The tributes have poured in from all over the basketball world ever since Howard Garfinkel passed away on Saturday morning. They came from former players, now aged and aching in their joints. From veteran coaches, their faces weathered by time. Writers, AAU coaches, scouts, gym rats, businessmen, teachers, lawyers, doctors—no matter how well they knew him, they paid respects to the hardwood icon known as Garf. It was a simple nickname for a simple man who once lorded over a much simpler time.
Garfinkel’s death last Saturday morning was hardly a surprise. How many men can chain smoke for decades and still make it to 86? It wasn’t until a few weeks ago that Garf was diagnosed with lung cancer. After his last hospital stay, his friends knew he didn’t have much time left, so they called him around the clock and asked how he felt, only to hear him take the conversation in another direction (toward basketball, of course, always basketball). Garf was nothing if not a man of habits. He smoked. He ate. He bet the ponies. He loved hoops. And then he died. Ain’t that America.
Garf was, of course, known best for being the founder of the Five-Star Basketball Camps, which during their 60-plus years in existence provided countless players and coaches with a forum to learn the game and gain access to opportunities. But that doesn’t fully explain why his passing was felt so profoundly. Garf was a great guy but he was also the Great Connector. When he died, it felt like all those connections died a little, too.
Like many people who have been involved in basketball, I knew Garf pretty well. You almost couldn’t help it. I’d see him at games and say hello. I’d call him once in a while if I was working on a story. One time, I went to the Naismith Hall of Fame inductions in Springfield, Mass., and he asked me to drive him back to his modest apartment in midtown Manhattan. Garf was not what you would call a worldly guy. We didn’t talk politics or literature or culture. We talked basketball. He told me stories and smoked the entire ride. It was heaven.
So yeah, I knew him O.K., but it felt like he was a much closer friend than he actually was. Whenever I saw him, I hugged him. The last time was a little over a month ago during the Final Four weekend in Houston. It was past midnight and I was sitting in the back room of a hotel restaurant with a group of my CBS and Turner co-workers, including Charles Barkley. When Garf walked into the room, Barkley stood up and greeted him like royalty. He invited Garf to sit next to him and thanked him profusely for everything he had done for him. I assumed Barkley had been a camper at Five Star, but it turns out that wasn’t true. Yet, Barkley still felt deeply connected to the man, and not a little indebted.
This has been a constant refrain the last few days. “In all my years as a player and a coach and being involved with basketball, I don’t think there is a single person anywhere in the same category in terms of helping the game as Garf was,” Bob Knight told me this week. “He understood the game and how it should be played as well as anybody I’ve ever known. I couldn’t even begin to tell you the number of coaches he was able to help get started through working at his camps in the summer.”
Garf was uneducated, unsophisticated and unapologetic. He was a city kid with a gravelly voice. He sounded like basketball. He played a little back in the day for Barnard High School in the Bronx, but he was the first to say he was no great prospect. He wasn’t much of a student either, barely lasting a semester at Syracuse before dropping out to work for his father in the textile business. He quickly realized the business world was not for him. The only thing that inflamed his passion was basketball. He spent much of his spare time taking buses and subways to watch the city’s top players, so he took a flyer on becoming a talent scout for local colleges. He soon earned an invite as a counselor at a summer basketball camp run by Power Memorial High coach Jack Donohue. He was once a bunk counselor there for a plucky young guard from St. Dominic (N.Y.) High School named Rick Pitino.
That experience convinced Garf to give the camp thing a try, so in 1966 he partnered with Columbus (N.Y.) High school basketball coach Will Klein and LIU coach Roy Rubin and launched Five-Star. (It initially went by the names Orin Sekwa and the Roy Rubin Basketball School, but became Five-Star when Rubin walked away from the partnership.) The first week they invited about 60 players from New York City to a camp in Niverville, N.Y. A few years later, they moved it to Honesdale, Pa., in the Catskills, and Wheeling (W.Va.) College. Later, it blew up at Robert Morris College in Pittsburgh. If Garf had a keen eye for spying promising young players, he displayed a similar knack when it came to coaches. Knight was one of the first to move into the Five-Star orbit, back when he was the head coach at Army and the camp was in its third year. Garf also invited a New Jersey high school coach named Hubie Brown. One of the first guest lecturers was Chuck Daly, then a Duke assistant.
Knight was the one who implemented the concept of the “stations,” whereby each area of the court was devoted to a certain aspect of the game. The players would work at a station, and then the whistle blew, and then they’d move on to the next station. This was outdoors, by the way. The courts were surrounded by chain-link fences. There were no numbers on the jerseys. The players had come to learn the game, not create their own brands. Many of the best players worked as waiters. Garf wanted Five-Star to be the place where “the teaching never stops.”
He wasn’t urbane, but he had the flair of a slick, seasoned promoter. When the campers gathered to hear a lecture, Garf would embarrass the speaker with an over-the-top introduction. Day after summer day, he walked around his camps, puffing cigarettes and snapping photos. When Five Star celebrated its 50-year anniversary, the camp posted around 14,000 pictures on its website. A who’s who played at Five Star: Jordan, Moses, Isiah, Patrick, ‘Nique, Alonzo. Ask Garf who the best player he ever saw was, and he replied, “Calvin Murphy!” every time. (Murphy was not a Five-Star camper, but he did speak there later in life.)
For a guy without a college degree, Garf was a pretty good businessman, at least for a little while. His scouting service became a source of burgeoning income. He called it the HSBI Report, which stands for High School Basketball Illustrated. Garf would rate players in the northeast on a scale of one to five stars. Simple, right? You see a lot of recruiting websites use that same system today. Many of the young guys using it probably probably have no idea where it came from.
Inevitably, progress began to complicate things. In the early 1980s, the NCAA, spurred by rival coaches who didn’t have the benefit of being in Garf’s inner circle, passed a rule preventing people running recruiting camps from also publishing scouting services. So Garf sold his interest in HSBI to his friend and partner, Tom Konchalski, himself a basketball Zelig who to this day still pecks out reports in his Queens apartment using a typewriter. The early signing period for recruiting was also created in 1982, which put an even greater premium on the action in the summer. That prompted lots of sneaker-sponsored showcase events to spring up around the country. Many of them called themselves “camps,” but they weren’t camps the way Garf understood the term. They were showcases, emphasizing the individual excellence over fundamentals and teaching.
Unlike many in his business, Garf never tried to ride a kid into a job, and there’s no indication that a college coach tried real hard to bring him on as an assistant. When I asked Knight if he ever considered doing so, he laughed for several seconds and said, “I’m not sure I wanted to go through hiring Garf, but I genuinely loved the guy. What he was doing was absolutely perfect for him.” Whereas another legendary basketball impresario, Sonny Vaccaro, expanded the grassroots scene and eventually took a job with major companies like Nike and Adidas, Garf was unwilling, or perhaps unable, to slide into those worlds. “It was like he was in a time warp,” Vaccaro says. “In many ways, he outlived his times. He never pretended to be anyone other than who he was. I don’t know if there are any people like Howard left. That era is over. The world moves too fast.”
The money dried up a little—all those trips to OTB didn’t help—but the camp went on. Garf was never broke because he was never without friends. All those years connecting people sustained Garf in the winter of his life. “He lived on the phone all day long,” Pitino told me. “How many lower-end players, Division II players, got scholarships because he helped them out? I would say thousands.”
As he got older, he moved into quasi-retirement. He sold his share of Five-Star in 2005 but continued as a paid consultant for three more years. And he still produced clinics all around New York state. The teaching never stops. A week before Garf died, Pitino called to see how he was doing. He had been told Garf was sick and had months, perhaps weeks, to live. But when Pitino tried to ask Garf how he felt, Garf turned the topic to a clinic Pitino had agreed to do for him in Poughkeepsie, N.Y., in early October. “I want you to come up with something you’ve never done,” Garf said. After he hung up, Pitino called a mutual friend called Larry the Scout and reported that Garf sounded pretty strong over the phone. “He’s not going to make it to that clinic,” Larry said.
No doubt Garf thought he could live forever, smoking all the way. People like Pitino loved him precisely because he never changed. He had no degree, no wife, no kids, no other interests, really, but darn if he didn’t grab hold of that ball. Then he passed along what he knew, paid a few bills and went to meet some buddies for a late-night sandwich at Carnegie Deli. He was timeless and he was old-fashioned, but now he’s gone. The only thing left to do is bury the man and thank him for the assist.