By Pat Harty
IOWA CITY, Iowa – Nicholas Baer was a gift who kept on giving until there was nothing left for him to give as an Iowa basketball player.
In all of my years of covering University of Iowa athletics, which dates back to 1992, it’s hard to think of a UI student-athlete, man or woman, who endeared himself to the fans more than Baer did.
And the ones that do come to mind, including former Iowa football player Tim Dwight and former Iowa basketball player Matt Gatens, had the advantage of being star players, whereas Baer never came close to achieving stardom as an Iowa basketball player.
Current Iowa women’s basketball player Megan Gustafson, current Iowa football player A.J. Epenesa and current Iowa wrestler Spencer Lee also have that same advantage over Baer with all three of them having achieved stardom in their respective sport.
Gustafson is arguably the greatest player in the history of the Iowa women’s basketball program, while Epenesa made first-team All-Big Ten as a sophomore defensive end last season, and Lee is halfway to becoming Iowa’s first four-time national champion in wrestling.
Baer, on the other hand, spent most of his career as a reserve for the Hawkeyes. He played in 129 games and made 32 starts.
He never averaged more than 7.5 points per game, shot just 62.6 percent from the free throw line and Iowa failed to make the NCAA Tournament in two of his four seasons on the team.
Those statistics aren’t meant as criticism, but rather to show just how different Baer is compared to other Hawkeye fan favorites.
Baer didn’t have the luxury of stardom to help build his popularity, but he built it anyway by doing everything the right way, by defying the odds as a former walk-on and by always hustling, sometimes to the point of exhaustion.
Baer is a shining example of what can happen if you believe in yourself and are willing to take a chance and work and sacrifice in order to achieve a dream.
Iowa coach Fran McCaffery deserves credit for believing in Baer enough to let him join the team as a walk-on.
It’d be easy to say now with hindsight that McCaffery hardly went out on a limb by having Baer walk-on.
But at the time, it was considered sort of a leap of faith because Baer was mostly ignored or under-valued during the recruiting process.
He was a 6-foot-7 center for Bettendorf High School who had spent most of his time posting up near the basket.
And yet, McCaffery still saw something in Baer that made him think that Baer could handle the challenge of playing big-time college basketball at a different position than he played in high school.
Baer had good lateral quickness for somebody his size and good instincts. He also showed that he could shoot from 3-point range after he became a Hawkeye and was comfortable with playing facing to the basket.
Combine all of those skills with a work ethic and a motor that were unmatched and you had a recipe for success.
But success didn’t come easy or right away for Baer.
He was redshirted as a true freshman in order to get stronger and to work on his perimeter skills.
Baer only attempted one 3-point shot in high school, so it took some time for him to develop that part of his game.
He then appeared in 33 games as a redshirt freshman and capped the 2015-16 season by scoring 15 points off the bench in Iowa’s loss to eventual national champion Villanova in the second round of the NCA Tournament.
Baer’s popularity began to soar as a sophomore when he was named Big Ten Sixth Man of the Year for an Iowa team that almost made the NCAA Tournament despite having three freshmen starters.
That season he became the only Division I player over the past 25 years to amass 250 points, 45 steals, 45 3-pointers and 40 blocked shots in a single season.
Iowa then suffered through a disastrous season in Baer’s junior year, finishing just 14-19 overall.
That created a sense of urgency for the players and coaches, but especially for Baer as the team’s lone senior.
He had one more season to help Iowa get back on track, and he has since met that challenge with Iowa having won 23 games this season. That included a victory over Cincinnati in the first round of the NCAA Tournament and a near victory against Tennessee in the second round in which Iowa erased a 25-point deficit before losing in overtime.
Iowa fans showed their appreciation on Senior Day by giving Baer a rousing and well-deserved ovation. The fact that Baer was Iowa’s only senior seemed appropriate because he had the stage all to himself that day.
“His work ethic is unparalleled,” Fran McCaffery said prior to Senior Day. “His character, his demeanor in the locker room, his influence and love of his teammates and respect for the game. The guy is every coach’s dream to have somebody that embodies all those qualities.
“I remember earlier in the year someone asked me a question about he’s an intangibles guy, and I kind of got insulted. Yeah, he does the intangibles, but he’s a really good basketball player. He can dribble, pass, and shoot. He can rebound. He can run. He defends. He’s smart, he’s always in the right place. That’s why he’s on scholarship.”
One way to measure a player’s value to his team is how he is perceived by his teammates.
And in Baer’s case, it is with the utmost respect.
“When he’s on the floor, it raises the standard for the rest of the guys that are out there because we want to be more like him in every single way that we can,” said Iowa junior forward Tyler Cook.
“He does everything the right way,” said junior point guard Jordan Bohannon. “He makes you want to be a better player and a better person. I feel so fortunate to have played with him.”
For the first time in nearly five years, Baer’s schedule doesn’t include anything related to being a Hawkeye.
He is currently taking about a week off from playing basketball, but will soon start chasing another dream of playing professionally, probably overseas.
Baer was the guest on the Allhawkeyes/KCJJ radio show and podcast on Wednesday and he admitted to being overwhelmed by all of the support from fans since the season ended.
He praised his teammates and said he was a Fran McCaffery fan for life.
Nicholas Baer reached a level of popularity at Iowa that is usually reserved for star players.
What he lacked in statistics, he made up for with his work ethic, his passion and his humility.
And he did so in a way that captured the hearts of Iowa fans in a way that few have before him.