Like so many science projects, this one started in seventh grade. Joey Brunk was the student. Joey Brunk also was the project.
Doctors had told Joey, who already was pushing 6 feet, that he would grow to be at least 6-11 – perhaps as tall as 7-1. Along with height, basketball also was in his genes: His father, Joe, was a two-time NAIA All-American at Hanover in 1981 and ’82. Nearly 25 years later, Joe Brunk still ranks fifth all-time at Hanover in scoring, sixth in rebounding.
For Joey Brunk in 2011, major college basketball was at least five years away, possibly forever. Because Joey was like so many kids who grow so young, so fast: not very coordinated, not very strong.
“He’d fall 12, 15 times a game,” Joe Brunk says of his son. “I mean, nobody was touching him. He just went down.”
Joey Brunk, that seventh-grader in 2011, embarked on a personal science project. And he started it with this hypothesis:
If I work hard enough, I’ll be a major college basketball player.
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You probably know how it turned out. He signed in November with Butler, picking the Bulldogs over Indiana, Purdue and Xavier. Brunk had 16 points and 14 rebounds to lead the Indiana All-Stars past Kentucky 106-84 on Saturday at Bankers Life Fieldhouse.
What Joey Brunk did on Saturday night, that’s not the story. It’s how he got there. Cut from his seventh-grade AAU team. And eighth. And he’s come even further, if you can believe it, than that.
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Five years ago Brunk reported to Dugan’s Sports Performance in Plainfield, blessed with good height and great hands and little else. Matt Dugan’s first question: How many push-ups can you do?
“I got into push-up position …” Brunk was telling me, then stopped.
Something easier, then. Dugan led Brunk to a stair and had him assume the calf-raise position: standing on the stair, heels off the edge. Lower yourself a few inches, then lift yourself up.
“I couldn’t do any,” he says.
He volunteers those stories, and there are others. Like Dugan sizing him up that first day and telling him, “The first muscles you’re going to notice are your triceps and quads.”
Sure enough, two months later Joey went to his dad and showed him something new on his upper arm: a visible triceps muscle. A month later he showed his dad another new development, this one on his upper leg: behold, the quadriceps.
Old history doesn’t embarrass Brunk. First, he’s not hung up on attitude and posture. He won citizenship awards in kindergarten, elementary and middle school. He became a 4.0 student in high school. After basketball season ended this year, he volunteered at Southport Elementary School. He thinks he might like to be an elementary school teacher some day.
“He’s a better kid than he’ll ever be as a player,” Joe Brunk says.
Joey became an all-state player, but five years ago that was a fantasy. He knew he wasn’t going to make it into major college basketball. Not if he couldn’t do a push-up.
“It’s been a gradual process,” Joey says. “It started in seventh grade.”
It was all Joey, too. Sure, his dad pushed a little bit – OK, more than a little – when Joey was younger. New parents make mistakes, you know? With help from his wife, Helen, Joe Brunk recognized his mistake when Joey was in eighth grade and told him basketball had to be his choice. The dad would love his son no matter what he chose.
Joey took a few weeks, then decided: He wanted to do this. He set up his own workout schedule, though. Dad insisted. If he was going to work this hard, if he was going to be pushed like private trainers were going to push him, walking into the gym had to be his idea.
And so five years ago he walked into Dugan’s facility in Plainfield, and then into Champions Academy in Indianapolis to work with skills coach Joey Burton, and finally into St. Vincent Sports Performance to refine that solid base under skills coach Rob Blackwell and strength and conditioning coach Greg Moore.
At Southport he learned under big man coaches Bil Duany and Kyle Taber, the latter an ex-IU big man. Worked on his game before school. After practice. Sometimes until Cardinals coach Kyle Simpson would very nicely tell him to get out of the gym. Go home.
“First one in,” Simpson says. “Last one out. That kind of kid.”
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There is work to be done, still. Maybe another kid wouldn’t think so, but Joey Brunk – you’ve been paying attention, right? – isn’t another kid.
Southport’s season ended at semistate on March 19, a 29-game grind, and this is how Joey Brunk relaxed: by spending more time at St. Vincent Sports Performance than in high school. And that’s a literal statement.
Brunk frontloaded his high school schedule years ago so he could spend time as a senior doing whatever he wanted. In the final semester of his senior year, Brunk wanted to work out. So he spent three hours a day, five days a week, at St. Vincent after taking his handful of classes at Southport (and after volunteering at the elementary school).
Three months after the season ended, Brunk has gained nine pounds of muscle, from 236 to 245 pounds. He will never be confused with a freak athlete, but he is bouncier than ever, dominating the Indiana-Kentucky game Saturday night with nine rebounds in the first 13 minutes, and seven offensive rebounds overall.
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Brunk plans to get bigger before he reports to Butler, and hopes to get taller. He’s 6-11 now, and isn’t sure he’s finished growing. He’s just 18. Doctors told him 6-11 was his floor, and 7-1 the ceiling.
This Joey Brunk basketball project, it’s not over.
Find IndyStar columnist Gregg Doyel on Twitter at @GreggDoyelStar or at www.facebook.com/gregg.doyel.