The Architect

The legendary Howard Garfinkel reflects on his legacy in youth basketball

by Casey Mack April 3, 2011 11:33am ET
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To simply describe Howard Garfinkel’s presence as professorial would be selling the 80-year-old New York native short.

Rather, Garfinkel – the founder and godfather figure of the Five-Star Basketball Camp – is many things when he steps in between the lines: professor, preacher, elementary teacher, guru, guidance counselor, consigliere … and, of course, coach.

Starting in 1966, Garfinkel created an outlet for high school players to test their skills against the best competition, as well as learn from some of the best minds in the basketball business. From Michael Jordan to LeBron James to John Wall on the court, from Chuck Daly to Bobby Knight to John Calipari on the sidelines, Five-Star’s historic archives are like a basketball hall of fame. And Garfinkel was the constant, from the beginning until his retirement in 2007.

“There’s lots of types of poverty in the world,” college coaching veteran Pete Gillen once told Sports Illustrated. “You can need money, possessions and a lot of things. Howard will never be poor in friends. He’s the reason we come back. There will never be another Garf.”

 

Q: What will be your involvement with Five-Star Basketball?

Howard Garfinkel: I don’t do much. After 42 years, I sold out two years ago. I just help out when I can. I help get good players. Sometimes I recommend a coach or two.

 

Q: Where do you see Five-Star going in the next five years?

HG: There is some talk about a documentary that they are trying to put out. I will definitely help with that. I will try to bring guys back.

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Photo: Five-Star Archives
Garfinkel (left) shown here with Hall of Famer Isiah Thomas.

 

Q: So how was Five-Star Basketball born?

HG: It was called the Roy Rubin Basketball School the first year it started out. I went to camp all my life as a kid. Not just basketball, but all sports camps. Growing up, I would always say to myself, “I could run this camp better.”

I had the camp bug in me. There was Jack Donahue’s Friendship Farm. I worked there for two summers. I got the idea to run a one-week basketball camp. I went to Roy Rubin and told him about it. He sounded interested at that time. Will Klein was working in a summer camp. Elian Casser, who organized the camp, was looking to add something to the camp. She had gone to Klein, so Klein went to Rubin, and Rubin came to me. The plan was that each one of the coaches would get in touch with five other coaches, who would get five kids each to sign up. It was late-June, and only 30 kids signed up. I met this coach named Hubie Brown and hired him. Two days later, I get this manila envelope with 25 applications. Brown went and got applications from players all over North Jersey. We had 70 kids the first year.

The first year went well. Rubin decided not to run the camp the next year, so Klein and I took over and doubled the enrollment. Each summer the enrollment kept doubling. We had to move to enlarge our space. It kept growing and growing. The head coach of the camp the second year was Bob Knight. He came along and was head coach and implemented “stations.” It was designed to teach each kid in the camp eight to 10 skills a day. It started with eight stations for 10 minutes. It quickly grew to 12 stations for 20 minutes. We became the best teaching camp in the country.

We’ve had a lot of coaches come through our camp. We had coaches like Jerry Wainwright, Al Skinner, Billy Donovan, Vinny Del Negro, Johnny Dawkins, Bob Gonzalez, Charlie Coles, Steve Alford, Mike Fratello. We’ve also had a ton of great players. There was Moses Malone, Michael Jordan, Bob Hurley, Jay Williams, Elton Brand, Ron Artest, Stephon Marbury and Vince Carter. There was a kid named Kevin Durant and his buddy Ty Lawson. John Wall and Kyrie Irving went to Five-Star as well. I was gone by the time those two came, but they were there. There were some amazing athletes outside of basketball who have attended our camp, athletes like Cris Carter, Tony Gonzalez, Scott Rolen, Alex Rodriguez and Wayne Chrebet. We didn’t even know about these guys until we looked back at past rosters. I wish I would have taken the time to get to know Alex when he was at the camp.

 

Q: What do you remember about LeBron’s time at Five-Star?

HG: LeBron James got his first pub through Five-Star. We were the first, trust me. We knew he was good. His high school coach told us how good he was. It only took one possession to realize he was something special. It took only one trip up the court to see that. He did something no one else did in our camp’s history. He was the first rising sophomore to play on both levels at the camp. We had a special league called the Development League for rising sophomores. The younger players would start off down there, and if injuries happened on our NBA Level during the week, we would move them up. After the second day, I realized he was just too good for the Development League.  I said, “LeBron, you have to play in the NBA.” He said, “No, I like my coach and my teammates.” I was shocked. Most kids would jump at the chance. So we decided he would play in both leagues. I asked him, “Can you handle four games a day?” He said, “Sure, I can go 10 games a day.” He made both All-Star teams, played in both all-star games, won Most Outstanding Player and All-Star game MVP for the Development League. He was the truth.

Chris Paul was another player who stood out. He won five trophies in one week. He took home the camp’s Most Outstanding Player, Best Playmaker, Best Defender. He won a tournament during the week. He also won the Situations Tournament, and the high-scoring award for the camp.

 

Q: How about Moses?

HG: He was the most dominant player ever at Five-Star. I said this 20 years ago, and it was true: He was the first player who was too good for the camp.

 

Q: Michael Jordan has said that going to Five-Star changed his life. What do you remember about his time there?

HG: I remember very well. He was another one-possession guy. Roy Williams called me, I’ll never forget it. He said, “There is a player – we’re not sure if he’s good enough. Can you get him in the best league with the best players.” We were sold-out. I called him back and told him we were overbooked. We had “Waiter’s Program,” where players could wait tables and pay half-price for the camp. I told Roy I would give Jordan a two-week Waiter’s Program spot.

It only took one day to see how good he was. I called someone from Street & Smith’s (magazine) and tried to get him on their preseason All-American team. They told me they had already gone to press and couldn’t get him in. I made sure he got in the McDonald’s All American Game. Back in those days, the committee was smaller, so I could get him in.

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Photo: Five-Star Archives
Garf with Jordan; after all those years, returning to the place that changed the six-time NBA World Champion's life. 

 

The day Michael retired, we started the Five-Star Hall of Fame. He was our first inductee. In July 2000, he came back to the camp and was inducted. It was a great day. It was an incredible day. The lights went out in the gym and all the kids flashed their cameras. It was amazing. He always went out of his way to say hello to me. Nobody playing or coaching has been as friendly as he was. He was amazing. I remember one time after our book, 25 Years of Five-Star Camp, was released. The book came out and I wanted to get Michael to autograph it. There was a game in Charlotte. I went over to his game. The game was over, so I went to the locker room to catch him. There were over 200 reporters and I didn’t want to wait, so I went to the only hallway there was for him to exit the arena. I stood in the hallway half an hour. Then all of a sudden, little kids were screaming, “Here he comes!” He had two of the biggest cops in North Carolina with him. One of the cops pushed me aside and says “No autographs!” Jordan sees me and yells, “Stop! That’s Howie. He’s the reason I’m here.”

 

Q: What is your favorite moment from your time at Five-Star?

HG: Bernard King did a lecture at Five-Star. He wasn’t a camper, but he should be in the Basketball Hall of Fame. He was one of the best speakers we’ve ever had. It must have been 100 degrees that day, and he sat there for an hour and signed everybody’s hats, papers, and signs.

 

Q: How does it feel looking back and knowing you’ve made such a huge contribution to the game of basketball?

HG: It’s a beautiful feeling. I’m tight with Bob Knight and people of that sort.  They all have nice things to say and it’s a wonderful feeling. I receive mail all the time from people thanking me.