Iowa basketball: A grieving Jack Nunge has inspirational return to the court for No. 3 Hawkeyes

Mark Emmert
Hawk Central

IOWA CITY, Ia. — Twelve days after Jack Nunge got the worst news of his life, he played in a basketball game that he had been dreaming about for 53 weeks.

He scored 18 points. He brought his Iowa Hawkeye teammates out of their socially distanced chairs and onto their feet with two second-half dunks. He bought his grieving family a welcome two-hour interlude. He smiled, just a little, as he left the court at Carver-Hawkeye Arena in uniform for the first time since tearing a ligament in his knee last November.

Minutes later, Nunge corrected a reporter who asked what emotions he was feeling when he looked into the seats where his father, Mark, was once a constant presence at his basketball games.

“I knew he was watching,” Nunge said. “It didn’t matter if he was here or not.”

More:Iowa basketball team starts season with heavy hearts after death of Jack Nunge's father

Mark Nunge was an emergency medicine physician who instilled in his five children a love of sports, a man whose favorite pastime was going on long runs and returning to share with his family some of the deep thoughts he had while churning through the miles.

Mark Nunge played college basketball himself, at Rochester University in New York. Jack Nunge, who grew to be 6-foot-11, said he had been wistfully thinking Thursday about the hours spent with his dad shooting baskets in the driveway.

Jack Nunge drains one of his two 3-pointers Thursday at Carver-Hawkeye Arena. The Iowa forward hadn't played in a game for 53 weeks, but didn't want to miss this one, with his grieving family looking on. Nunge's father, Mark, died unexpectedly Nov. 21 at age 53. "I knew he was watching," Nunge said.

More:No. 3 Iowa 99, Western Illinois 58: Here's what we learned

Mark Nunge died unexpectedly Nov. 21 at age 53. Jack immediately returned to the family’s home in Newburgh, Indiana, to mourn with his mother, Beth, and his siblings, Rebecca, Jessica, Bob and Joey.

Nunge missed Iowa’s first two games of the season, but returned to Iowa City on Tuesday, then went out and had what Iowa coach Fran McCaffery described as one of the best practices he’s ever seen on Wednesday. Nunge made nine of 10 shots, McCaffery said, sprinting up and down the court and swatting away shot attempts by his teammates.

That was a precursor to what Nunge did Thursday, when he walked onto the court 4 minutes into Iowa’s game against Western Illinois and went to work, with his family looking on. Nunge missed his first two shots, but made his next eight, including a pair of 3-pointers, a jump hook, a reverse layup against two defenders and those two dunks.

Iowa, ranked third in the nation, won the game 99-58 to go to 3-0. It was the first time the Hawkeyes had scored 97 points or more in each of their first three games since 1997. All-American center Luka Garza scored 35 points in just 25 minutes to continue a dominating stretch of play never before seen from a Hawkeye basketball player.

Still, the night belonged to Nunge.

McCaffery called it “amazing.”

Garza, who was Nunge’s roommate when they arrived together as freshmen three years ago, said: “It was incredible. His strength is so inspiring.”

McCaffery and Garza both rattled off a list of things that Nunge does well on a basketball court, ways that he will elevate a team that figures to be in contention for Big Ten Conference and national championships.

Earlier:Jack Nunge, CJ Fredrick added muscle together — now they could start together for Iowa

For McCaffery, that includes contesting opponents’ shots, rebounding in traffic, scoring on the low block and from the 3-point arc. Nunge is Iowa’s only other experienced post player besides Garza. He entered the game Thursday playing alongside Garza in a big lineup that will put pressure on every team Iowa faces. But he also spelled Garza at times, taking over at center so that the Hawkeyes’ most important player could get some needed rest.

“He’s playing with confidence because he knows how to play and he has a complete skill set,” McCaffery said of Nunge.

Added Garza: “A lot of teams got lucky last year when he got hurt. … We’re a whole different group with him on the floor.”

Nunge said the support he got from his teammates, starting with a message they sent him the instant they were notified of his father’s passing, has made a heart-wrenching situation more bearable. The team gathered last Wednesday, hours before the season-opener, to watch Mark Nunge’s funeral online.

“It’s just kind of an insane situation,” said Nunge, who had spoken with his father at length the night before his death.

McCaffery gave Nunge instructions to take as much time away from basketball as he felt he needed, that his first duty was to be strong for his family. Nunge was in Indiana for 10 days. He came back to Iowa because he felt playing in a basketball game could provide some normalcy for everyone.

“I think being able to play a game, give them a distraction for a night, that was really good for my family,” Nunge said.

More:Neighbors with Fran McCaffery for a week, Jack Nunge comes full circle as Iowa recruit

Nunge said his father loved the Hawkeyes — he once worked at the university teaching medical students — and was always proud to watch his son compete for Iowa. Jack Nunge said he could feel that pride again Thursday.

“He’s watching from up above,” Nunge said.

“He doesn’t have to worry about work. He can just focus on the game, and watching me play is something that I feel good about.”

Iowa next hosts North Carolina at 6:30 p.m. Tuesday.

Mark Emmert covers the Iowa Hawkeyes for the Register. Reach him at memmert@registermedia.com or 319-339-7367. Follow him on Twitter at @MarkEmmert.