Leistikow: Through unimaginable circumstances, Iowa's Jack Nunge stays strong

Chad Leistikow
Hawk Central

INDIANAPOLIS — Iowa basketball players will inevitably confront in-game adversity sometime during the NCAA Tournament that, for them, begins Saturday in Indianapolis.

When they do, they need only to look toward their bench to be inspired by a 6-foot-11 pillar of strength.

Jack Nunge, wearing a heavy brace around his right leg and more scars that can’t be seen, will be there for them, in whatever way he can.

“My main focus right now is trying to bring everything I can for the team,” Nunge says. “Trying to be a positive guy for them. To let them know I’m OK. And let them know I still believe in them.”

Nunge’s strength is evident in an interview this week with the Register; that he is even here in the Indianapolis “bubble," where players are mostly confined to their hotel rooms except for practices and games, demonstrates a measure of selflessness. But so is the pain underneath.

Nunge continues to cope with the sudden death of his father and another season-ending knee injury. During our conversation, he is brought to tears but ultimately — and impressively — delivers an upbeat outlook on basketball and life.

Jack Nunge is helped off the Crisler Center floor by trainer Brad Floy, left, and Iowa head coach Fran McCaffery on Feb. 25.

As soon as Nunge tumbled to the court, his heart sank again.

This is the first time Nunge has been interviewed since Feb. 25, the night his knee buckled without contact in the first half of Iowa's 79-57 loss at Michigan.

“I pretty much knew when it happened,” Nunge says, “that it wasn't going to be good.”

Nunge, unfortunately, has become familiar with knee injuries. He tore an ACL in November 2019 and missed the rest of the Hawkeyes' season. An eight-month recovery followed. Nunge came back and was playing some of his best basketball, averaging 7.1 points and 5.3 rebounds in about 16 minutes per game.

Just 12 days before his injury occurred, Feb. 13 at Michigan State, Nunge enjoyed the best game of his Hawkeye career — setting or tying career highs in points (18), rebounds (11) and assists (six). Iowa throttled the Spartans, 88-58, to hand Tom Izzo his most lopsided home loss in 26 years as Michigan State’s coach.

“Everything just kind of came together in that game,” Nunge says. “My teammates did a great job of finding me. We played great defense the whole game on their guys. It was a total team win.”

Iowa forward Jack Nunge tries to block a layup from Michigan forward Brandon Johns Jr. during the first half at Crisler Center in Ann Arbor, Thursday, Feb. 25, 2021.

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This was the Nunge who few on the outside had gotten to see. He redshirted as a sophomore; had his season cut short to just five games in his third year; and had been (understandably) up and down in games during his fourth season at Iowa after the ACL recovery and his father’s death.

In practices, coach Fran McCaffery has said Nunge was often one of the Hawkeyes’ highest-rated players — second only to big-man teammate and all-American Luka Garza. After that Michigan State win, Garza reminded folks, “A lot of teams got lucky last year when he got hurt. … We’re a whole different group with him on the floor.”

But now, Nunge was being helped off it … again.

He returned with the team from Ann Arbor late that Thursday night for a 9 a.m. MRI. He got the results in the afternoon: A torn meniscus, and an appointment for surgery four days later.

Jack Nunge's rehab from a torn meniscus in his right knee is in the early stages. He continues to be with his Hawkeye teammates in the Indianapolis bubble.

The recovery time (four to six months) is less than an ACL. Nunge grasped on to that as a silver lining. He also notes that because he’s been through one grueling rehab before, he has a better idea how to handle what can be a grueling and lonely process.

Again, there’s that positive attitude.

“I feel like I’ll be back in no time,” he says. “I already feel like I'm ahead of where I'm supposed to be in my rehab.”

Another thing that Nunge is thankful about? That last week’s Big Ten Tournament and the NCAA Tournament are exclusively in Indianapolis, about 2½ hours north of his hometown of Newburgh, Indiana.

That thought brings Nunge’s family back to mind: older sister, Rebecca, who’s in medical school at Evansville; younger sister Jessica, a volleyball player at Florida State; younger brothers Bob and Joey, still in high school; his mom, Beth.

And … his dad.

Mark Nunge was 53, a doctor who was known to offer inspiring words of advice.

“He always knew the right thing to say to make you feel better,” Jack Nunge says, “to make you want to be better.”

The combination of not being able to play the rest of this season and his father’s death is still fresh.

The pain hasn't gone away.

“Trying to get through it still,” he says, choking up with emotion.

But Jack is the type of person who thinks about others. That’s why when his mom comes up, the tears flow. It was an emotional moment to see her in the Lucas Oil Stadium stands at the Big Ten Tournament. Though Nunge can’t get close enough to give his mom a hug — due to tight COVID-19 protocols entering the NCAA Tournament — they shared a glance and a wave.

“I’m sure it’s a welcome break for her,” he says, “seeing the team play.”

She’ll be there this weekend, too, to see her son from afar … and wave.

Nunge hopes the Hawkeyes, seeded No. 2 in the West Region, beat Grand Canyon on Saturday, then either Oregon or VCU on Monday, then keep going.

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Being in the NCAA Tournament, Nunge says, helps keep his mind off his father’s death. He’s able to work on rehab in Indianapolis with trainer Brad Floy and strength-and-conditioning coach Bill Maxwell. The current goal is to regain some range of motion in the knee. The brace stays on for another four weeks.

“The knee has actually been a little bit of a distraction,” he says. “Something I can work on, try to heal.”

Jack Nunge lifts in a makeshift weight room before the first round of the 2021 NCAA Tournament at the Indianapolis Convention Center.

Nunge plans to graduate in May with a degree in accounting, then return to Iowa in the fall to pursue a master’s degree in business administration.

Over four years at Iowa, he’s been limited to 60 basketball games. With a medical-hardship waiver granted last year and this year’s “free” year of eligibility due to COVID-19, Nunge could theoretically play for Iowa for two or three more seasons. 

But, as you might understand, Nunge is taking things one year at a time.

“Basketball still means a whole lot to me. I know what I'm capable of on the court,” Nunge says. “My coaches know that. My teammates know that. I’m still scratching the surface on what I can do."

Remarkably, Nunge says the recent adversity has made him stronger and taught him to cherish every moment.

Like these days in Indianapolis, with his Hawkeye teammates.

More difficult days lie ahead. 

Nunge knows what his father would say to help him through the pain.

“Just take every day for what it is,” Nunge says. “Try to control the things that you can control, in your attitude and mentality. And just know it’s all going to work out in the end. All the work you put in, it’ll come to fruition.”

Hawkeyes columnist Chad Leistikow has covered sports for 26 years with The Des Moines Register, USA TODAY and Iowa City Press-Citizen. Follow @ChadLeistikow on Twitter.

Iowa players were allowed one hour outside at Victory Field in downtown Indianapolis on Tuesday. Here, Jack Nunge applies the tag during a low-key game of wiffle ball.