IOWA CITY — We always knew that Luka Garza had guts.
You could tell that by the way Iowa’s 6-foot-11 center played when he first stepped onto the Big Ten basketball scene last season. He was totally fearless, playing with reckless abandon and a rare competitive fire against players older, quicker and occasionally even bigger than he was.
Garza is showing more guts than ever in the figurative sense. He just has a little bit less now in the literal sense.
He had a 9-pound cyst containing 4.3 liters of fluid removed from his abdomen just a little more than a month ago, on Sept. 7.
Think about this for a moment. Nine pounds? Some of us won’t have turkeys that large on the dining room table come Thanksgiving. Four-plus liters of fluid? That translates to 1.13 gallons.
Garza nonchalantly described the cyst as being about the size of a basketball.
Needless to say, even he was a little bit scared when he first learned he had this thing inside his belly, precariously attached to his spleen.
"Hearing the news, I never thought something like that could be going on, but once I felt pain in that area, I had to get it checked out," Garza said. "I knew something wasn’t right. It definitely was a little scary because there was a big risk to the surgery, but the surgery went very well. It went as well as possible so that was a blessing."
Garza said he first started feeling the pain in mid-August. He often was OK going through workouts but afterward he would feel very uncomfortable and frequently couldn’t even stand up straight. It was Iowa trainer Brad Floy who first noticed that the sophomore had a small bump on his belly.
The first ultrasound didn’t show anything abnormal, but subsequent tests revealed the presence of this ominous, growing cyst, which fortunately was determined to be benign.
"They said it might have been developing over time, but there was no way to tell," Garza said.
"They don’t really know the cause of it," he added. "It’s just such a unique situation. The doctors assured me it had nothing to do with going too hard or something like that."
Since it was connected to his spleen, there were huge risks if he tried to play with it. If he were to get hit in that area, the spleen could rupture and he would face what he described as a "life-threatening" situation.
If the spleen ruptured during the surgery, it probably would have caused him to miss the entire season.
As it is, everything went fine. The stitches that surgeons placed inside him have dissolved, and the incision is healing nicely. Garza began shooting last week and began running last Friday after a few weeks of working out on treadmills and stationary bikes.
He is determined to get back in shape and be back on the court in time to play in Iowa’s season opener against UMKC on Nov. 8.
"The doctors and the coaches, we have a lot of hope that I’ll be able to play in the first game," he said. "That’s if my recovery continues to go as well as it is right now. It very well could happen and it very well couldn’t happen. Either way, it will be early this year."
Iowa coach Fran McCaffery doesn’t want to rush things too much.
"But he's in a really good place mentally, I think," McCaffery added. "Just have to be patient."
Needless to say, his teammates are relieved that the crisis has passed and that they’ll have Garza back at full strength at some point in the season, if not at the outset.
"His skill set, how hard he plays, the things he can do on the court, his impact on the rest of his teammates can’t be replaced," junior forward Tyler Cook said. "That’s something that makes him special. I’m just thankful that he’s healthy, that he’s getting healthy and that we’ll have him back for the season."
Not surprisingly, Cook said Garza has shown a lot of guts with how he has handled a very frightening chapter of his life.
"His spirit, his maturity, his positivity through the whole process has made it easy on everybody," Cook said. "Nobody likes to see their teammate have to go through something like this, but we thank God that he’s OK."