It happens when he’s out with friends. Someone will joke about one of the toughest moments in his life. He sarcastically thanks them, adding that he’ll go home later and cry himself to sleep.
Greg Brunner is only half kidding. While the pain eases with time, the hurt remains.
Iowa fans remember it. They cringe when reminded of the 2006 NCAA Tournament loss to Northwestern State. They can still see the ball shockingly go in the hoop at the buzzer.
“The hard part for me is our fans and our culture at Iowa, we didn’t deserve that. You wish the basketball gods would have just given that one up for you because we did everything the right way and that’s how it ended. It sucks. That’s the one thing that’s hard to swallow for me. We sacrificed a lot for each other that season. We definitely needed to catch that break there,” Brunner said.
It’s a lasting memory in a outstanding college career. His 990 rebounds still stand as a program record. While it still stings, it doesn’t define him.
“It’s never going to leave me but it’s always going to continue to drive me and motivate me to be a better person. I can handle it,” he said.
The approach has been working. He and his wife of eight years, Carin, have built a beautiful family with sons, Greyer (6) and Remey (2), along with daughter, Ridley (1).
Brunner, 34, ended a nine-year professional basketball career in ’14. He and Carin moved to Norwalk, Iowa, where they live today.
He works in management for Principal Financial in Des Moines. He’s also studying for a Master’s degree in analytics, taking night classes from the University of Iowa.
He’s still trying to get up to speed with a day job after running up and down a court in shorts for 17 years. Being back in school helps him do that. It’s a transition.
“Athletics is a gateway. It teaches you all the skills to be successful and how to manage and continue to progress. The issue is that if you play professionally, you come back and you’re kind of starting over. I think there’s a gap even after college for athletes. They’re so used to doing one thing and then reality hits that it’s over and now it’s time to figure out what that next chapter is. That’s not easy to do,” he said.
Like many people, Brunner read the book Moneyball, which told the story of Major League Baseball’s Oakland Athletics using data to construct a successful team on a limited budget. It drew him to that aspect of finance.
In his analytics class, he and other students worked on a project mirroring what the A’s did. They used data to build a fictitious NBA franchise of real life players that could compete with the ’15 world champion Golden State Warriors over a full season on the cheap. The only restriction was they couldn’t use LeBron James or Kevin Durant.
“I get the business sense, the nuances. I love it. I’m just using that to help catch myself up. Analytics isn’t even a huge strength of mine. I just know there’s a huge gap in the work force on how to use data and what data is,” he said.
Brunner was mentally preparing himself for life after basketball as he aged. With his physical style of play, he figured an injury would be his undoing on the court. He was prophetic.
While practicing with the Swiss National Team, he blew out his shoulder. He tore the labrum and rotator cuff. He could have tried a comeback after surgery but decided moving on to the next phase of his life was the best decision.
The injury was poorly timed. He still was playing at a high level and the Swiss team had potential to go far with NBA guys Clint Capela and Thabo Sefolosha. The day before shredding of his shoulder, the squad upset the Russian team led by Timofey Mozgov.
Brunner, who gained dual citizen ship in ’09, hit a big three-pointer and crucial free throws down the stretch of that game. Unfortunately for Switzerland, Capela and Sefolosha also suffered injuries and it didn’t escape the qualifying round.
Brunner began his professional career in Belgium. That team included fellow rookies Thomas Gardner (Missouri), Carldell “Squeaky” Johnson (UAB) and Justin Gray (Wake Forest). It opened the eyes of the young Americans.
“It’s just a wakeup. I grew up in and played at Iowa in my own little bubble of happiness. They dropped us off at the apartment in a town where nobody spoke English and said see you at practice,” Brunner said.
Slowly he assimilated to the culture. After two years in Belgium, he joined the top Italian league. Things got off to a rocky start. After two months, his team was kicked out of the league for tax issues.
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“I was sitting on the beach (in Sicily) with (Carin) and said I don’t know what we do. We ended up going to Israel for two months,” Brunner said.
They enjoyed the culture there, but Brunner did not like the basketball. As a player that functions best in a team environment, he didn’t fit in an Israeli league favoring a one-on-one style.
He returned to the states around Thanksgiving and wondered what was next. His agent ended up getting him back into the Italian league. He joined a struggling franchise that turned things around after his arrival.
It upset a Rome team with ex-NBA players and a budget more than four times its own. It then just missed the finals, falling to Milan in seven games.
“That (run) kind of cemented me in Italy and I ended up finishing out there,” Brunner said.
The Brunners moved 19 times during his professional career.
“I kind of bounced around like a mercenary for teams that needed somebody like me. It was fun. You never learn about it until you live it. You become accepting of change and learn resiliency,” Greg said.
The time overseas treated Brunner to experiences he didn’t have when growing up on a farm in Charles City, Iowa. He expanded his outlook on life. It molded him.
“I grew to love the customs. There are things that I always thought that were important that I learned really aren’t that important. There are things you miss but learn you don’t need. It helped me identify who I am and who I want me to be and also the way I want my kids to be raised,” he said.
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For him, it’s about working hard and enjoying the ride. It’s not about material possessions or popularity.
It’s in Brunner’s roots. His father farmed. His mother worked her way up from a secretary at Pfizer to management there.
Like his parents, Greg was an underdog. He wasn’t highly-regarded coming out of high school. Some fans wondered why then coach Steve Alford awarded him a scholarship.
He proved people wrong. His 32 double-doubles rank fourth in Hawkeye history. He, Acie Earl and Greg Stokes are the only players in the program with more than 1,000 points, 700 rebounds and 100 blocks in their careers. Brunner scored 1,516 points, the 14th best total all-time at the school.
He’s calls it a dream come true to have played for the Hawkeyes.
“It was my job to hold that tradition of the players that came before me and set the tradition for the players that came after me. That’s what my focal point was and that’s how I was able to play with the motor that I had to because I had to respect the guys that were ahead of me,” he said.
His college career was marked by ups and downs. It started with controversy.
During his first September on campus, sophomore guard Pierre Pierce was charged with third-degree sexual assault, a felony. The alleged act came against a member of the women’s basketball team. He pleaded guilty to a lesser charge and was suspended from playing in games that season but remained on the team.
Alford defended Pierce publicly on multiple occasions. Protests occurred outside Carver-Hawkeye Arena. The athletic department was fractured.
Pierce played next season incident free before returning to the police blotter during the ’04-05 campaign. He lasted 20 games and then was dismissed from the team following another arrest. He served 11 months in prison after being found guilty of third-degree burglary, criminal trespass, false imprisonment and assault with intent to commit sexual abuse.
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Brunner never felt sorry for he and his teammates even though Pierce’s actions tarnished the time he played at Iowa. He sympathized with the real victims of those crimes.
“It wasn’t easy for us as a basketball team but there are people that had to deal with a lot more adversity. We’re playing a game. It’s what they had to deal with and keep it in their locker room together that I truly feel for, what those ladies had to deal with. We were able to rally the troops and play a game. They had real life problems,” he said.
It fractured connections between the men’s and women’s teams.
“I had relationships there that had to be put on hold. There was a line drawn in the sand that we were separated for a while. It was hard. Coach (Lisa) Bluder is one of the most amazing people I’ve every met in my life. I respect that lady and her staff more than anybody,” he said.
“Then I had so many friends on that women’s team. As we went on, we were able to get that trust back with that group of ladies. We wanted them to know we were here for them also. People ask a lot how we dealt with it and I’ve always gone back to that I was just playing a game. That’s all I had to worry about. My heart goes out to the people that were truly impacted on that story.”
The Hawkeyes reached the NCAA Tournament during the season Pierce was permanently jettisoned from the program. They lost to Cincinnati in the first round but a foundation was built.
A roster flush with instate guys like Brunner, Jeff Horner, Adam Haluska, Mike Henderson, Alex Thompson and Carlton Reed put everything together the next year. They finished 11-5 in the conference, won the Big Ten Tournament and earned an NCAA four seed, opening in Detroit.
Then, Northwestern State happened. Up by 17 points with eight and a half minutes to play, the Hawkeyes fell 64-63 on a buzzer beater. They finished at 25-9, including 17-0 at home.
“I’m most proud of what we accomplished with so many Iowa kids. Granted it didn’t end the way we wanted it to. I still have nightmares over it. I thought we had a team that could have gone deep into that tournament the way we were structured,” Brunner said.
He eases the bad memory with what he says were 15-20 times later in his career where things went his way in big moments. He also realizes that upsets in the NCAA Tournament are common.
Alford stayed one more year at Iowa before heading off to New Mexico. He became the UCLA head coach in ’13, the Pierce story following him to Westwood.
Brunner understands the legacy of his coach at Iowa. He sees another side.
“I respect him and I loved playing for him. I couldn’t have asked for a better coach when I was there. He helped develop my skill set and made me the player I am. He put the trust in me and gave me the keys to the team,” he said.
“He is a polarizing figure. You either loved him or you hated him. When we played for him, we had emotions on the positive side. He was dedicated to us and we were like kids to him. He treated us like that. I will never complain with my time there with him as the coach.”
Brunner keeps in touch with his old teammates. They all lead busy lives, Horner an assistant coach at North Dakota and Haluska a financial advisor in Solon, Iowa.
Brunner watches Iowa basketball when he’s not in night school. He likes coach Fran McCaffery.
“Fran has always done a great job with me. We talk whenever I see him. I had a conversation with him like a month ago for 30 minutes on the phone. He’s got them moving in the right direction. Now we have to make sure we keep our fans behind him,” he said.
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