Luka Garza's path from overweight high schooler to Iowa center

Mark Emmert
Hawk Central

Chuck Driesell couldn’t wait to get a look at the 6-foot-11 teenager who would be the centerpiece of his first basketball team as coach at Maret School in Washington, D.C.

Luka Garza was playing in an August AAU tournament in Maryland, so Driesell hustled over to watch him. There was much to take in — Garza’s advanced skill set, terrific hands and preternatural feel for the game. There was also too much to take in — Garza’s bulky frame limited his ability to run the floor.

The son of famed former Maryland coach Lefty Driesell asked a University of Virginia assistant coach sitting next to him what he thought of Garza. “He can’t move at the major-college level,” was the response.

Driesell nodded in agreement and went to deliver that professional assessment.

Luka Garza bulls his way to the basket as a senior at Maret School in Washington, D.C. The 6-foot-11 center is flying to Iowa City on June 12 to begin his Hawkeye career.

What Driesell didn’t know then is that Garza was aware of his weight problem and on the verge of doing something about it. The athlete whose childhood nickname was “Pudge” had had surgery to repair bone spurs after his sophomore year at Maret. He ballooned to 265 pounds during the period of inactivity that followed.

Garza spent the rest of August 2015 in Hawaii, working out with his father, Frank, and Frank’s former college coach, Bill Trumbo. Garza changed his diet, added more sprints to his daily regimen and cut down on the amount of time he was resting between drills. By the end of the month, Garza had dropped 30 pounds and flew back home as a big-time college prospect.

Luka Garza is a four-star recruit ranked 98th in his class by ESPN.

“I pushed myself really hard. I cut out sugar and juice. My jumping ability started to get a lot better and I was quick on my feet,” Garza told the Register recently. “It was definitely not easy, especially being that big, and trying to run a lot was really hard. I was really out of shape.”

Driesell marveled at Garza's transformation. So did college scouts. Garza gathered 28 scholarship offers as a svelte junior and senior. Last fall, Iowa emerged the winner, with Garza choosing the Hawkeyes over nearby Georgetown after forming an early bond with coach Fran McCaffery.

Iowa had been his first major-college suitor, even back before Garza shed the weight. Garza didn’t forget.

“I had no relationship that could compare to the relationship with (McCaffery) and (assistant) coach (Sherman) Dillard,” Garza said. “I visited three times, and each time I loved it and I really saw that family environment unlike I’d seen at different places. I committed on my dad’s birthday (Sept. 10).”

A display of dominance

Garza is a four-star recruit ranked 98th in his class by ESPN. He led Maret to a 26-5 record as a senior, averaging 24.6 points and 11.7 rebounds while picking up Gatorade Player of the Year honors in D.C.

“He can do a little bit of everything,” Driesell said. “He’s a center who can shoot it, who can put it on the floor. He can make great moves. He’ll post you up back to the basket. You don’t see a lot of back-to-the-basket guys, and he has that down. But he can also take you out on the perimeter and face you up, depending on who’s covering him.”

Garza displayed his dominance in the final three games of his prep career. In the D.C. State Athletic Association quarterfinals, he posted his first career triple-double: 36 points, 17 rebounds and 11 blocked shots. He followed with 27 points and 11 rebounds in an upset victory over St. John’s in the semifinals.

From left: Luka’s grandfather, James Halm, Luka Garza, Bill Trumbo, Luka’s cousin Amar Alibegovic and Luka’s father, Frank.

The city championship was against powerhouse Gonzaga, and things didn’t start well for Garza. In the first half, Garza had a defender pinned on the low block and rose for a shot attempt. The defender tried to block his shot, catching him with an elbow that sent Garza sprawling onto some camera equipment. Somewhere in that sequence, Garza’s head was split open, creating a torrent of blood that could only be stopped with stitches.

Garza still has the scar from that halftime operation. He also has the foggy memory of coming out of the locker room a little woozy to start, only to punish Gonzaga with 37 points and 17 rebounds, albeit in a losing effort.

“It wasn’t so much the 37 and 17. It was just the stage of the game. It’s the biggest game of the year, we’re in a college gym (at George Washington) against the No. 9-ranked team in the country and he gets his head smashed in,” Driesell said. “Most kids wouldn’t play the rest of the game. Blood’s all over the place. It was remarkable what he did.”

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A family of hoopsters

Garza grew more comfortable thriving in the spotlight as a senior, but it doesn’t come naturally to him. Unselfish play has been a hallmark of his game ever since picking up a basketball and trying to live up to his blood lines.

Frank Garza was a 6-7 “stretch 4” at Idaho in the mid-1980s, when the 3-point shot was introduced to the college game. Garza’s mother, Sejla, competed professionally in Europe. Garza has a 6-8 grandfather, James Halm, who played at Hawaii. Uncle Teoman Alibegovic, also 6-8, played for Oregon State. Alibegovic’s son, Amar, is a senior forward at St. John’s.

“He’s always had a team of advisers,” Frank Garza said of his son’s basketball upbringing.

One of them was Trumbo, who coached Frank at Idaho and is now retired and living in Hawaii. For the past three years, Frank has brought Luka to Hawaii so that his mentor can form a relationship with his son. Luka said he considers Trumbo part of the family now.

“Most of my life lessons were learned on the basketball court,” Frank Garza said. “You’re keeping score, so there’s an end result, but then you have to perform within all that structure and get along with each other and have the same goals. Coach Trumbo used to call it ‘give up to win.’ You’ve got to give up your self-identity so the team can win. And Luka’s full of that, so I wanted him to hear that from the source.

“Luka would rather pass than score, innately. And that’s why he’s a better player than me and a better man than me.”

The August trips to the islands were filled with more than just basketball. One summer, Luka and Frank got baptized together at New Hope Christian Fellowship. They still listen to tapes of the weekly sermons delivered at that church.

“We embrace everything,” Frank Garza said.

What Iowa is getting

When Frank says they embrace everything, that includes academics. Luka is interning at a D.C. investment firm in the month between the end of his classes at Maret and his graduation ceremony.

Driesell said it’s that well-rounded personality that made Garza such a joy to coach the past two seasons. He said Garza worked hard, but also had a built-in understanding of what his coaches wanted him to do.

That bodes well for the Hawkeyes, who could use a rim protector like Garza.

“I think they’re going to have to play him,” Driesell said. “I think he’ll get down there in June and he’ll outwork everybody, and they’re going to see that his skill level is good enough for Division I right away.”

Driesell has been working with Garza on developing offensive moves farther from the basket. He won’t be able to back down college centers the way he did in high school, so he’s adding a turnaround jump shot that he can initiate two or three steps off of the block. Garza also said he’s working on adding speed and core strength in order to hold up better on the defensive end.

“My length is something coach McCaffery says is advantageous to the team,” said Garza, who may not be done growing. “I’m just going to work hard and take what I can get in terms of, any time they put me on the floor, I’m going to play as hard as I can.”

Garza will graduate June 12 and catch a flight to Iowa that evening. He figures he may even arrive at his new home before midnight, just in time for summer classes and workouts with his new teammates.

Frank Garza said June 12 is a milestone for the family in another way. That was the date he first met McCaffery, at an elite basketball camp in St. Louis. Frank noted it in his personal journal, with the following comment:

“This is Luka’s coach.”

Add two years and subtract 30 pounds, and that’s exactly where Luka Garza’s life has led him.