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How Iowa's Luka Garza was groomed to lead — from his family to his chat with Nick Saban

Mark Emmert
Hawk Central

BLOOMINGTON, Ind. — Luka Garza sat in the office of legendary Alabama football coach Nick Saban and tried to pry loose one piece of wisdom that he could carry forever.

It was June 2016, and Garza was a 17-year-old basketball prospect who had not yet chosen to attend Iowa. But he had made up his mind that, if he was going to devote his life to this game, he wanted to be the best he could possibly be, as a player and a teammate.

Garza prepared his question in advance, knowing this would be a singular moment in his life.

Profile:Iowa's Luka Garza is an unlikely college basketball star with the help of grueling workouts

“How have you been so consistent with your success?” Garza asked Saban, his five national championship rings (there have been two more since) resting on a nearby coffee table where they could be noticed by visitors but not thrust into their faces.

Luka’s father, Frank, who was observing the conversation, recalled Saban’s response: “There’s so many books written about how to get to the top. There’s hardly been any books on how to stay there. I want you to focus on those intangible qualities that allow you to say at an elite level until you no longer choose to.”

Garza ultimately turned down the basketball scholarship offer from then-Alabama coach Avery Johnson. But he reflects often about that message from Saban.

“I think about the work ethic and the preparation that goes into every single season. No matter what’s happening, to be consistent every day and show up and work as hard as you can,” Garza said.

Luka Garza puts his arm around Alabama football coach Nick Saban after a memorable 2016 conversation. Garza, now a star basketball player at Iowa, thinks often about the message he heard from the legendary coach.

Garza grew up around successful athletes and coaches, some of them famous. He absorbed every lesson he could on his way to an all-American season as a Hawkeye junior. And he needs to rely on all of that knowledge now, as the senior leader of an Iowa team that is aiming for a championship but is discovering how steep that challenge is.

The No. 8 Hawkeyes (13-5, 7-4 Big Ten Conference) have lost three of their past four games, unleashing the refrains ingrained in a fan base that has become jaded by failures of past teams: Namely, that Iowa’s defense is too soft and coach Fran McCaffery is too hard-headed to find the answers needed for a March run to glory.

Up next for Garza and Co. is a meeting with the team that started this recent slide, Indiana. That game will tipoff at 11 a.m. Sunday in Assembly Hall, a national audience on Fox tuning in for some sports entertainment ahead of the Super Bowl. The Hoosiers (9-8, 4-6) haven’t won since rallying past Iowa on Jan. 21 and are on a three-game home losing streak.

There are no must-win basketball games in February, but this might come close for the Hawkeyes — especially if they look to keep pace in the Big Ten race. 

Garza, who leads the nation in scoring at 25.9 points per game, knows he must make sure the team responds. Where he leads, the Hawkeyes will follow.

“If there’s a needle that needs to be pushed if we want to be a championship team, we need to work on that,” Garza told the Register this week. “It can’t always be coach yelling at us. It’s got to be us telling each other what we’ve got to do.”

Garza's two grandfathers excelled in different sports on different continents

Garza’s grandfathers were both instrumental in his basketball development. James Halm played the sport at Hawaii before beginning a lengthy coaching career that included summers spent tutoring his grandson.

Refik Muftic was a prominent professional soccer player, first in his native Sarajevo and later in Austria. Muftic was a goalie. He is the father of Luka’s mother, Sejla. And he was so well-known in Bosnia that Garza remembers walking the streets with him and being interrupted by people seeking autographs or pictures.

There was a language barrier between grandfather and grandson, Garza said, since his Bosnian is limited and Muftic spoke broken English. But Garza was paying attention enough to pick up on two things that have stuck with him. He said most of what he knows about helping his body recover after physically draining games and practices he learned from Muftic, who died two years ago.

The other lesson was this: “No matter what’s happening, just be who I am and work as hard as I can.”

Garza knows that, to truly influence people he must be genuine. Certainly his peers would detect any false enthusiasm or self-serving platitudes. He said he is proudest this year that he has helped create a locker room filled with exchanges that can be blunt but are also well-meaning. This is the culture hidden from fans and the media, but which can show up on the court when things turn stressful.

Garza, as the team’s star, knows he’s being looked to in these moments. But he also is happy to have upperclassmen Jordan Bohannon, Connor McCaffery and Joe Wieskamp alongside him to reinforce the importance of sticking together while not settling for subpar results.

In Tuesday’s win over Michigan State, Iowa sophomore guard Joe Toussaint was called for a foul that he clearly felt was undeserved. He pointed this out to the officials, and then seemed to want to expand on the subject, starting to follow one as he walked away. Garza, who was gathering the Hawkeyes into a huddle at the free-throw line, turned to grab Toussaint’s arm and bring him in for a pep talk and away from any possibility of a technical foul.

“We hold each other accountable,” Garza said. “And when we need to be better, we tell each other we need to be better.”

Luka Garza may be the biggest star in college basketball, but he always seems happiest to celebrate a teammate's accomplishments. Here, the Hawkeye senior greets freshman Patrick McCaffery after a big play leading into a timeout.

In D.C., Garza was an eager student surrounded by talented leaders

Toussaint had 10 points and six assists against the Spartans. Iowa wouldn’t have won the game without him. Garza would be the first to acknowledge that. In postgame interviews, he frequently speaks of his own shortcomings and lights up at the chance to point out the contributions of everyone else. He especially wants Iowa’s losses to fall on his shoulders. You will never catch him calling out other Hawkeyes publicly.

Garza grew up in Washington, D.C., and speaks often about the ways in which the rich basketball culture there shaped him. He was on the Team Takeover AAU squad, and one of its alumni is Houston Rockets guard Victor Oladipo, a former Indiana Hoosier. Garza admires the hard work that Oladipo put in to make himself into a star. That feels familiar to him.

As a teenager, Garza played in pickup games against Oladipo. He attended a camp run by Oladipo. He watched the older player break down film for the youngsters.

At Maret School, Garza was coached by Chuck Driesell, son of Hall of Fame college coach Lefty, who won more than 100 games at four different Division I stops. Garza spent the time in between the end of school and the start of basketball practice in Chuck Driesell’s office, talking about the game. He went to his coach’s house on weekends to watch film of his team.

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

“I wanted to be like my teachers. I wanted to be a leader as they were. That’s definitely something I worked for, and I wanted to put myself in position to be that guy,” Garza said. “I’m working as hard as I can to maximize what I can be as a leader to help this team.”

The Hawkeyes need his help now. Garza had 38 points at Indiana a season ago, but Iowa lost that game.

Garza doesn’t want to be defined merely by points scored, but by points made.

Mark Emmert covers the Iowa Hawkeyes for the Register. Reach him at memmert@registermedia.com or 319-339-7367. Follow him on Twitter at @MarkEmmert.