By RICK BROWN
IOWA CITY, Iowa – Luka Garza drew a capacity crowd to his room at the University of Iowa Hospitals & Clinics the night of Sept. 6, 2018.
His parents, Frank and Sejla, and his sister, Tesa, were there. So were his teammates and coaches. Luka had surgery scheduled the next morning.
An ultrasound discovered a cyst in Garza’s abdomen. That benign cyst weighed nearly 12 pounds, and the roadmap for removal was dicey. Avoiding his spleen and other body parts was crucial to the procedure and his recovery.
“We were all concerned,” said Iowa head basketball coach Fran McCaffery. “His career could be in jeopardy. That’s a scary thought.”
Dr. James Howe performed the six-hour surgery the next morning. When it was over, Frank Garza phoned McCaffery.
“He said, ‘It’s a miracle,'” McCaffery recalled. “‘He got everything and didn’t have to touch any other organs.’ We were all on Cloud Nine. Dr. Howe did an incredible job. In a situation like that, there’s a best-case scenario and worst-case scenario. We were all praying for the best and we got the best.”
The fact that Garza was standing at mid-court in Madison Square Garden accepting the MVP trophy at the 2K Empire Classic, 70 days after surgery, tells you everything you need to know about his desire and drive.
And it tells you why he received the Kenny Arnold Spirit Award this spring, which goes to the player who exemplifies Arnold’s spirit of leadership, charter, courage, determination and poise, while inspiring his teammates to be the very best despite the odds.
The 6-foot 11-inch Garza had gotten himself into the best shape of his basketball life heading into his sophomore season, even though he was experiencing occasional pain in his left shoulder.
It was during a home visit to Washington, D.C., last August that he started experiencing some discomfort in his stomach area.
When Garza returned to campus, the discomfort continued, and he consulted assistant athletic trainer Brad Floy where an ultrasound revealed a cyst. Garza later learned that the cyst was causing referred pain to his shoulder, thus explaining the shoulder pain he had experienced.
“My first thought when they were telling me it was a cyst was, ‘How long is the recovery? When can I get back playing?'” Garza said. “I’m blessed that they were able to catch it and treat it.”
Garza’s godfather, Bill Trumbo, called Luka during his three-night stay at the hospital. Trumbo was Frank Garza’s basketball coach at the University of Idaho.
Frank took Luka to Hawaii several times to soak up Trumbo’s teaching. Garza went through Trumbo’s running program, which included lots of 100- and 200-meter sprints. There were also drills to improve foot speed and agility. Garza changed his diet, going to lean meats like chicken and ditching sugary drinks.
Frank and Luka first went to see Trumbo the summer before Garza’s junior prep season at Maret School. They also made the trip during Spring Break of Luka’s junior season and the summer before his senior season.
“When I first went to see him, I was worried about rankings and offers and all that stuff,” Luka said. “The biggest thing he taught me is that the team is what matters and you’re playing for the team to win above anything else. All that personal stuff doesn’t matter.”
Another Trumbo lesson: No excuses.
“He said that whatever you do, you give your best and that’s all you can give,” Garza said.
Trumbo also made sure Luka was baptized during his first trip to Hawaii.
“He wanted me to learn about the realms of life,” Garza said. “Religion, basketball, and still having fun with friends.”
As Trumbo pulled for Luka to get through his surgery, he was fighting a battle of his own. Trumbo died of cancer Oct. 27, 2018. Frank Garza is convinced that Trumbo willed himself to stay alive until he knew Luka was OK.
“Later in my life, he became a special part of it,” Luka said. “He was one of the reasons I was able to develop into the person and player I am today. I’m never going to forget the lessons he taught me.”
When Luka was younger, Frank Garza taught his son about visualization and meditation. Luka has been doing that since he was in high school.
“If you visualize and see yourself do it before you actually do it, it seems like you have a better chance of doing what you want to do,” Luka said.
He remembers one of his father’s co-workers who used visualization to fight cancer.
“I met her and she talked about how she got through it,” said Luka. “She said that every day she saw herself getting better, and continuing to get better. And that really stuck with me.”
Visualization became a staple of Luka’s rehabilitation from surgery.
“I visualized myself playing in the Garden (Nov. 15-16) or playing in the home opener (on Nov. 8),” he said. “I told myself I was going to get through this quickly. I wanted to get back in the gym with my teammates.”
Garza reached his goal with time to spare. He actually played in a Nov. 4 exhibition game against Guilford. He was named MVP of the 2K Empire Classic after scoring 22 points and grabbing six rebounds against Connecticut in the title game.
“I remember when he came back, he wasn’t completely himself, but he wasn’t far off,” McCaffery said.
Garza suffered a second setback when an ankle sprain knocked him out of three games in late December and a Big Ten contest at Purdue in early January, but he fought his way back.
His play was crucial in a 73-63 victory at Northwestern on Jan. 9. With Tyler Cook sidelined with an injury, Garza came off the bench to score 16 point and snag five rebounds.
“He was just about back to where we felt like we could play him substantial minutes,” McCaffery said. “And we rode him to a big-time road victory.”
Garza was especially productive in a six-game stretch from Jan. 12 to Feb. 1, when he averaged 20.3 points. He finished as the No. 2 scorer on Iowa’s 23-12 NCAA team, averaging 13.1 points to go with 4.5 rebounds. Garza joined Aaron White and Jess Settles as the only players in Iowa history to total more than 800 points and 350 rebounds through their sophomore seasons.
“It was pretty incredible that he was able to turn it around and do what he did for us last year,” McCaffery said.
Garza will also use the power of visualization moving forward, like he did to prepare for his first NCAA Tournament experience in March. He plans to improve his daily routine by visualizing every morning when he wakes up and every evening before he goes to sleep.
McCaffery is excited to see what Garza can do when he starts his junior season with a full head of steam.
“He’s going to be playing with a level of confidence that is going to enable him to be one of the best players in the Big Ten,” McCaffery said. “He’s killing it right now, and he’s going to continue to kill it. His low-post game is tremendous and his 3-point percentage will improve. He’s in a great place physically.”