Twenty-one-year-old Butler men’s basketball center Joey Brunk has just checked into the game, and the cheers from the 9,100 fans packing Hinkle Fieldhouse are thunderous.
“He’s so likeable that people cheer like crazy just when he enters the game,” Butler Associate Athletic Director John Dedman says. “Luckily Nate [Fowler] understands that fans aren’t cheering that he is going to the bench.”
Brunk pushes a soft, loose wave of what Twitter users have called the “golden mane” and “the best hair in college basketball” away from his face, a grin peeking through his Matthew McConaughey-inspired beard and mustache, and steps to the line. Swishes the free throw.
Tonight, he can’t miss.
An hour later, he walks off the court, through the locker room …
… and heads back to his dorm, where he’ll strip off his size-17 sneakers, maybe read some poetry or a JFK biography (“He’s my favorite president”) before curling his 6-11 frame into a bed not made for a man who could nearly stand head to head with a small adult elephant.
In the morning, it’ll be time to teach poetry to second-graders.
In a Class of His Own
Brunk, an Elementary Education major and aspiring teacher, spent last semester student teaching in a second-grade class at the Butler University Laboratory School on Wednesdays.
His first full-class lesson was an introduction to emotion poetry.
“I was a little worried they might come in with negative attitudes, but they enjoyed it,” Brunk says. “I had them read a poem and then act out different emotions—I was the photographer, and everyone else was an actor.”
“It got lots of laughs.”
Brunk says there aren’t a lot of men in elementary education—last semester, he was one of only two guys in his elementary-education class.
“The kids thought it was cool that I was a guy teaching them,” he says. “I tried to be cool, whether it was talking ESPN, last night’s NBA games, or SportsCenter highlights.”
But as he rests his fist on his chin in a pose reminiscent of Rodin’s The Thinker sculpture, the mid-morning sunlight streaming into Hinkle Fieldhouse streaking his wavy hair, it isn’t hard to believe the hard-charging center whom Butler Director of Basketball Operations Brandon Crone calls a “gentle giant” is a poetry aficionado.
“He’s so patient,” Crone says. “He just has a presence. I have a 3-year-old son, and Joey’s always one of the first to give him high fives and hugs in the locker room.”
No one in Brunk’s immediate family is a teacher, but after volunteering in a fifth-grade class at Southport Elementary School a few days per week his senior year of high school, he was sold.
“I wanted the kids to be able to have a positive role model,” he says.
It’s a role Brunk also tries to play for his younger brother, Johnny, a sophomore guard at Roncalli High School, about 20 minutes south of Butler.
Being able to stay close to Johnny was one of the reasons Brunk, a four-star prospect out of Southport in 2016, chose Butler over offers from a bevy of Big Ten schools, including Indiana and Purdue.
“I went to Butler so I could see my brother play,” Brunk says. “I grew up in a family where everyone was at everyone else’s stuff.”
Which meant his Friday nights were never exactly, umm, wild.
“I was expected to be at every one of my brother’s Little League games and practices,” Brunk says. “And he attended all my practices and workouts.”
But supporting his younger brother has never been a chore for the Butler big man.
“He was there to support me, so I want to support him,” Brunk says.
So it was never a question for Brunk to forego the remainder of his first-year season to spend time with his dad after Joe Brunk was diagnosed with brain cancer in November 2016.
His Biggest Fan
Brunk has been to the Indianapolis Zoo no fewer than 500 times.
He would go with his family once or twice a week from age 2 on, always wanting to look at the same things—the lions, tigers, and his current favorite animal, the red panda. And the animal-lover also says his parents enabled a fearsome Zoobooks addiction.
“They paid for a monthly subscription, and it went on so long that I’d have three copies of the exact same issue,” he says.
He honors his dad by visiting a local zoo with Butler play-by-play radio announcer Mark Minner whenever the team travels for a tournament. It’s a way for Brunk to keep his hero with him.
Brunk and his dad, a two-time NAIA All-American at Hanover College, bonded over basketball from the beginning. They attended games at Hinkle Fieldhouse together, and Joe Brunk was his son’s first AAU coach.
“He was my biggest critic—and my biggest fan,” Joey Brunk says.
His dad would pick him up from middle school every day and drive him to the gym for workouts, a dedication that paid off when Brunk was a Top 100 recruit and one of the three finalists for the statewide IndyStar Mr. Basketball award as a high school senior.
“There were lots of mornings when—God bless both my parents—they’d get up at 5:30 AM to drive me to the high school for a workout,” Joey Brunk says. “My dad would rebound for me, and my mom would pack me breakfast, lunch, and something for the way home from school so I could eat again before going to the gym.”
Joe Brunk was there to watch Joey’s Southport team beat Ben Davis 60-57 for the sectional championship during Brunk’s senior year—and Joey hoped he’d one day get to watch Butler win an NCAA Championship.
Then, in November 2016, his dad was hospitalized while visiting friends in Las Vegas.
“It was completely unexpected,” Joey Brunk says. “I flew to Nevada right away.”
The diagnosis? A brain tumor.
Brunk stayed at his dad’s side in Southport for the next six months, foregoing the remainder of his first-year season to spend the last moments of his dad’s life with his hero.
“We laughed; we cried; we told stories,” Joey Brunk says. “There was never any dead airspace.”
Joe Brunk died April 15, 2017, at age 56.
But, true to his dad’s mantra of living with passion, Brunk made a vow: He wouldn’t be depressed.
He’d be the Energizer Bunny.
Butler’s Energizer Bunny
Drop in on a Hinkle Fieldhouse practice, and you’d be hard-pressed to find a happier guy than Brunk. He wears his dad’s No. 50 jersey, another reminder of the man who helped him achieve his dream of playing Division I basketball.
Brunk doubled down on his dedication to the sport this summer, using the offseason to transform his body with as many as four workouts each day, ranging from hot yoga to shooting with his brother at Roncalli. He dropped 10 pounds, from 240 to 230, and increased his maximum bench press from 230 to 260 pounds.
And it’s paid off: He’s averaging 8.6 points per game this season, compared to last year’s 1.3. His average rebounds per game are up to 4.4 from 1.8. And his average minutes per game have quadrupled, from five to 20.
The NCAA granted Brunk an additional season, awarding him a hardship waiver for his first year, as he only played in seven games before stepping away to be with his dad. That means he’s a redshirt sophomore this season, with two years of eligibility remaining.
Crone says that, despite his dad’s death, nothing about Brunk’s personality has changed.
“He’s the same Joey I’ve known for five years,” he says. “He’s the Energizer Bunny in the locker room.”
“Dad and I always talked about living your life in a way that you’re excited to wake up,” Joey Brunk says. “There are lots of people who would die to be in this position.”