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How Howard Garfinkel became the godfather of grassroots basketball

As the 86-year-old Garfinkel recovers in the hospital, those who know him best want everyone to remember his legacy.

It’s the first day of Nike’s Elite Youth Basketball League, and the Brooklyn Cruise Terminal looks like a who’s who of basketball royalty.

Jim Boeheim is there, watching the Oakland Soldiers play the PSA Cardinals. Mike Brey, Dana Altman, Kevin Ollie and others join him on the sideline. But next to Boeheim is a guy that the casual fan might not recognize. He’s wearing khakis and a blue polo shirt, with thick glasses, and seems to be talking Boeheim’s ear off.

That man is the 86-year-old Howard Garfinkel.

As Garfinkel talks, Boeheim listens intently, as well he should. There are few who know high school basketball talent better than the man they affectionately call Garf.

He co-founded the Five-Star Basketball Camps in 1966, running them through 2008. He also started High School Basketball Illustrated in 1965, then a unique scouting service that helped revolutionize the way young players were evaluated.

"There are not six people alive today who have had the impact that Howard Garfinkel has had on the game of basketball," said legendary talent evaluator Tom Konchalski, who has worked with Garf for decades.

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Howard Garfinkel and Alonzo Mourning (Credit: Five-Star Basketball)

Konchalski said those words in a rushed five-minute phone conversation a week after that day at EYBL. He was headed home from back-to-back trips to the hospital: the first to treat a fall he had suffered in the weeks before, and the second to visit Garf, who was battling pneumonia and fighting for his life at the Roosevelt Hospital ICU in Manhattan. Initial reports from the hospital were grim, but thankfully he has turned it around in recent days. He's now out of the ICU, though not quite ready to go home.

Over the last week, Garf has had an outpouring of support, from those like Konchalski and Five-Star CEO Leigh Klein, as well as coaches and former players from around the country.

One of those coaches is Kentucky’s John Calipari, who has known Garf since he was a camper at Five-Star 40 years ago. Calipari’s experience at camp, he says, eventually led to him earning an athletic scholarship at UNC-Wilmington — especially meaningful to Calipari because his parents would not have been able to afford college tuition otherwise.

After that, Calipari returned to Five-Star as a coach and had Garfi in his corner as he climbed the NCAA’s coaching ranks.

"Without him being a part of my life, I would have never had the opportunities I had," Calipari said. "Hopefully I made him proud."

But Garf has done more than just talk up his friends. He possesses an eye for talent that few have been able to match.

"It’s amazing how much you can see if you actually watch," Konchalski said, repeating what he believes is one of the great lessons that Garf taught him. "You don’t just send out a tweet or a text. It’s not a gossip sheet. You watch."

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John Calipari at Five-Star Basketball camps (credit: Five-Star Basketball)

In 1979, Konchalski quit his full-time job as a math teacher to help Garf with HSBI and eventually took over production when Garf sold it to him in 1984. He has been a mainstay on high school courts ever since.

Part of Konchalski’s time on the high school scene included a stretch as a coach at Five-Star, where he helped secure spots in camp for promising young players like Michael Jordan.

"It was the interchange of ideas," Konchalski said. "Five-Star basketball camp was the preeminent think tank in the game of basketball."

That think tank often took the form of lectures, which were not only directed at campers, but other coaches, who would show up just to listen, often traveling to the camp in Honesdale, Pa. from around the northeast.

"Just watching how he ran his camp, so when I ran camps, I tried to model it after him," said former coach Mike Jarvis. "It was about teaching. It was about fundamentals."

Jarvis, who is perhaps best known for his time as the St. John’s head coach, was also Patrick Ewing’s high school coach at Cambridge Rindge and Latin School in Massachusetts. Back then, Jarvis helped his players, including Ewing, raise money to go to Five-Star, knowing they would come back improved.

"Not only were you going to get taught the fundamentals of the game, but you were going to play against the best players in the country," Jarvis said.

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Howard Garfinkel and Patrick Ewing (Credit: Five-Star Basketball)

The best players faced the best players, with the best coaches watching. That bred competition and the overwhelming urge to get better — an urge that manifested itself in the famous Station 13.

Like most camps, Five-Star operated daily skills stations for campers to get rapid-fire lessons on the fundamentals of the game from each coach. Then, sitting at the end there was Station 13. The only thing special about Station 13 is that it was optional; it was only for the players who truly wanted to get better.

And by it being optional, Station 13 became mandatory if you wanted to get noticed.

"Students volunteered for extra work," said Jarvis, uttering what on the surface sounds like an absurd phrase. "[Garf] encouraged and equipped kids to put the extra work in."

Calipari says Garf’s personal motto was always to live today like it is your last day, and to learn from every experience. As Garf’s condition remains shaky, the basketball community has started to share what they’ve learned from lectures, Station 13 and beyond. It’s a testament to Garf’s ability to evaluate and teach, but also to the personal impact he has had on so many.

"Any time we would see Garf, even up until this year, you would run into him somewhere and he would remember you," Jarvis said. "He appreciated you. I think he really enjoyed the fact that he knew he was making a difference."