IOWA CITY, Iowa - Life is not fair sometimes.
Jack Nunge knows that all too well. It’s a book with way too many chapters. In a crushing window between November of 2019 and February of 2021, Nunge has lost his father, Dr. Mark Nunge, and suffered a pair of season-ending knee surgeries. And now, his heavy heart has him saying goodbye to the Hawkeyes.
Nunge announced Tuesday that he was leaving Iowa’s basketball program and planned to find another school closer to his home in Newburgh, Ind., just outside Evansville. He called his decision a difficult one, but who can blame him.
Jack mentioned wanting to find a school closer to home, so he can be near his mom, Beth, and his four siblings.
Here’s hoping that Jack can find the comforts of home, and a place to continue his basketball career and dodge the injury bug once and for all. Hopefully, the game will be a tonic to soothe the heartbreak that shadowed him during his Iowa career.
Nunge committed to Iowa on Sept. 12, 2016. The day before, Iowa got another commitment from a center in Washington, D.C. A guy named Luka Garza.
“So excited to follow your journey and all the success coming your way Jack,” Garza tweeted on Tuesday.
Nunge, who picked Iowa from an offer list that included Clemson, Nebraska, Georgia Tech, Creighton, Vanderbilt, Toledo, Evansville and Ball State, was no stranger to Iowa City when he arrived in the summer of 2017 and roomed with Garza.
Iowa City was home when Jack’s dad worked as an emergency medicine specialist at University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics. Jack was in the fifth grade in 2010 when Dr. Mark accepted a job as an emergency specialist at Deaconess Gateway Hospital in Evansville. Right before the Nunges were scheduled to move, a new family arrived in their neighborhood. The McCafferys arrived from Albany, N.Y. Fran McCaffery had just left Siena to become the new basketball coach at Iowa. His son, Connor, also a member of Iowa’s Class of 2017, and Jack became fast friends before the moving van arrived again.
Jack didn’t make his junior varsity basketball team as a freshman, but everything began to change once he started to grow. A 6-footer that freshman year, he was 6-11 by his senior season.
Nunge was a sophomore at Castle High School when he caught the eye of Iowa assistant coach Sherman Dillard. Check this guy out this summer, Dillard told McCaffery, he used to live in your neighborhood.
When McCaffery got a look at Nunge, he reminded him of former Iowa player Jarrod Uthoff. The Hawkeyes became the first Power Five school to offer. Nunge’s earlier time in Iowa proved to be a recruiting edge for McCaffery. Jack said he had remained a Hawkeye fan even though he was living in hoops-crazy Indiana.
And Beth grew up in Aplington (maiden name Poppens) and played basketball and volleyball at Central College in Pella. Jack’s cousin, Chelsea Poppens, was an accomplished basketball player and 1,400-point scorer at Iowa State.
And sports ran deep in the Nunge family. Dr. Mark Nunge played college basketball at the University of Rochester. Jack’s oldest sister, Rebecca, played volleyball at Notre Dame. Another sister, Jessica, played volleyball at Florida State. Jack also has two younger brothers, Bob and Joey.
He had plenty of options, but Jack decided to return to Iowa City and play for his old neighbor. He averaged 22.8 points, 11.6 rebounds and 3.5 blocked shots as a senior at Castle and was one of four finalists for Indiana Mr. Basketball. He was Castle’s first Associated Press first-team all-stater.
Nunge played in all 33 games as a true freshman at Iowa, starting 14 times. He scored in double figures seven times and averaged 5.7 points while finishing second on the team in blocked shots with 25.
Nunge redshirted the 2018-19 season. Nunge and Garza were starters side-by-side when the 2019-20 season started. And while Garza went on to become the Big Ten player of the year, Nunge could only reflect on opportunity lost.
He recorded his first double-double in the third game, against Oral Roberts. But he tore the ACL in his right knee in the fifth game against Cal Poly. Months of rehab followed, but Nunge was cleared to return to action before the start of the 2020-21 season.
At Iowa’s media day on Nov. 9, 2020, McCaffery was pleased to have Nunge back in his rotation.
“Jack has been terrific,” McCaffery said. “He looks great health-wise. He’s in great shape physically. He’s been lifting now for the better part of two years, even though he had the injury. His upper body looks really good. Terrific shooter, skilled big guy who can play multiple
positions. He’s a shot blocker, he’s a tremendous low post defender, he’s a runner, he can stretch the floor, and he can really pass. We’re really excited about getting Jack back.” Nunge’s return to the floor was delayed by tragedy. His father passed away the morning of Nov. 21. Jack’s Iowa teammates and coaches attended the funeral virtually.
After missing the first two games, Nunge returned and was a valuable piece in McCaffery’s rotation. He was the team’s top scorer (7.1 points) and rebounder (5.3) off the bench. That included the game of his career on Feb. 13 at Michigan State.
Nunge scored 18 points, grabbed 11 rebounds and added six assists, all career highs, in a 30-point victory at the Breslin Center. Three games later, Nunge tore meniscus in his right knee in the first half at Michigan and was lost for the season.
Another knee rehab awaited. During a conversation I had with McCaffery in early March, he talked about what was ahead for Nunge. Since it was a meniscus tear, and not another ACL tear, McCaffery was confident Nunge would be ready to go by the end of the summer. “There’s not a better kid,” McCaffery said.
But home was tugging at Nunge’s heart. And home won.
Iowa fans went to social media to shower Jack with affection. So did his teammates and coaches. Dillard, the first man to put Nunge on Iowa’s radar, said it best.
“Hawkeye Nation, let’s throw so many positive vibes Jack Nunge’s way in hopes that this gem of a young man can continue on his path to ultimate happiness, prosperity and wholeness,” Dillard wrote on Twitter.
Amen to that.