Rest In Peace, Garf

NEW YORK– It was ten days ago. Howard Garfinkel, the 87-year old co-founder of Five-Star basketball camps, was lying in a hospital bed at Mt. Sinai West Hospital at 59th and 10th on the west side of Manhattan.

He looked frail and exhausted, surrounded by friends like St. John’s assistant coach Barry Rohrssen and his girlfriend Kerry, Five-Star co-founder Will Klein and his son Leigh and long time Five-Star trainer James “The Healer” Ross. I was also fortunate enough to be there, in the ninth floor room, along with a friend, Pat Plunkett, who was known as “197” because he was the 197th of over 300 coaches who worked the camp to get a college job.

For “Garf’”, it was business at usual as he poured through his legendary Rolodex, edited a proposed treatment of a movie on his life, telling old camp stories, still complaining that Stephen Curry was left off the Orange and White All Star game one year, and fielding an endless stream of phone calls from coaches and friends around the country before he finally couldn’t talk anymore. Doctors discovered two masses in his lungs that were diagnosed as cancerous and his kidneys weren’t functioning but he still told a nurse he wanted to make it until next October for the latest edition of his “Clinic to End All Clinics.”

Sadly, he never made it.

But his legacy lives on in this, the 50th anniversary of the storied camp, which touched so many lives and showcased the talents of thousands of campers, who earned Division I scholarships.

Garfinkel died peacefully Saturday morning and there was an outpouring of grief in the basketball community for an American original who lived in an apartment just this side of Broadway, was a fixture at the Garden and used to talk all things basketball during late night meals at the Carnegie Deli. He loved the horses and Broadway show tunes sung by Frank Sinatra and Judy Garland.

But most of all, this beloved Damon Runyonesque character loved basketball and gave up the chance to become rich in his father’s textile business to devote his life to scouting high school talent for a recruiting service he ran and running summer camps for 40 years in the Poconos, Virginia and Pittsburgh that attracted some of the best high school prospects in America. “He was the godfather of college basketball recruiting and summer basketball,” said Tom Konchalski, the legendary talent evaluator from New York City and one of Garfinkel’s two closest friends, along with 89-year old guru Larry “The Scout” Pearlstein. “I can’t think of six other individuals who had a bigger impact on the game.”

Grass roots basketball today is ruled by powerful travel teams who play on shoe company-sponsored circuits and tournaments.

But Five-Star will always have its place in the evolution of the sport, producing more than 280 NBA players.

During its hey day, the camp was a proving ground for future legends like Moses Malone, Jeff Ruland, Michael Jordan, Patrick Ewing, Chris Mullin, Pearl Washington, Len Bias, Christian Laettner, Bobby Hurley, Dominique Wilkins, Grant Hill, Alonzo Mourning, Steph Marbury, Carmelo Anthony, LeBron James and Kevin Durant. It was a magnet for the best college recruiters in the country who made the pilgrimage to out-of-the-way Camp Bryn Mawr in Honesdale, Radford and Robert Morris College every summer to evaluate hundreds of campers, who played shirts and skins games on outdoor courts and listened to Hall of Fame speakers like Bob Knight, Hubie Brown, Chuck Daly, Herb Magee and Dick Vitale before afternoon and evening sessions. There were no free rides, even for the best players, who had to bus tables in the dining hall if they couldn’t afford full tuition.

Five-Star was worth the price of admission. It was the best teaching camp of its kind, a place where campers actually got better and learned how to play the right way at a series of teaching stations that were developed by Knight to give them the best instruction possible. .

It also an incubator for great young coaches like Rick Pitino, Mike Fratello and John Calipari, who used Five-Star as a giant think tank.

Calipari was a camper at Five-Star in 1976 and returned to be a counselor and coach when he was a college player at UNC-Wilmington and Clarion State. “Without him, I’m not the coach at Kentucky and I’m not able to pay it forward to my kids,” he wrote in a powerful tribute to Garfinkel on his website. “The things that happened to me in my life can all be traced back to Five-Star when I was a camper and a bespectacled man came up to me and said, “What’s your name kid? Where are you from?’ I love you Garf’.”

Five-Star was the birthplace of stars like Michael Jordan.

Jordan was a virtual unknown outside of his hometown of Wilmington, N.C when he attended camp in the summer of 1980. He was just 5–10 as a sophomore and had been cut from the Laney High school varsity before growing five inches and blossoming at Carolina’s basketball school the summer before his junior year. Dean Smith was hoping to keep Jordan quiet but current Carolina coach Roy Williams, who was a part-time assistant at the school at the time, was speaking with Konchalski and let the secret out during a drive to a high school All Star game at Kutcher’s in the Catskills. Williams told Konchalski Carolina was very interested but hadn’t seen Jordan play against great competition and wanted him to attend Five-Star.

Konchalski called Garfinkel, who called Jordan’s high school coach Clifton Herring, and worked it out for Jordan to attend Pitt I, which was the Cadillac of camps before the advent of the Nike All American camp.

During a draft of players, Brendan Malone, the one-time coach at Power Memorial High School, was temporarily absent because his wife was in a motorbike accident and Konchalski selected Jordan for his team. When Malone arrived, he was livid. Who was this Mike Jordan? Then the games began. Jordan blocked two shots on the first three possessions and dominated play throughout the week. Garfinkel ran to the phone and called a friend of his, Dave Krider, who did the pre-season All American teams for Street and Smith magazine.

In a stop-the-presses conversation, Garfinkel told Krider if he didn’t put Jordan in his Top 10, he would look like a fool.
 Krider told him it was too late.

He should have thought twice.

Air Jordan took off when he was selected co-MVP of the camp, then soared into the stratosphere with Carolina and the Chicago Bulls.

But he wasn’t the best player to attend the camp.

That would be the late Moses Malone from Petersburg, Va.. “He was the only player who was too good for the camp;” Garfinkel said. “He made great players look ordinary.”

Malone was a relentless rebounder who destroyed the camp in the summer of 1973. On on occasion, Tom Scates, a 6–10 center from Washington, D.C., made the the mistake of trying to stop a dunk by Malone. Malone wound up stuffing the ball and both of Scates’ hands through the rim.

Malone was so dominant that George Raveling, the Naismith Hall of Fame inductee who was the best recruiter of his generation, couldn’t resist categorizing his abilities into Biblical terms, revising the Ten Commandments. “It was actually a shortened version,” Garfinkel said in the book, Five-Star. “Nobody could get within ten feet of the basket, so Raveling wrote, “Thou shalt not shoot. Thou shalt not pass, Thou shalt not enter the lane, Honor thy right and left hand,’ and I added, “Thou shalt have no Supers before thee!”

Malone was eventually signed by Maryland that spring after he threw down 35 points in 1974 Dapper Dan Round ball Classic in Pittsburgh. He could have changed the dynamics of the college game, but instead he opted to make the leap to the ABA, signing with the Utah Jazz at the beginning of his Hall of Fame career.

Then there was LeBron James, the 6–5 forward from Akron St. Vincent-St. Mary’s, who was headed into his sophomore season and made history in the summer of 2000 when he became the first player in the history of Five-Star to play in two all- star games (the Developmental League all-star game and the NBA all-star game for older players) on the same night. This occurred when 6–5 Devin Green of the Jazz had to leave early to to go to Orlando for the National 17–under AAU tournament. James took Green’s spot on the Jazz and played over half the camp games, which qualified him for the Orange and White all- star game.

In addition, James also continued to play in all the Developmental games. As a result, he took home the following trophies: Leading scorer in the Developmental League, Most Outstanding Player in the Developmental League and Most Promising Prospect in the entire camp. James’ performance was so impressive, he was ranked as the No. 1 sophomore nationally and he went to become the first pick in the 2003 NBA draft.

“You hear me talk about all the pros who came through camp,” Garfinkel said. “He was better than any of them when they were sophomores. It was ridiculous. He totally dominated, playing four games a day.”

Five-Star is filled with stories like that.

The day Garfinkel died, the Five-Star organization published a testimonial in which they referred to him as a visionary who pioneered the basketball specialty camp and innovated the scouting and evaluation process. “Garf’ also represents the unmistakable tree in the basketball landscape, one in which every player or coach could trace their roots back to. His eye for talent and evaluation took both prospects and coaches to unprecedented highs and will never be rivaled,” it said.

Rest in peace, Garf

Originally published at on May 9, 2016.