Leistikow: On a night of appreciation for Luka Garza, Iowa basketball greats

Chad Leistikow
Hawk Central

IOWA CITY — Four jersey numbers and names on black-and-gold banners were unfurled Tuesday night, high atop the Carver-Hawkeye Arena rafters.

Luka Garza’s No. 55, Roy Marble’s 23, Chuck Darling’s 27 and Murray Wier’s 17 will all hang from the white catwalk attached to the ceiling, for however long this arena built in 1983 stands.

The most noteworthy on this night, though, was Garza’s 55. The two-time consensus all-American and reigning national player of the year was beaming in his return to see a full house of Hawkeye fans for the first time in a long time, as his number was revealed hanging next to the No. 40 of the late Chris Street.

A touching tribute video played at halftime, as Garza became emotional at center court and felt the cheers of a packed Carver crowd that triumphantly chanted, "Luka! Luka! Luka!"

"This is incredible," Garza told the crowd. "I love you."

For all four honorees, appreciation was the common theme.

For Garza, Tuesday was a time for reflection. He made the same comment he did during much of his record-setting Iowa career while amassing 2,306 points — seventh-most in Big Ten Conference history and the most in the league this century: That the Washington, D.C., native had a chip on his shoulder being ranked No. 100 player in his high school class nationally.

“And when they ranked me, they spelled my name wrong,” Garza said. “I was able to become the best player in the country and help my team win at a very high level."

Luka Garza speaks as his family looks on during halftime of Iowa's Tuesday game against Michigan State.

Iowa became the backdrop for Garza’s impressive journey of legendary work ethic. And now he’s enjoyed time in the NBA, with the Detroit Pistons — telling funny stories about the first time he defended (and trash-talked with) Philadephia 76ers superstar Joel Embiid.

“I’m so thankful and lucky to be recruited by coach (Fran) McCaffery,” Garza said. “… I came here and fell in love with it. It’s home for me.”

Garza was most appreciative to see the fans cheering him at Carver-Hawkeye. Last year while averaging 24.1 points per game and leading the Hawkeyes to a No. 2 seed in the NCAA Tournament, arenas were empty aside from teammates, officials, media and sometimes family. A player who loves to play to the crowd didn’t have one to relish during a magical on-court year.

He smiled in a pregame interview and wondered what it would have been like for fans to see him light up Iowa State for 34 points in just 16½ minutes. Or see the Hawkeyes’ big home win against blueblood North Carolina. Or see Garza surpass Marble’s 2,116 points — a record held for 32 years — as Iowa’s all-time scoring leader.

That brings us to Marble, who passed away in 2015. One of his sons, Devyn, became a standout guard for McCaffery's rebuild early last decade and left as a top-10 program scorer. Yet a year ago, upon hearing that Garza’s No. 55 would be retired, Devyn tweeted that he would “never watch another Iowa game in my life with the amount of disrespect that school has shown me and my family.”

Tuesday was a different tune. Devyn Marble was in Iowa City along with five family members as his late father’s No. 23 was unfurled. He said constant dialogue with Iowa — particularly McCaffery — helped mend fences. He grinned from ear to ear as he talked. His father was the leading scorer in an era of memorable Hawkeye basketball in the late 1980s.

“I never had no ill intent … towards anybody,” Devyn said Tuesday. “I just wanted my dad to get what I felt he deserved.

“This is what he would have wanted. I feel like I’m completing the last chapter of what I’m supposed to do for him, you know?”

Marble’s jersey joins what is certainly a mishmash of numbers now hanging in Carver. The retirement of the entire “Fab Five” starting lineup of the 1955-56 national runners-up — something that was decided 60-plus years ago — puts single-digit-average scorers Bill Schoof and Sharm Scheuerman next to the likes of Garza, Ronnie Lester and Greg Stokes.

The 13 men's players now honored in order of year played: Wier, Darling, Carl Cain, Bill Logan, Bill Seaberg, Schoof, Scheuerman, Lester, Stokes, B.J. Armstrong, Marble, Street and Garza. (By contrast, just two women's players have had numbers retired: Michelle Edwards' 30 and Megan Gustafson's 10.)

Iowa athletics director Gary Barta on Monday said a committee combed through Iowa history to produce the three added names plus Garza, “to make sure we weren’t missing anybody.” Barta added that a stricter criteria will be used for number/jersey retirement going forward under his watch.

“Even if there are some inconsistencies (in the past),” Barta said, “the fact of the matter is these are our greats and they’ll be hanging from our rafters.”

Hawkeyes columnist Chad Leistikow has covered sports for 27 years with The Des Moines Register, USA TODAY and Iowa City Press-Citizen. Follow @ChadLeistikow on Twitter.