Iowa Men's Basketball

Nicholas Baer: So much more than Iowa's 'Sixth Man'

Hawkeye senior has home-finale of his impactful career Saturday

Iowa's Nicholas Baer will be honored for Senior Day prior to Saturday's game against Rutgers at Carver-Hawkeye Arena in Iowa City. (Stephen Mally/The Gazette)
Iowa's Nicholas Baer will be honored for Senior Day prior to Saturday's game against Rutgers at Carver-Hawkeye Arena in Iowa City. (Stephen Mally/The Gazette)

IOWA CITY — Saturday’s Senior Day ceremony for the Iowa men’s basketball team may be short, but it surely will be sweet.

It’s a class of one, and maybe that’s how it should be in this case. After being a consummate team guy, Nicholas Baer has earned a moment alone in the spotlight before rejoining his teammates for their 4:07 p.m. game against Rutgers at Carver-Hawkeye Arena.

“I’m an emotional person, so I’ll probably be crying my eyes out,” Baer said Friday. “That’s what it’s all about, though. Being part of something you care about that much, that brings you emotion.

“But the best thing about it would be a win.”

Baer didn’t enter Hawkeye hearts by being a big-time recruit. He showed up at Iowa with virtually zero focus put on him. He departs with a great appreciation from teammates, coaches and fans for how he has played the game and represented himself and his team as a person.

“When he’s on the floor,” said Hawkeye junior Tyler Cook, “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.”

That’s the team’s leading scorer and rebounder saying that.

Baer is the Hawkeyes’ sixth-leading scorer at 6.4 points per game. But skip past the points to his other stats and you immediately see why Iowa Coach Fran McCaffery has praised Baer every time he’s been asked about him over four years.

Baer leads Iowa in blocked shots and steals despite being sixth in minutes played. He is a close second in rebounds per minute. He is willing to take and able to make shots in critical moments. He is a constant source of positive energy, a league leader in four-minute bursts of hustle after being substituted into games.


“His work ethic is unparalleled,” McCaffery said. “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.”

Then there’s the personal side. “You always know what you’re getting with Nicholas,” Cook said. “He’s one of the best people that you’ll meet, one of those guys that will be the first to lend a hand if you need it.

“We just love having him as a guy wearing our colors and not the other team’s.”

Baer was a preferred walk-on at Iowa, until the end of his redshirt freshman season when he was put on a scholarship. His breakthrough came quickly, a 13-point, seven-rebound, six-block (six blocks!) performance in a December 2015 win against Drake in Wells Fargo Arena.

That gym was Baer’s home away from his Bettendorf home. As an upperclassman, he led Bettendorf's state-tournament teams to second- and third-place finishes. McCaffery got especially wise to him while he was at the tourney to see his son, Connor McCaffery, play for Iowa City West.

Fran McCaffery got to attend West’s 49-46 state Class 4A semifinal win over Bettendorf in 2014 on that Friday afternoon because his Hawkeyes were upset in the first round of that year’s Big Ten tournament the night before. Baer, a center who barely knew what it was like to shoot a 3-pointer in a game in high school but has made 128 as a Hawkeye, had 22 points, 13 rebounds and three blocks that day.


“The only reason Coach was there is because they lost to Northwestern in the Big Ten tournament,” said Baer. “If they beat Northwestern, you guys aren’t talking to me right now.”


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“I credit Fran,” said Baer’s mother, Joy Kelly, the principal at Bettendorf High. “He liked Nicholas’ game, his demeanor, how he handled himself and interacted with his teammates.”

But there was another reason McCaffery’s awareness of Baer was raised. Elizabeth Baer, Nicholas’ oldest sister and one of his four siblings, paid a visit to McCaffery’s office during her freshman year at Iowa to urge him to consider giving her brother a look.

“She did not tell anyone she was going to do that,” Kelly said. “She did not let Nicholas know. Nicholas probably would have told her not to do that.”

Elizabeth graduated from Iowa last year and now works as an account executive for a Chicago consulting firm. The other three are current UI students. One, Michael Baer, is a sophomore walk-on player with the Hawkeyes after being a team manager last season.

“Family’s everything,” Nicholas said. “We’re close in age and close together. My mom and dad wouldn’t have it any other way.”

The five Baer children had to deal with a horrendous life-changing event in 2006 when their father, John Baer, was driving a minivan that struck a truck in Dubuque County at high speed when the truck suddenly pulled in front of them.

Nicholas, then 10, was in the back seat with Michael and sister Caroline. Nicholas pulled the two out of the van. He was in intensive care in a Dubuque hospital for two days afterward. His two siblings had minor injuries. John Baer and his mother, Mary Ann Baer, were both critically injured. They were en route to watch Elizabeth and sister Katherine play in a softball tourney.

John Baer, sports director at KGAN-TV in Cedar Rapids in the late 1980s and early 1990s, was hospitalized for two months. He suffered a brain injury that affected his behavior and personality. He and Joy eventually divorced. John lives in Bettendorf and freely expresses his love and admiration for his children. He wrote this about Nicholas in a December email:


Like many, I’m amazed and in awe as I watch him unabashedly and bravely take the bull by the horns and step up to do what needs to be done. ... If anyone shouldn’t be, it is I.

“I should know, better than anybody, that for my oldest son, basketball’s big stage isn’t pressure. It’s just a televised playground.

“When ... at age 10, you and your 7-year-old brother and 5-year-old sister watch your dad ... as a semi nearly saws him in half, you quickly know what’s real. Poise, composure and perspective instantly become gifts separating you from your peers.

“Life is real. Death is final. Basketball is neither. Nicholas knows that.

“I’m so fortunate to be around to see him do his thing. He’s a blast to witness.”

Nicholas has always preferred not to discuss the accident and its effects publicly, but did offer this much on Friday:

“That’s something that definitely shaped my life, absolutely. I would never imagine anything like that happening, but I think it gave our family a chance to grow closer as well.”

Joy Kelly is the principal of a school with 1,569 students. She said “Every kid should have a chance, should have that passport through education to get the skills and confidence to be successful.”


She said she urged to her own kids to be closer to each other than anyone else because “those are the longest relationships they will have, until a ripe old age.”

Nicholas declined a scholarship offer from Division II Northwest Missouri State. He wanted to play at Iowa. McCaffery and his staff gave Baer an opportunity because they saw more at their doorstep than just a thin 6-foot-7 teen with some skills, but a lot more that he would need to work to develop to become a Big Ten player.


Like his siblings, Baer is a scholar. He’s a three-time Academic All-Big Ten honoree, in fact. He is working on his master’s degree, but wants to play professional ball somewhere later this year.

“The ball’s going to stop bouncing eventually,” he said. “I’d like to come back to school and finish my sports and rec graduate degree. From there I’m interested in pursuing either athletic administration or maybe broadcasting.”

Coaching, he said, is probably a no. “If I coach, I’ll probably just coach my kids’ fourth-grade team or something.”

Baer won’t start Saturday’s game. Usually, McCaffery will start his seniors in their final home game. But Baer has always been best here off the bench.

“We’ll leave him right where is,” McCaffery said. “Just do what you do, my man. And you know what, he’s thrilled to do it. A lot of times he’s on the floor at the end of the game.”

Baer was the Big Ten’s Sixth Man of the Year as a sophomore. Few would argue if he again gets that honor.


Although, his coaches and teammates might add this: “Sixth Man” is about five spots too low.

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