Leistikow: Why Bohannon's biggest fan — his older brother — hasn't missed one of his games
It started as a joke, Zach Bohannon says — the guarantee that he would attend every game, home and away, during younger brother Jordan’s freshman basketball season at the University of Iowa.
From his condo in downtown Cedar Rapids, Zach made it to all 34 games — 19 Hawkeye wins, 15 losses. He calculated that he traveled 14,641 miles.
He had kept his promise.
After the Hawkeyes’ final game, a home loss to TCU in the NIT in which Jordan registered 25 points and 13 assists, Zach remembers asking his brother if he was proud that he completed the journey.
Jordan’s response: “No, you’re an idiot for doing it.”
Zach shot back.
“If you’re not going to give me the respect for doing it for a year, how about we do it for all four?”
It was on.
And it’s still going.
Saturday in Columbus, Ohio, Zach Bohannon — a captain on Wisconsin’s 2014 Final Four team, which featured close friend Frank Kaminsky and roommate Sam Dekker — will have attended his 61st consecutive Iowa basketball game.
He’s slept in airports, driven through the night and cut it close a few times for tip-off — while maintaining full-time employment that guzzles 50 to 60 hours a week — to keep the streak alive.
So now, it’s time for the truth to come out.
Though this journey of Zach’s may have been presented as a joke and test of ego, it’s always been rooted in something deeper: Love.
And it’s actually a pretty neat story to tell.
'This is not what I want to do'
Zach remembers Jordan being the perfect birthday gift.
Zach was born on June 21, 1990, at Mercy Hospital in Iowa City — the second of four Bohannon boys who would play Division I basketball. Seven years later to the day, he and the family came home from the hospital with the youngest — Jordan, born on June 19, 1997.
“We’ve always shared a special bond,” Zach says.
Zach, Linn-Mar High School’s all-time leading rebounder yet the self-proclaimed worst player of the four Bohannons, spent two years at the Air Force Academy before transferring to Wisconsin, where oldest brother Jason had once started 68 games. While more of a role player on the court, 6-foot-7 Zach took advantage of Wisconsin’s academic prestige off it — earning three degrees and launching a career on Wall Street.
There, he plunged into the world of finance. It had been his ambition since high school, when he saw the U.S. encounter the financial crisis of 2008. It was a dream job.
Yet he soon came to find it was toxic.
In New York, he was met with breakneck pace and 90-plus-hour weeks while working as a summer associate for a top-five world bank. Sure, the money was great for someone in his mid-20s. But a “cut-throat” culture didn’t jive with the values Zach held dear as a life-long Catholic.
Wanting to be closer to home and younger brother Matt's games at Northern Iowa, Zach moved to Chicago and worked for a different multinational bank. But he said he encountered the same issues.
“I had bosses making high-six-figure or seven-figure salaries. I saw their families were miserable,” Zach says.
He decided, “This is not what I want to do. This is not what I want to become.”
So, when he was offered a severance package, he accepted it. At age 26, he moved back home with his parents, Gordy (a former Iowa quarterback) and Brenda, in Marion.
He gave himself 3 months to find work; otherwise, he told himself, he would return to Chicago — where he had stashed all his belongings in an outdoor storage unit.
As fate would have it, right at the 3-month mark, he got a job in Cedar Rapids. It just happened to be around the time Jordan was starting his college basketball career in nearby Iowa City.
Not long after, he and a lawyer friend drove to South Bend, Indiana, to watch Jordan’s first career start. Jordan made seven 3-pointers that night in the Hawkeyes' loss at Notre Dame.
Afterward, Jordan asked his older brother: “Are you going to come to the next away game?”
Zach responded: “Mark me down for every game here on out.”
The promise was made.
In January, Zach took a new job, a perfect fit for where his heart was leading him. He would be the project manager and primary fund-raiser for a new YMCA in Marion, a mile from where he grew up.
“If you want to change the world,” he says, “you’ve got to start with where you’re at.”
The new job was demanding. But what about the basketball promise?
His boss, Bob Carlson, told him, “I’m not responsible for you missing a game. If you miss a game, it’s on you.”
As long as he keeps pace at work — the targets are for the Y to break ground in August and open in November 2019 — Zach is, professionally speaking, free to attend Jordan’s games.
Getting to all of them is the tricky part.
The streak almost ended
As you can probably tell, Zach is organized and driven. He isn’t married, isn’t dating, doesn’t have kids. His travel philosophy? Cost (savings) over convenience.
He estimates he spent a total of $3,000 in travel expenses last season. He travels by car to any destination less than eight hours away, often joining his parents. When he flies, he almost always arrives on gameday and returns to Iowa early the next morning.
That necessary cut-it-close approach nearly ended the streak Jan. 17, when Iowa played at Rutgers.
A miserable travel day began with a mechanical delay out of Cedar Rapids that caused him to miss his connecting flight in Detroit. He was bumped to the only flight that could get him to New Jersey in time for tip-off. After he boarded, the pilot announced there would be a one-hour weather delay; the Newark airport wasn’t permitting incoming flights.
The hour passed. The pilot came on the intercom again: It would be another hour.
Trapped on a parked plane on a Detroit runway, Zach was helpless. Desperate for another way, he called a friend in the airline industry for help. The friend informed Zach: Sorry, buddy. You're not going to make it.
“I’m done,” Zach remembers saying over the phone. “The streak’s over.”
Ten minutes later, the pilot’s voice re-emerged: “We’re cleared for takeoff.”
The plane reached its gate in Newark 45 minutes before the 7 p.m. ET game. Zach ditched his rental-car reservation for the speed of an Uber — from Newark to Piscataway, a 27-mile ride that’s filled with stoplights.
He walked into Rutgers' arena during the national anthem.
And that brings us to the most impactful part of this story — the importance of Zach’s being by his brother's side.
In case you haven’t been paying attention, this has been a tough season for the Hawkeyes. They thought they’d be on their way to the NCAA Tournament by now. Entering Saturday’s game at No. 16 Ohio State, they had a 12-14 record and were among the bottom four teams in the Big Ten Conference.
“It makes me feel terrible,” Jordan says, “every time we lose on the basketball court.”
Despite a prolific start to Jordan’s Iowa career — he shattered the school’s freshman records for 3-pointers and assists while making the Big Ten’s all-freshman team, and he’s upped those numbers as a sophomore — he's faced plenty of adversity and doubt.
He’s battled for most of the last 12 months with painful plantar fasciitis in his right foot. He plays almost every minute for Iowa as the team's only point guard. Teammate Maishe Dailey recently called Jordan "the toughest person I've ever met."
Yet he’s been the target of fan frustration on social media and message boards. He can’t play defense, they say. Iowa needs to find a quicker point guard, they contend.
As much as Jordan, who's still 20 years old, would like to shut out that noise, he hears it.
In his conversations with Zach, he admits he’s been “brought to tears” regarding his place with Hawkeye basketball.
“I just didn’t think I really belonged here, honestly,” Jordan says.
“There’s some points in the season," he continues, "whether it was injuries or I just had a poor game in general, it kind of takes a toll on you. You’re playing on national television, you want to play your best.
“A lot of people on the outside don’t understand what student-athletes go through, the kind of pressure you’re put (under). Obviously, we’re on full scholarships, but we really treat it as a job. It’s really tough on us, pressure-wise.
“That’s something that Zach really put into perspective, how important it is to stay true to who you are.”
And that, right there, is why Zach makes the road trips, why he punts sleep. He wants to be there for his brother, to speak from his past experiences as a Division I player, to keep him on a path toward positivity.
“I’m not doing this because I like Iowa basketball. I’m not doing this because I like Coach (Fran) McCaffery. I’m doing this because I’m trying to keep Jordan the person that he (is),” Zach says. “I know the toll that Iowa fans will take on a player, even if you are a star — like a four-year starter like Mike Gesell or a four-year starter like Adam Woodbury.
"You literally can be beaten into the ground … just by how a certain select percentage of Iowa fans are.”
One of the most challenging nights of the season happened Jan. 7, at Maryland. There was officiating controversy. McCaffery was ejected. A second half lead for the Hawkeyes turned into an 18-point loss. Then the team plane got damaged, forcing Iowa players to stay at the almost-empty arena until midnight on the East Coast.
When Jordan saw his brother after the game, he arrived frustrated. After scoring 17 points but committing an uncharacteristic six turnovers, he asked: “What more can I do?”
Zach, though, intentionally avoids basketball analysis in their interactions. He wants Jordan to remember who he is, and not get lost in a pressure-packed world — like he saw happen with regularity in his financial career.
On this night, he encouraged his brother to send out a clever tweet that generated nearly 4,000 likes — one that simultaneously needled the refs and the NCAA — then challenged him to a game of H-O-R-S-E. Two brothers in dress shoes, firing 3-pointers and shots from behind the backboard while chirping brotherly barbs at each other on the Xfinity Center floor.
About a month later, at Penn State, came another low point. Jordan got sick before the game and was held to three points, second-fewest in his Big Ten career.
For Zach to get there, it had been another white-knuckle road trip. He drove through the night on no sleep to Chicago to catch a 5:30 a.m. flight to Detroit. Then a connection from Detroit to State College. An Uber, a lunch, a quick nap at his hotel … and game 59 in a row.
After the 82-58 Iowa loss, they sat in two front-row blue seats at the near-empty Bryce Jordan Center and chatted for about 15 minutes. Among other things, they discussed the stock market downturn, the previous week’s cold open by Will Farrell on Saturday Night Live and Bitcoin’s struggles.
“He makes fun of me because I invest in crypto-currency,” Jordan says. “Every time I see him, he (tells me about) the Bitcoin bubble. Obviously, it’s been going down. So, he might be right.”
Even though he outwardly taunts his brother’s promise as idiotic, he recognizes internally what that commitment has meant to him.
“He has a lot of wisdom. He has a lot of positivity in his life,” Jordan says. “… After some losses this year, it was pretty tough on me. Without him, I don’t know if I would still be here, just staying positive and optimistic about the future I have.”
Life goes on. So does Jordan's career at Iowa. The Big Ten leader in 3-pointers per game (2.9) is on pace to score more than 1,500 career points and demolish the school's records for 3-pointers and assists.
Also ongoing: Zach’s ambitious travel goals.
With a head start from his Air Force experience, he plans to get his private pilot’s license this summer. That’ll give him another travel option for Jordan’s games over the next two years, and keeping the promise alive.
“I do it for my brother," he says, "the love I have for him."
Hawkeyes columnist Chad Leistikow has covered sports for 23 years with The Des Moines Register, USA TODAY and Iowa City Press-Citizen. Follow @ChadLeistikow on Twitter.