Howard Garfinkel was neither a player nor a coach nor an agent, yet for more than four decades he was one of the most influential figures in the world of basketball. What he had was an eye for talent, bringing together the country’s top players and coaches at his Five-Star Basketball Camp.
Michael Jordan first got noticed at Mr. Garfinkel’s summer camp in Pennsylvania, which also served as a proving ground for such rising stars as Moses Malone, Patrick Ewing, LeBron James and Kevin Durant.
“It was the turning point in my life,’’ Jordan said in 1984. “I saw all those all-Americans and thought I was the lowest thing on the totem pole. But the more I played, the more I thought, ‘Maybe I can play with these guys.’ ”
Mr. Garfinkel, who was equally adept at spotting coaching talent and acting as an informal power broker of hoops, died May 7 at a hospital in New York City. He was 86. Friends confirmed his death to the Associated Press. The cause was described as either lung cancer or pneumonia.
The only shot Mr. Garfinkel could make on a basketball court was an antiquated two-handed set shot, which was obsolete in the 1940s. While working in the textile business and as a travel agent as young man, he spent weekends traveling to high school basketball games, recommending talented players to college coaches.
He began to publish High School Basketball Illustrated, a newsletter evaluating top players according to a system of stars: a five-star player was the best that could be found, a can’t-miss prospect sure to be a college and NBA star. He was especially shrewd at judging guards, who are required to have a multitude of varied skills.
“I’m the king of guards,’’ Mr. Garfinkel once said. “I’ve picked out more guards than Buckingham Palace.”
In 1966, he expanded his basketball hobby by opening the first Five-Star camp with a business partner, Will Klein.
Mr. Garfinkel — who was universally known as “Garf” — was a fast-talking raconteur, a chain smoker with a gravelly New York accent. When he wasn’t watching basketball, he was playing the horses.
“Everything about him says New York City — specifically, Madison Square Garden circa 1950,” a 1984 Sports Illustrated story noted.
There was something about his personality that drew people in and inspired confidence.
“Damon Runyon would have loved him,” Jim Calhoun, who coached the University of Connecticut men’s team to three NCAA championships, said in 2011. “He is one of the most unforgettable characters ever, not just in sports. You won’t meet another person like him.”
Mr. Garfinkel’s Five-Star camps, held for many years in Honesdale, Pa., and later at Radford, Va., and at Robert Morris University near Pittsburgh, were a combination of boot camp and postgraduate seminar.
Over the course of a summer, as many as 3,000 high school players paid hundreds of dollars to attend a one-week camp. (If they couldn’t afford the fee, they worked in the cafeteria.) They were trained in intensive sessions by some of the country’s best coaches.
From the beginning, Mr. Garfinkel had a knack for persuading talented but low-profile coaches to lead basketball drills and deliver lectures, usually for little or no money. Many of those coaches became the biggest names in their field: Bobby Knight, Mike Krzyzewski, Chuck Daly, Rick Pitino, John Calipari, Billy Donovan and an obscure New Jersey schoolteacher named Dick Vitale.
“Without Howard Garfinkel you wouldn’t have ever heard of me,” Vitale, who went on to be a college and NBA coach before a long career in broadcasting, told the Associated Press in 2011. “He took me to a diner after I spoke at a clinic and told me I should be coaching in college.”
Mr. Garfinkel arranged an interview for Vitale at Rutgers University.
“If I didn’t get that chance,” Vitale added, “I would still be coaching high school and teaching in an elementary school somewhere.”
For his part, Mr. Garfinkel said Vitale, former NBA coach and current broadcaster Hubie Brown and Pitino — who has coached two teams to NCAA titles — were the most spellbinding motivational speakers he had ever heard.
“Pitino had an overpowering presence,” Mr. Garfinkel told the New York Daily News in 1996. “He was a great lecturer, even back then. He was all shtick, and the kids loved it. He knew all the tricks. We had Patrick Ewing . . . and Alonzo Mourning, and Rick used to call them out to demonstrate. ‘Block my shot,’ he’d tell them. Then he would take them underneath, use the rim as a defender, and get his shot off every time. It was great watching this 5-10 runt getting his shot off against these monsters.”
Howard Morris Garfinkel was born Aug. 1, 1929, in New York. After dropping out of Syracuse University, he worked in his family’s clothing business. He later became a travel agent, even though he never learned to drive.
He was not married and had no immediate survivors.
During the 1980s, Mr. Garfinkel sold his scouting newsletter but kept his Five-Star camps, even as the NCAA began to limit coaches’ participation in summer basketball programs. By the time Mr. Garfinkel retired in 2008, more than 500 players who had gone through his camps had played in the NBA.
It was the endless search for the next hidden basketball star that kept him going.
“This is the exciting part,” he said in 1984. “Maybe this kid’s a sleeper! A sleeper! There are hardly any sleepers anymore. Everyone has so much information. But this could be a discovery!”