How a former Hawkeye basketball star became an overseas celebrity
When a business trip took me to Australia recently, I jumped at the chance to see my former Iowa basketball teammate and good friend Steve Carfino.
Sitting at a bustling outdoor cafe besides the breathtaking Sydney Opera House, Steve recounted his remarkable journey from all-Big Ten guard to becoming a television icon and the face of Australian basketball.
Carfino arrived in Iowa City the autumn following Iowa’s 1980 Final Four run and quickly filled the void of fan favorite left by the graduation of Ronnie Lester. Carfino was exotic. He came from Southern California with a big afro and a killer smile. He was a dynamic athlete who had an engaging personality and infectious charm.
His unusual popularity was never more apparent than on Valentine’s Day. Even walk-ons like me were dumbfounded by the number of cards we’d receive from across the state. One year I got enough cards to fill a shoe box, but Carfino? His were delivered in mail bins. His locker overflowed with cards; neither he nor the guys on either side of him had room enough to dress. Coach Lute Olson would shake his head saying he’d never seen so much mail for one player.
On the court, Steve was lightning quick, could jump out of the gym and could shoot from anywhere. Off the court, he had a knack for impersonations that always made us laugh. Yet, his personality was also marked by an endearing innocence. Around campus, girls constantly asked me if I’d introduce them; even today, mention Steve’s name and Iowa women of a certain age swoon over memories of their infatuation.
Though Carfino would play just five seasons as a professional in Australia’s National Basketball League due to nagging back injuries, his impact was such that he holds the distinction of being the only five-year veteran to be inducted into the Australian Basketball Hall of Fame.
I asked Andrew Gaze — NBA champion, five-time Australian Olympian and seven-time NBL MVP — to characterize Carfino’s impact on Australian basketball.
“Steve came to Australia at a pivotal time in the development of pro basketball," Gaze said. "The league began in 1978 and Steve arrived in 1985. I think he averaged 32 points a game his first season. Not only did Steve play at an elite level, but he had such an engaging personality that he captured the attention of people who knew nothing about the game. He was a big influence on players and fans. Then he went into broadcasting and did the same thing. His combination of personality, basketball star power and fun-loving demeanor has allowed him to influence the game here for 30 years.”
Two former Hawkeyes sat down for a wide-ranging conversation. Here are some highlights:
Jon Darsee: I caught your telecast the other night between the Sydney Kings and Cairn Taipans. To be honest, it felt kind of surreal to be reacquainting with such a good friend via television but it was also great fun because you’re really good. How did you get into broadcasting?
Steve Carfino: I was playing for the Sydney Kings and you know, I’ve always been a fun-loving, in-the-moment guy. One game as we returned to the court after halftime, kids were putting on a show jumping rope. Well, as you’ll remember, coach Olson started every Iowa practice with several minutes jumping rope. We got very good at it! I saw a spare rope near the bench so I picked it up and joined the kids. The crowd loved it. The TV audience loved it. I think this was a good example of why the networks became interested in me.
Darsee: I asked our former teammates at Iowa to comment on your television career. Mark Gannon had this to say: “I’m not surprised by Steve’s success in broadcasting. He was always the best interview. He had a good basketball mind and was fun to talk to. He was charming, knowledgeable and goofy all at the same time.”
Carfino: I felt bad for the other guys. Lute would come into the locker room even on a night when I’d had an average game yet he’d still pick me to talk to the press. The guys always ribbed me about that. I finally asked coach, "Why me?" He just shrugged and said, “They want to talk to you.”
Darsee: Last year I wrote an article for the Register titled “Ex-Hawkeye coach made a big impact on basketball media” about the unusual number of former Olson players who have been successful in broadcasting. The list includes two of our Hawkeye teammates, Bobby Hansen and Kevin Boyle. Both are excellent radio commentators for Iowa and UNI, respectively, but you are the only guy in Lute’s illustrious stable who has had a TV career spanning three decades.
Carfino: I’ve been very lucky. I’ve had the opportunity to play a lot of roles. I’ve been both the play-by-play and color analyst for basketball games, and I’ve hosted 10 different TV programs over the years, including kids' shows and other shows covering things like the NFL and the NBA.
Darsee: I heard a rumor that coach Olson once said the two guards he enjoyed coaching most were both named Steve: Carfino and Kerr. We all know about Steve Kerr (head coach of the Golden State Warriors and five-time NBA champion), who like you was once a television analyst. If the rumor is true, it’s quite an honor.
Carfino: Oh, I don’t know about that. Coach Olson made us all feel special. He’s been and continues to be a huge influence on so many of us.
Darsee: You’ve performed in a Tasmanian cabaret dance troupe and make rap videos, and you sang the national anthem at a Dodgers vs. Diamondbacks baseball game in Sydney. Now you are dabbling in stand-up comedy. I didn’t know you were so versatile!
Carfino: (laughing) I’ve never been afraid to make a fool of myself! I tell my kids this, too — don’t sit back and miss out when you see something you’d like to try. My son is a basketball player and a model, and my daughter dances for the Sydney Kings. Recently they choreographed a dance routine and performed during halftime of a televised game. It was great! I tell them, "Jump in there and don’t worry about how you look to others." Like the spontaneous jump-roping experience, those kinds of things may have influenced how the media saw me, but I was just seizing an opportunity to have fun.
Darsee: When you came to Iowa, we also had the pleasure to get to know your parents. The whole team looked forward to their visits.
Carfino: That’s cool. My parents loved Iowa City. We came from a working-class Los Angeles suburb called Bellflower. My dad was a truck driver and only 5-foot-6, but as you’ll remember, my dad has a huge personality. He is one of the most charming and fun-loving guys you will ever meet. He built friendships all over the state during my time at Iowa. By contrast, my mom was an electronics company factory worker and the rock of the family. A woman of few words, she has this quiet, grounded nature, and when she spoke everyone paid attention. She had a special relationship to coach Olson. She was a big influence on my decision to come all the way to Iowa.
Darsee: Besides your mom and coach Olson, what else tipped your hand toward Iowa?
Carfino: I came on my visit and it was exactly how I pictured. College town, changes of season and sports-crazy!
Darsee: You were one of a few guys to play in the Old Field House and Carver-Hawkeye Arena. Which did you like better?
Carfino: I loved both, but the Field House was what I experienced right out of high school. Hitting my first shot and hearing the Iowa crowd respond is something I’ll never forget.
Darsee: We just spent 10 days in Sydney — a city of 4 million — and I swear I only heard a police siren three times. Is that possible?
Carfino: I don’t doubt it. Crime is very low here. I’m not afraid to walk down any street in Australia.
Darsee: It seems to me that Americans, myself included, know little about Australia besides images of the natural beauty and Crocodile Dundee. My wife and I fell in love with the people and the culture. What stands out to you?
Carfino: People here work to live more than live to work. Balance is important to them, status not so much. They all get four weeks of vacation. It is law that they must vote. It seems they are more engaged than back home. I think they tend to judge less. Something like 70% of them have passports vs. 30% of Americans. Maybe it’s because they live on a remote continent, but they seem to be very much in touch with the world around them. As much as I miss the states and want my kids to connect to their American heritage, I’m very happy they have grown up here. We’ve built a fabulous life.
An Iowa City old-timer once encouraged Steve to stay in Iowa after college. When Steve asked why, the guy said, “Because you are famous here.” Before he could stop himself, Steve responded, “I’ll be famous wherever I go.”
With the Sydney Harbor and the soaring Opera House as a backdrop and Steve’s effervescent confidence on full display, it’s easy to imagine how he went from working-class Bellflower to star Hawkeye heartthrob to an Australian basketball legend.
A frequent contributor to the Register, Jon Darsee was a member of the University of Iowa’s 1980 Final Four basketball team. A former executive at iRhythm Technologies, he is a digital health, reimbursement and leadership consultant who recently returned home to help promote innovation at the University of Iowa.