Watching sports can become a generational quest when you’ve been around for almost seven decades.
I thought of that past weekend when University of Iowa basketball players Caitlin Clark and Keegan Murray spent time together in California as Wooden Award finalists. Two finalists from the same university is a rarity, but there they were. The consensus sophomores are just the latest chapters in what has been a historic four-year period of national attention for both Hawkeye hoops programs.
Clark and Murray took the Big Ten and the nation by storm in 2021-22. Watching them play the game at such a high level was must-watch basketball. And the fact that both are from Iowa made it even sweeter.
I first came across their family trees long before Caitlin or Keegan was born, thanks to my career as a sportswriter at the Des Moines Register.
My connection to Caitlin Clark dates back to the early 1980s. Her grandfather, Bob Nizzi, was the football coach at Dowling Catholic. I first interviewed Coach Nizzi in the early 1980s and covered some of his games as well. I always appreciated the passion and intensity Coach Nizzi had for the game and his players.
I experienced that passion and intensity in a unique way after the Maroons defeated arch-rival West Des Moines Valley, 13-9, in the first round of the 1983 high school playoffs. The Tigers had managed the team of Nizzi less than two weeks earlier, 21-0. After that game, some things appeared in the log that Coach Nizzi didn’t care about.
After the playoff win, Nizzi stood tall as his players circled around him in midfield. And then he pulled out several items from the Registry and set them on fire.
The next morning I received a phone call from Coach Nizzi, who apologized for what had happened the night before. I respected him before this call. I respected him even more after that.
Nine years later, I called Keegan Murray’s family tree. His father, Kenyon, signed a letter of intent to play basketball in Iowa in November 1991. After a stellar senior season at Battle Creek Central that saw Kenyon average 26 points, 10 rebounds and 2.9 steals, he succeeded Chris Webber as Mr. Basketball.
I first interviewed Kenyon in April 1992, days before he played in the McDonald’s All-America game in Atlanta, Georgia. Murray, considered the Hawkeyes’ hottest rookie since Roy Marble, knew what was in store. Just like his future coach, Tom Davis.
“I think it’s important for me to continue to temper the enthusiasm,” Davis said. “People, bless their hearts, would really like to jump on him and tell him how great he is going to be. He’s a great player in high school, but in college it’s different. Let him show it first, then let’s talk about its actual quality.
Kenyon chose Iowa over Michigan, saying the Hawkeye program “suited me better. I think Iowa can use me more than Michigan.
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That college pick benefited Iowa’s basketball program for the second time when legacy rookies and twins Keegan and Kris Murray signed with the Hawkeyes in November 2019.
I first saw the twins play at the Chris Street Memorial basketball tournament in Indianola when they were in elementary school. Kenyon, who was a freshman in Iowa when Chris died and had become his close friend, was coaching his boys.
One thing struck me that day in Indianola. As Kenyon talked to his team in the group, Keegan and Kris made eye contact with their father and absorbed every word he said.
Caitlin was a junior at Dowling when I first saw her play in a 2019 Women’s State Tournament semifinal game. She was clearly a top notch point guard. Of all the victories coach Lisa Bluder has had during her time in Iowa, getting Clark signed on a national letter of intent is one of her most impressive accomplishments.
And the national adulation shown for Clark and Murray in 2021-22 builds on an unprecedented four-season streak in Hawkeye history.
In this window, the women’s program had a National Player of the Year in Megan Gustafson. Gustafson, Kathleen Doyle and Clark were all Americans by consensus. Gustafson (twice), Doyle and Clark were all named Big Ten Player of the Year. Monica Czinano was also a first-team All-Big Ten selection. Bluder was Naismith Coach of the Year in 2019. Gustafson won the Lisa Leslie Award, Naismith Award and Honda Sport Award and was Big Ten Athlete of the Year.
Clark has won the Dawn Staley Guard of the Year award twice and also won the Nancy Lieberman Point Guard of the Year award in 2022.
Garza became the first consensus National Player of the Year in men’s program history in 2021. He was a two-time Big Ten Player of the Year and a consensus American twice. Murray became the program’s fourth player to be named a consensus All-American in 2022. Murray was also a 2022 All-Big Ten first-team selection and won the Karl Malone Award which honors the nation’s top power forward . Garza has also won the Naismith Award, Wooden Award, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar Award, and Pete Newell Award. He was named Big Ten Athlete of the Year in 2021.
The women’s program has had the Big Ten’s leading scorer in four of the past five seasons — Gustafson in 2017-18 and 2018-19 and Clark in the past two seasons.
The Iowa men had the last three Big Ten point guards in Garza in 2019-20 and 2020-21 and Murray last season. No Big Ten men’s team has had three straight point guards since Rick Mount of Purdue from 1968-1970.
Gustafson (2,804) and Garza (2,306) had their numbers retired after becoming the leading career scorers in women’s and men’s history.
And those are just the highlights.
While Murray has a chance to become the highest-drafted NBA player in men’s program history in June — Fred Brown went to Seattle with the sixth pick in 1971 — Clark has two more seasons to spin even more magic and create stories to tell for generations to come.