Tracing Nicholas Baer's journey back to the Iowa men's basketball team

Mark Emmert
Hawk Central

IOWA CITY, Ia. — Nicholas Baer scored four points in his final appearance as an Iowa Hawkeye and was still the topic of every postgame interview.

Hawkeye players were gathered in a tiny locker room at Nationwide Arena in Columbus, Ohio, where they had just rallied from a 25-point deficit only to lose to Tennessee in overtime in the second round of the NCAA men's basketball tournament. They were numbed by how suddenly their season had ended, but each made sure to talk about how much Baer, their lone senior, had meant to them.

“This isn’t what you asked,” Iowa center Luka Garza told a reporter, changing the subject in mid-sentence. “But I love Nicholas Baer. He brought so much to this team. You learn from guys like that; that’s how you should play the game.”

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Two years later, Garza and the No. 7 Hawkeyes have been suddenly reunited with Baer. The 24-year-old native of Davenport, who inspired teammates and fans alike with his never-ending hustle in a four-year playing career, started as a graduate student manager Dec. 21.

“There is no better representative of everything we stand for than Nicholas Baer,” Iowa coach Fran McCaffery said of the addition to his staff.

For Baer, it’s a chance to complete his master’s degree in sports and recreation management while spending time with a Hawkeye team that includes his younger brother, Michael. The 6-foot-7 forward played for the Raptors 905 in the NBA G-League last winter. He averaged 4.8 points and 4.4 rebounds in 39 games, starting in three of them. The Toronto Raptors still own his rights.

Nicholas Baer (right) holds a clipboard and listens to the instructions being given by Iowa men's basketball coach Fran McCaffery during a timeout in a Dec. 29 game. Baer, 24, is back with the Hawkeyes as a graduate student manager, putting a pause on his pro career to finish work on a master's degree.

But Baer wasn’t interested in playing a shortened G-League season in a COVID-19 “bubble.” There were limited opportunities to compete overseas.

So he put in a call to McCaffery, who was happy to find a spot for him.

That’s why Iowa fans who look closely during Sunday’s 1:30 p.m. home game against No. 17 Minnesota (10-3, 3-3 Big Ten Conference) on the Big Ten Network will see a familiar figure when the team huddles up. Baer’s face will be obscured by a mask and he’ll be in a suit instead of a uniform, but he is still having an impact on a team that is sitting at 10-2 and 4-1 in the league. The lone Big Ten loss was at Minnesota on Christmas Day. The Hawkeyes are eager to atone for that overtime setback.

“He’s going to be able to help us all out, see different things that maybe the coaches don’t see. Have different perspectives and can relate to the players maybe a little bit better than our coaching staff,” Iowa junior forward Joe Wieskamp said of Baer. “So I think just having him on staff is a great asset for us.”

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Baer is not in a coaching role, although he can help out during practices by rebounding for his former teammates. He helps code the game film that players watch and learn from. He interacts daily with McCaffery and his three assistants, using that experience to weigh whether he wants to become a coach someday.

And he thinks back to that March 2019 scene in Columbus, when he thought his five years as a Hawkeye had come to an end. He knew the core of that team — Garza, Wieskamp, Jordan Bohannon, Connor McCaffery, CJ Fredrick and Jack Nunge — was good enough to contend for a championship. And he’s seeing that play out before his own eyes now.

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“I was most recently a player, so I think I have a good understanding of what players are thinking,” Baer said. “I think I’m being able to communicate that to coaches or players. I think that’s an area where I can be helpful to this team.

“It’s not my team anymore. But I’m part of the program and also understanding that there are other jobs that need to be done. Whether it’s taking out trash or setting up the training table, whatever we need. I’ve been excited about that and just kind of soaking things in.”

Baer hopes to play professionally again in the fall. It’s been quite a leap for an athlete who came to Iowa as a walk-on, when making a career out of the sport seemed far-fetched. But he battled in practices with Aaron White and Jarrod Uthoff early on and got the sense that he could measure up against future pros like that. Baer earned a scholarship after his redshirt freshman season and recalibrated his goals to include the possibility of earning money by playing basketball.

His year in the G-League was full of adjustments. Baer had 25 teammates on a roster that was constantly in flux. He struggled early to find his shot but ended up making 44% of his field goals.

“I always had to stay ready. One night, you get to play 30 minutes and the other night you might not see the court,” said Baer, who averaged 17 minutes per game.

“I was still playing with high energy, still playing smart basketball. But I was more skilled at the end. It’s really highly focused on developing players, so I thought I became a better basketball player because of it.”

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Baer said it was odd for him not to be in uniform when he sat in a chair on the baseline for Iowa’s Dec. 22 win over Purdue. It was even odder to see Carver-Hawkeye Arena empty of fans. He said he missed playing, but only a little bit.

“I enjoy being part of the team and being part of something bigger than myself,” Baer said.

Baer is getting a chance to see the culmination of Garza’s all-American career. He said he’s not surprised by Garza’s brilliance, because he witnessed firsthand how hard the center works.

Baer is also enjoying getting to know the five freshmen on this year’s roster, a group of guys he didn’t get a chance to play alongside. One of them, Keegan Murray, is often compared to Baer because of his all-out style of play. Baer appreciates being linked to Murray in that way.

“I think he’s already surpassing me, though,” Baer said. “He plays with really high energy and makes hustle plays, but I think he’s far more athletic than I was and is able to make plays that way as well.

“I’m really excited to see his development.”

Hawkeye fans were excited when word of Baer’s return got out. Many of them took to social media to celebrate the news. Baer noticed that response but isn’t sure why he remains so popular.

“That’s always nice to see that people still want me to be part of the program, are excited that I’m coming back to Iowa,” he said.

“I think Iowans are able to respect people who work hard. I think that’s definitely something that I did in my time at Iowa. I can’t put my exact finger on it, but I appreciate it all the same.”

Iowa Hawkeyes forward Nicholas Baer (51) and forward Luka Garza (55) react to losing to the Tennessee Volunteers in overtime in the second round of the 2019 NCAA Tournament at Nationwide Arena.

Baer completed one year of graduate school while competing for the Hawkeyes. He said he wasn’t sure when he would have finished that coursework if the coronavirus pandemic hadn’t caused him to pause his playing career.

But here he is. Back with many of those Hawkeyes who took time to praise him after a staggering defeat in the biggest game of their lives. Up until that point.

“The most important thing to me was the relationships that I built with people. And I think that was a testament to that,” Baer said.

“I obviously understand how special that was and am thankful that I was able to have that impact on people. But also that I’m able to interact with those same people now in a different role. This is a special team, and I want to help them win as many games as possible.”

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.