IOWA CITY — Perhaps nobody in Carver-Hawkeye Arena is more nervous than Bill May when his son, Iowa forward Eric May, leaps for a thunderous dunk.
That held true Sunday afternoon in the Hawkeyes’ 72-51 win against Minnesota. At a pivotal juncture, May hauled in a pass from Melsahn Basabe in stride and rocketed toward the hoop. May’s dunk crashed on Minnesota’s Oto Osenieks, who was whistled for a foul.
Bill May slapped hands with family members and let out a scream.
“I’m almost ready to pass out for a lack of oxygen going to my brain because it’s going to every other muscle in my body,” Bill May said. “Does that not show you how I feel about it? When you’re ready to pass out because you’re so excited, it’s because you’re all in.”
The whole family is “all in.” May’s parents attend nearly every game, from Cancun to Columbus. May has five siblings and a truckload of extended family who cheer for him at home games, like on Sunday.
“I can always hear my sister screaming “Go 2-5” the whole game,” Eric May said. “I don’t know if that’s good or bad. They travel, and they’re loud and they bring just as much energy as anybody.”
All in, that’s Eric May. After weathering through seasons of on-court turbulence ranging from injuries to losing streaks, Eric May has become the ultimate team guy. He plays three positions and sometimes can shift to the point. He defends, passes the ball and sometimes looks for an open shot.
Four possessions after his dunk Sunday, May hit a 3-pointer from the corner. He later knocked down a pair of free throws and stepped back for an open jumper in consecutive series.
“(He’s doing) what I hoped he would as a captain, as a senior: multiple position player, can guard a big guy, a small one, knows where to line up,” Iowa Coach Fran McCaffery said. “What a lot of guys try to do in that situation is more than they’re supposed to do. He does exactly what he’s supposed to do.”
That wasn’t always the case. May came to Iowa four years ago with high expectations. As a junior at Dubuque Wahlert, he buried a 35-foot shot at the buzzer to win the Class 3A state title. He was a two-time all-state selection.
But at Iowa, the fun evaporated. May started 23 games as a freshman in a all-time worst 10-22 season. Nobody was happy, from the players to their parents.
Before May’s sophomore year Fran McCaffery replaced Todd Lickliter as coach, and May maintained his starting role. But then he battled through years of injuries, including a groin pull his sophomore year and a back sprain his junior year. His explosiveness subsided and his confidence wavered.
“It was a struggle because he was hurt two or three years there,” Bill May said. “What was really more frustrating was the fact we’d go into games and we weren’t competing like we should. Last year there was a turnaround. Before that, it was difficult to be perfectly honest.”
This year, McCaffery tabbed the 22-year-old May as a captain and wanted him to become the glue player, regardless of the role. May, a two-time all-academic Big Ten member and accounting major, was moved to the bench but it hardly became a demotion. He’s averaging more than 19 minutes a game, up by nearly five minutes from last year but down from Iowa’s depleted teams his freshman and sophomore seasons.
As the talent around him increased and Iowa improved, May became valued as much for his intangibles as for his play. He also taught his father a lesson about perseverance.
“From a parent’s standpoint, he’s taught me a lot about how life should be, how you should be looking for other people,” Bill May said. “That’s what you want as a parent, to think that your son is learning those lessons. On the other hand, your son is teaching you those lessons.”
But May is more than just a leader. He scored 10 points and grabbed seven rebounds Sunday. He has only 19 turnovers in 26 games. McCaffery said he’s “arguably playing better than anybody else we have right now.” His teammates have responded as well.
“Phenomenal,” Aaron White said. “Made all the little plays. A big and-one dunk. Big rebounds. He makes all the right passes. Keeps offense moving. Drive and kick. Feed the post. I can’t say more about him. He’s been great this year.”
As for May, it feels good to just be healthy and to see the team compete for a possible NCAA tournament slot. Iowa (17-9, 6-7 Big Ten) has won three straight Big Ten games for the first time since 2007.
“I’m playing my most consistent basketball and that’s what allowed me to affect the game,” May said. “What I’ve been trying to do is let the game come to me. It’s not that it’s no pressure or anything, but I just do what I can do and I like that.
“The pace of my game has finally gotten to the point where it’s slowed down for me. I’m not feeling rushed. I’m seeing guys when they’re open, waiting for plays to develop. That’s a huge thing. I might not have been doing that my first few years. Just playing really comfortable at a comfortable pace and just really getting after it.”
He also couldn’t make his father more proud.
“He’s turning into — I love the term — facilitator,” Bill May said. “He’s going to go out and play as good as he can play. He wants the team to win, bar none. He doesn’t care what his personal stats are.
“He’s a team guy, bottom line is if you’re in a fox hole, he’s the guy you want to pull in with you.”