Editor’s Note: The following first appeared in the University of Iowa’s Hawk Talk Daily, an e-newsletter that offers a daily look at the Iowa Hawkeyes, delivered free each morning to thousands of fans of the Hawkeyes worldwide. To receive daily news from the Iowa Hawkeyes, sign up HERE.
By RICK BROWN
IOWA CITY, Iowa — Luka Garza’s family tree is rooted in the game of basketball.
“I’ve always been around people who have had so much knowledge about basketball,” said Garza, a gregarious 6-foot, 11-inch addition to the University of Iowa’s men’s basketball team. “I’ve always been good at soaking things in. I’ve always been a student of the game.”
Garza’s dad, Frank, played collegiately at Idaho. His mom, Sejla, played professionally in Europe. His grandfather, James Halm, played at the University of Hawai’i. His uncle, Teoman Alibegovic, was a teammate of Gary Payton at Oregon State and played in two NCAA Tournaments. One cousin, Omar Alibegovic, plays at St. John’s. Another, Mirza Alibegovic, plays professionally for Fiat Torino in Italy.
“He has always been around the game,” head coach Fran McCaffery said. “They’re always talking about it, and that’s helped him, too.”
After a standout senior season at the Maret School in Washington, D.C., where he averaged 24.6 points, 11.7 rebounds and was named the 2017 Gatorade D.C. Player of the Year, Garza is ready to add another chapter to his family’s hoops legacy.
“The family I have around me has played Division I basketball,” Garza said.
“Especially my father and uncle. I’ve been talking to them about what you have to do to get ready and prepare, and how different it’s going to be on the biggest stage. I’m excited.”
Garza will get a jumpstart on his rookie season when the Hawkeyes play four games on a tour of Switzerland, Italy, and Germany in August. That trip includes 10 team practices.
“I’ll get playing and practice experience, so when the season starts it’s not going to be all new to me,” Garza said.
Garza selected Iowa from a list of 28 Division I offers. His choice was based on loyalty, because McCaffery was the first coach to offer a scholarship. After Garza went underwent a body transformation between his sophomore and junior years, the offers started to pile up.
Garza struggled with bone spurs in his right foot as a freshman and sophomore. His weight increased to 265 pounds. He had surgery and missed the early part of the AAU season that April, but returned in May. The first game his Team Takeover squad played was against the All-Iowa Attack. Connor McCaffery, another member of the class of 2017 recruiting class, was on that Attack team. And his father was in the stands.
“That’s where it all started,” Garza said. “I played well in that game. I went on to the Nike Elite 100 Camp in St. Louis. Connor was there, I met him and we started talking. He told me his dad really liked my game. Coach McCaffery was at that camp, too. He could be there because his son was playing. After that weekend is when he offered.”
Garza’s skillset intrigued McCaffery, despite his added bulk. But Garza felt something was missing from his game that summer.
“In June (of 2015) I played pretty well,” Garza said. “But over the course of July I didn’t like the way I was playing. I knew I wasn’t jumping as high as I could, I wasn’t as fast, I couldn’t get up and down the court well enough. I knew that was going to prevent me from getting very many opportunities like I had just received at Iowa. I didn’t want to potentially lose Iowa by being too slow. I didn’t feel like my game was going in the direction I wanted. So I changed some things.”
That summer, Garza accompanied his father to Hawaii. There, he worked out with Bill Trumbo, who coached Frank Garza at Idaho.
Garza went through Trumbo’s “Running Program,” which included 100 and 200-meter sprints. There were also drills to improve foot speed and agility. Garza changed his diet, going with lean meats like chicken and abandoning drinks with sugar.
Garza carved 30 pounds off his frame, but didn’t lose his strength or back-to-the-basket skills. He also improved his outside jumper. Garza had 10 scholarship offers when AAU season started in the spring of 2016. Before long, that number had grown to 28.
“I was seeing all that hard work starting to pay off,” Garza said. “It was cool to see so many different schools that hadn’t recognized my game in the past to recognize it.”
Schools like Louisville, Notre Dame, Georgetown, Indiana, Georgia, Northwestern, Alabama, and Pittsburgh put their offers on the table. But Iowa was the one.
“They saw what I could be before I was,” Garza said. “Coach McCaffery had seen a lot of potential in me and my game. When the other schools came around late, I realized there was one before all of them. Iowa’s consistency, throughout the whole process, made a huge difference in the end.”
McCaffery said it took some time for Garza to adjust to his new body.
“Once he got used to the thinner body, his running and his stamina were impressive. He runs and reacts to every ball, and goes after every loose ball and rebound. He’s trying to impact every possession. He was always a big, strong guy who was a skilled basketball player. Now he’s an athlete with great length.”