By Pat Harty
IOWA CITY, Iowa – Jack Nunge has been reunited with his other family, his basketball family where his teammates, coaches and support staff will play an important role in helping him cope with the overwhelming sadness from losing his father.
Nunge’s father, Dr. Mark Nunge, passed away suddenly and unexpectedly on Nov. 20 at the age of 53.
Jack Nunge, a 6-foot-11 junior forward on the third-ranked Iowa basketball team, returned home to Indiana immediately after being told about his father’s death.
Nunge attended his father’s funeral, which his Iowa teammates watched virtually, and he spent over a week with his family before returning to Iowa City Tuesday evening.
“I just saw him in the locker room just now and put my arm around him and gave him a hug and asked how his teeth were because we had the collision right before he had to go away a little bit,” senior guard Jordan Bohannon said Wednesday afternoon on a zoom conference. “But I think he’s doing well, and I think he’s going to do a little better now that he’s around us and we’re able to kind of lift him up a little bit and kind of take his mind off of some things in his life.”
Bohannon was referring to when he and Nunge collided in what was Nunge’s last practice before leaving the team to be with his family.
Iowa coach Fran McCaffery said Nunge should be available for Thursday’s game against Western Illinois at Carver-Hawkeye Arena, adding yet another piece to a deep and talented Iowa team that is 2-0 after lopsided victories over North Carolina Central and Southern University.
“He feels great, and I think under the circumstances, he’s probably in about as good a place as he can be,” Fran McCaffery said of Nunge, who suffered a season-ending knee injury in the fifth game of last season. “It’s just been an absolute difficult week for he and his family, but fortunately they were together, and I think that was great for them.
“Our guys watched the funeral and participated in it virtually, so I think that’s good. I think it’s important that Jack knew that we were all there for him.”
Fran McCaffery still hadn’t seen Nunge when McCaffery spoke to the media before practice on Wednesday.
“We’re just anxious to see him,” Fran McCaffery said. “We haven’t seen him since he got word and took off early on that Saturday morning. So we’re anxious to kind of get him back. He’ll be back with his brothers, and he was really playing well and was in a really good place.
“And hopefully, basketball and the arena can be his sanctuary as he continues to grieve. But I feel confident that he’ll be ready to go.”
Nunge started the first five games last season at power forward before being injured.
His absence created a void on the frontline. However, 6-11 center Luka Garza helped to fill the void by having a record-breaking junior season in which he led the Big Ten in scoring and was named the conference’s Player of the year.
Garza has been phenomenal so far this season, averaging 33.5 points in the first two games. Teams will undoubtedly go to great lengths to contain Garza, and that could create opportunities for Nunge on offense.
Nunge can take comfort in knowing that he has two families to help cope with the devastation. Because in many ways a team is just like a family in how the players and coaches share a strong bond that stretches way beyond the court.
Nunge is also a key piece to a team that many think can compete for a national title, as evidenced by its high ranking.
Part of the challenge will be to stay the course, and to stay available as players, during a global pandemic.
Maryland already has had its first three games canceled due to health concerns with COVID-19.
Teams also are playing in arenas that are mostly empty.
“It’s obviously a completely different atmosphere for everyone, most importantly, the players,” Fran McCaffery said. “I think they would love to be playing in front of packed arenas, even if you’re on the road, I think they would prefer that, no question.
“So it’s just something that everybody is adjusting to.”