops scorer.
— Iowa On BTN (@IowaOnBTN) February 21, 2021
The shot moved Garza to the top of the program’s all-time scoring leaderboard. The 566 fans and family members in attendance responded with a standing ovation, trying their best to emulate a packed Carver crowd of 15,500.
Garza pointed to the sky as he jogged to the other side of the court. Marble died of cancer in 2015 at the age of 48.
“It’s truly an honor to even be in the same sentence as a guy like [Marble],” Garza said postgame. “To pass him, that’s something I never could have dreamed of. All the credit to this goes to the coaching staff here, Fran McCaffery for recruiting me, all the teammates I’ve had, my family, and the coaches I’ve had through the course of my career who have taught me the game of basketball.
“That is who got me to this position. I’m really lucky to be in the situation that I’m in.”
For Garza, breaking Iowa’s scoring record is just the latest accomplishment in a career full of them — arguably the best career of any men’s player in program history. But the humble reaction to the honor isn’t an act.
It’s Garza being Garza.
And that approach along his basketball journey led to Garza toppling a record that once seemed unreachable.
High school standout — on and off the court
In the first half of the 2017 District of Columbia Boys’ Basketball Championship Game on the court of the Charles E. Smith Center at George Washington University, Maret School’s head coach Chuck Driesell approached his star center, who had just taken an elbow to the head when an opposing player tried to block his shot.
“Why are you taking me out, coach?” Driesell recalls Garza saying.
“Luka, your face is covered with blood,” Driesell responded. “You’ve got to come out. We’ve got to take a look at it.”
In the final game of his high school career, Garza needed a dozen stitches to mend a wound in order for him to return to the court. That’s no surprise to Iowa fans who witnessed Garza take a shot to the lip in 2019 against Texas Tech (then return and produce a 17-point effort), causing blood to stream down his face.
Less than 10 minutes later, Garza was back in the championship game.
And why wouldn’t he be? Garza had held a basketball in his hands by the time he was a toddler. He loved the game from the start. His father, Frank Garza, had played college basketball at Idaho, and his mother, Sejla Garza, had played professionally in Europe.
Garza had transformed himself from a freshman averaging four points per game to the Gatorade D.C. Boys’ Basketball Player of the Year as a senior. In large part, that was thanks to boot camp-like training sessions in Hawaii with his father (sessions that have happened every offseason since).
By the time Garza was playing in his last game of his high school career, he was the school’s all-time leading scorer. Maret, a K-12 school with less than 600 students, faced off with Gonzaga, the No. 9 team in the country, in the district final.
Despite his head injury, Garza scored 37 points and grabbed 17 rebounds in the championship game. But Maret fell, 77-66, and Garza was devastated. And that encapsulates Garza. Both Driesell and McCaffery described Garza after a loss as someone who wishes he could have done more for his team.
In four years’ worth of press conferences at Iowa, Garza is always the first to take responsibility after a loss, no matter how well he performed, and the first to brush off a personal accolade after a triumph.
“It wouldn’t have felt right without the win,” Garza said of the record Sunday. “I didn’t want the focus of this game to be on that [record]. I wanted the focus to be on winning.”
Even after his high school career had ended, Garza had formed a connection with the Maret community, which is now often flooded with No. 55 jerseys on days when Iowa is scheduled to play.
Beyond his time on the hardwood, Garza was the tallest viola player in the school’s orchestra — not exactly a metric that’s usually kept. Driesell recalled that Garza also served as a math tutor to middle-school students and at times read to younger classes as well. It was a common occurrence, Driesell said, for Garza to stop a person in the hallway and engage them in conversation, often asking how that person’s family was doing.
So when Garza committed to Iowa, those at Maret made sure to follow along.
“We all get around some people who we just feel deserve everything that comes their way because they work so hard, they do it the right way, they are humble, and they are a good person,” Driesell said. “That’s Luka Garza.”
‘Luke’ Garza’s road to Iowa City
Garza still remembers being named to ESPN’s top-100 recruiting rankings for the class of 2017. He was ranked No. 100.
Rather, “Luke Garza” was. His name had been misspelled.
But ESPN wasn’t alone in overlooking Garza. As a junior and senior in high school, Garza received more than two dozen scholarship offers, but some programs expressed concerns that Garza couldn’t move quickly enough. Blue-blood programs including Duke and North Carolina — or even nearby Maryland — didn’t extend an offer.
But the Hawkeyes did.
Garza played against Connor McCaffery at a Nike Elite-100 camp heading into his junior season of high school.
Despite initially being a reserve at the camp — meaning he would only compete if someone couldn’t make it — Garza ended up taking the floor. And, although coaches weren’t permitted to attend, Fran McCaffery was an exception because he watched his son compete. So, he saw his future star play on the same court as his son.
“We had to have a coach who understood Luka’s game,” Frank Garza said. “He had to understand that he’s the slowest guy out there, but he’s one of the best players.”
Iowa assistant coach Sherman Dillard, who had coached Chuck Driesell at Maryland on Lefty Driesell’s staff, reached out to Maret shortly after the camp, curious about the school’s center.
McCaffery and Dillard made plenty of visits after that, and Iowa became the first major program to give Garza a chance. And he didn’t forget that.
On an official recruiting visit to Iowa City in 2016, Garza stayed with Nicholas Baer, a former Hawkeye forward from 2015-19 who is back with the program as a graduate assistant.
“On his visit we played two-on-two, three-on-three stuff and I remember he was a really intense, competitive guy,” Baer said. “You could tell that he was a guy who loved to play basketball and compete at a high level.”
By the time Garza visited Iowa City again in September of 2016, some larger programs had taken an interest, including Notre Dame and Georgetown. But Garza remained loyal to the program and the coach that’d been interested since the beginning.
While on his September recruiting trip, standing in the south end zone of Kinnick Stadium, which was packed with 70,000 fans waiting to watch Iowa play Iowa State in the Cy-Hawk football game, Garza informed McCaffery that he was committing.
— Luka Garza ✞ (@LukaG_55) September 10, 2016
The trips had sold him.
“We had numerous people come up who were very genuine, authentic people,” Frank Garza said. “Talking about being fifth-generation Iowans. Seeing people come from all corners of the state to support the Hawkeyes. That speaks volumes in our book.”
Life-saving surgery leads to greatness
Garza earned Iowa’s starting center spot as a freshman with the program and averaged 12.1 points and 6.4 rebounds per game in his first year as a Hawkeye.
But the team wasn’t as successful.
Iowa went 14-19 over the course of the 2017-18 season. That was more losses than Garza had experienced over his four-year high school career. Garza wasn’t used to losing. He wouldn’t let that happen to Iowa again.
That offseason, his father at times added a third daily workout to their program.
These workouts ranged from 3-point shooting drills on repeat if Garza didn’t hit a satisfactory percentage, to sliding back and forth with bricks in his hands to the point of exhaustion. Then there’s when Garza sprinted on the beach under the moonlight, a time his father had selected to ensure the mosquitos would be their most active, enticing his son to run faster.
Garza was setting himself up for a breakout sophomore season, perhaps to the degree that would later be seen his junior year. But in August leading into Garza’s second season, Frank Garza watched his son work through discomfort and noticed his fading appetite.
Garza unknowingly played his freshman season with an abnormal growth but didn’t complain about pain in his abdomen. Garza underwent a CT scan, revealing a nine-pound cyst on his spleen.
“We didn’t know what was going to be under the cyst,” Frank Garza said. “It could be a tumor. Basketball wasn’t even a question. It was, ‘Will he live?’ If they went in there and ruptured the cyst, he would die because the fluids would drain. There was a gallon and a half of toxic poison inside his cyst.”
Frank Garza started making calls. He reached out to the Mayo Clinic and to hospitals around Washington, D.C. — anywhere his son could get the operation.
“And everyone kept saying, ‘Well, there’s this town in Iowa,’” Frank Garza said. “And they didn’t know I had a kid who played at Iowa. It’s sort of magical how that worked out.”
Dr. James Howe performed successful surgery to remove the tumor — which was benign — on Garza on Sept. 7, 2018. Garza spent 5 1/2 hours under the knife as part of the nine-hour procedure.
Baer and a group of Garza’s other teammates visited him after the procedure but didn’t think about when the 6-11 center may be joining them on the court again.
Turns out, it was only six weeks. Garza returned to practice and played in the season-opener on Nov. 8, and a week later was named the MVP of the 2K Empire Classic at Madison Square Garden. But when Garza was starting to return to his full strength, a sprained ankle forced him out of the lineup for three games.
By season’s end, Iowa lost in the second round of the NCAA Tournament to second-seed Tennessee. The Hawkeyes fought back from a 21-point halftime deficit but couldn’t close out the game.
As the Volunteers celebrated, Garza found Baer — who had just played his final game in a Hawkeye uniform — on the court and embraced him, laying his head on Baer’s shoulder as he tried to compose himself.
“I saw he was upset, and that was just my instinct as his teammate to go comfort him,” Baer said. “I told him that he played great and that I loved him.”
The next time Garza took to the court, he was the best player on it.
As a junior, he averaged 23.9 points, 9.8 rebounds, and 1.8 blocks per game on his way to being named the Big Ten Player of the Year and becoming the first player in program history to earn national player of the year honors.
Ultimately, Garza, using his dominance near the basket and a precise 3-point stroke, would break Iowa’s 50-year-old single-season scoring record and was named a first-team All-American.
“He’s the epitome of Iowa basketball,” sophomore guard CJ Fredrick said, noting that Garza is what every player in the program strives to be.
Despite the opportunity to earn a hefty salary overseas, Garza announced in August of 2020 that he was returning to Iowa for his senior season. But not so he could break a scoring record. It was so he could return to a team with March aspirations.
Remember the name
On Dec. 7, 1985, McCaffery, then a first-year head coach at Lehigh, led his team into Carver-Hawkeye Arena to take on No. 18 Iowa. The Hawkeyes won in a rout, and Marble, then a freshman, had scored nine points.
On Sunday in the same venue, McCaffery stood courtside as Garza broke Marble’s record, then told him he loved him.
“[Marble] would have appreciated Luka Garza in a number of ways,” McCaffery said. “I think he would have been a champion for Luka, watching him grow and develop and fighting through adversity like he did his sophomore year, and he would have loved him and supported him.
“I wish he was here to see it.”
At the next media timeout following the record-breaking basket, a tribute played above Mediacom Court. After the game had ended, and Garza’s 23 points gave him 2,126 for his career, the senior looked up at the video board as another tribute appeared.
Congratulatory messages from former Hawkeyes ranging from Aaron White to Jess Settles played as Garza attempted to compose himself.
The video concluded with a message from Frank Garza, who had recorded himself at the park in Washington, D.C., where he and his son had spent countless hours practicing. The same court where Garza had dunked for the first time and would hop into pickup games.
Luka Garza was honored with a video tribute from several former Hawkeyes after the game.
— Robert Read (@Robert_Read34) February 22, 2021
Breaking the men’s scoring record was never a goal for Garza, and he didn’t return to Iowa for his senior season to score points. He did it to win a championship — to get back to March Madness, a place that had evaded him as a junior once the pandemic shut down the season.
“The fact that he [has] the scoring record, it’s sweet, it’s great — all that stuff,” Frank Garza said. “But what we want is the prize.”
Iowa sits at 17-6 on the season following Sunday’s win. Garza has done plenty of scoring too, leading the nation in that category. And in the process of becoming a scoring champion, Garza has — much like with his time at Maret — formed a relationship with the Iowa City community.
An economics major, Garza attacks his course work with the same vigor he displays on the hardwood, McCaffery said. In public, Garza can hardly show his face without being swarmed with fans. Whether it’s at Target and two young boys hurriedly buy basketballs so he could sign them, or in downtown Iowa City among his peers — Garza stays grounded.
“No one would realize he’s this superstar athlete,” Bohannon said. “He’s a person who treats everyone the way he wants to be treated. He respects everyone, treats his teammates like family. He really cares about everyone around him. That’s the most important thing when you’re looking at Luka Garza.”
Garza is always sure to thank those around him for getting him to this point and emphasize that winning — especially in March — is what takes priority.
“I want to be remembered as a guy who loves the game of basketball, played as hard as he could, and worked as hard as he could, and was a great teammate,” Garza said, noting what takes priority over a scoring record. “That’s what I want people to talk about when they talk about me.”
That’s Garza being Garza. And there’s no player quite like the 6-foot-11 center wearing No. 55 in the Black and Gold.
“People will remember his name for a long time to come,” Driesell said.
And, after Sunday, if they look at the top of the Iowa men’s basketball program’s all-time scoring list, they’ll know how to spell it, too.