How Luka Garza kept a bold promise from summer of 2018
He has since become Hawkeye legend and made Iowa relevant again
By Pat Harty
IOWA CITY, Iowa – Luka Garza had just finished working out in the Iowa practice facility when we sat down for an interview.
It was early June 2018, and less than three months since Iowa had finished a disappointing season with records of 14-19 overall and 4-14 in the Big Ten.
Garza’s performance as a freshman that season was one of the few bright spots as he averaged 12.1 points and 6.4 rebounds per game as the starting center.
His future certainly looked bright, but there was uncertainty surrounding his team when we sat down for the interview.
“That’ll never happen again,” Garza said of Iowa’s losing record. “I’m going to do whatever it takes, and we’re going to do whatever it takes as a team to never feel this way again.
“It’s unacceptable for us players and coaches, and for the fans. Iowa deserves better and we’re going to get better one day and one workout at a time.”
Those words from our interview stuck with me because Garza spoke with so much conviction and confidence. He wasn’t cocky, because how could he be under the circumstances?
He was just determined.
But I’ll be honest, I still wasn’t convinced.
I needed to see it to believe it.
And now I’ve seen it.
Garza has since gone from being a promising prospect on the day of that interview to Iowa’s all-time leading scorer whose number 55 will be retired after this season.
Iowa, as a team, has gone from being pretty bad in Garza’s freshman season to currently being ranked fifth in the Associated Press poll and seeded third in the Big Ten Tournament where Iowa (20-7), 14-6) will play a quarterfinal round game on Friday in Indianapolis.
Iowa is a lock to make the NCAA Tournament for the second time in three seasons, and the only reason it’s not three years in a row is because the 2020 NCAA Tournament was canceled due to the outbreak of the coronavirus.
Luka Garza’s legend is partly about his incredible statistics, but legends aren’t built by individual numbers alone.
Garza also has helped to make Iowa a winner again, and relevant again on the national stage.
And he has accomplished all of these things with humility and grace, and with a team-first mentality.
With Garza, it’s always about the team, and that was the case again on Sunday after he learned that his number would be retired.
Garza had just finished thanking Iowa coach Fran McCaffery for changing his life when he looked over to his teammates, assistant coaches and support staff.
“To these guys over here, I wouldn’t be nothing without you guys,” Garza said while pointing at his teammates and coaches. “You guys made me look good for four years. And I wouldn’t be standing right here without any of you. So I really appreciate it. And I’m very happy to have played with the guys that I have.”
Garza concluded by telling his family that he loved them, and by thanking the fans.
His speech was emotional, inspiring and just Luka being Luka.
His game, and his body, have changed over the past four years, but Luka Garza is still the same person he was when he stepped foot on campus; humble and appreciative.
And for that, Iowa is very fortunate because not everybody handles stardom with as much class and dignity that Garza has shown, although, Iowa wrestler Spencer Lee could make that claim.
Lee never would make that claim, because just like with Garza, Lee doesn’t shower himself with praise.
He prefers to talk about his teammates and coaches, and about the next challenge.
Lee is on a never-ending quest to get better, as is Garza.
They compete in different sports and Garza is nearly two feet taller than the 5-3 Lee, but they still have much in common as competitors, and as people.
They win with class, and lose with class, although, Lee doesn’t lose these days as a two-time NCAA champion at 125 pounds, and as the heavy favorite to win a third national title.
But I do remember one of the few times when Lee did lose, he handled it with class. He had just been pinned by former Oklahoma State wrestler Nick Piccininni in Feb., 2019, and while Piccininni flexed for the fans and celebrated his win, Lee waited patiently at the center of the mat to shake his hand.
Those few seconds waiting to shake Piccininni’s hand had to be excruciating for Lee because he absolutely despises losing. But he did it anyway because it was the right thing to do.
Lee also has led Iowa’s resurgence in wrestling, and that was another goal he had.
The top-ranked Hawkeyes just won the Big Ten title for the second year in a row and are the heavy favorites to win the national title for the first time since 2010.
Iowa was also favored to win the national title last season before the event was canceled due to the coronavirus.
Lee and Garza are individual stars who thrive in a team atmosphere.
They’re both legends, and more importantly, they’re both good, honest people.
And for that, Iowa is very fortunate.