CHICAGO — Bill and Karen May’s six children have always been competitive.
Lindsey, the oldest, was the catalyst in the family. When she got her first car, a Chrysler LeBaron convertible, she bought vanity license plates that read: PLY2WIN.
“Play to win,” Bill said. “We didn’t play to compete.”
The May children played on eight state championship teams at Dubuque Wahlert — four in soccer, three in volleyball and one in basketball.
Four of them played sports in college, including Eric, a senior captain on an Iowa basketball team that meets Northwestern at 8 p.m. Thursday in the first round of the Big Ten Tournament at the United Center.
“Growing up with five siblings, everything is a competition,” said Eric, who has four older sisters and a younger brother.
Eric is enjoying his best season in and Iowa uniform, ending a college career that, quite frankly, hasn’t been easy.
“He is proud to wear the Iowa jersey,” said Fran McCaffery, May’s Hawkeye coach the past three seasons. “He grew up in Iowa. There’s just no better feeling than to watch him excel the way he has on such an incredibly consistent basis. And to see the enjoyment he’s gotten this year, and his family, too. They’re thrilled for him. And so am I.”
May is the only current player to take the court during Todd Lickliter’s final season at Iowa, a 10-22 campaign. Injuries then took the legs out of his sophomore and junior seasons.
“It would have been easy just to pack it in and take off,” said May, whose cousin, Kevin Kunnert, played for Iowa in the 1970s and had a 10-year NBA career. “But I’ve been a Hawkeye my whole life. It didn’t feel right, just because things got tough, to take off.”
May’s reward is playing on a 20-win team that has helped bring life back to Hawkeyes basketball.
“I think about the change that went on in my four years,” said May, a 6-foot-4 guard. “The whole 180-degree turn that program has taken.”
When Eric went home to Dubuque, looking for a shoulder to cry on when things got tough during his first three seasons at Iowa, he didn’t find it. He did have role models in Lindsey, who played soccer at Iowa, and Stephanie, who played volleyball at Northern Iowa.
“Stephanie had great success in college, but it didn’t always come easy for her,” Eric said. “Every athlete has their ups and downs. They knew how to talk to me, and they didn’t always console me. It was, ‘Get back to work then. If it’s not working, figure it out.’ ”
There’s a motto the May family lives by: “It’s always our fault.”
“The reason we say that is … we can’t do anything to change the situation,” Bill said. “When something’s not working for us, we take accountability and try not to look any further than that. If you start blaming someone else, you lose control over what you can do to change the situation. We’re behind each other 100 percent. But don’t come to the table whining about something, because it’s probably not going to carry any water.”
Eric averaged 9.0 points per game and was named to the Big Ten’s all-freshman team in his first year. Hi scoring average dipped to 7.8 as a sophomore and 4.3 as a junior, but he didn’t cash it in. May entered his senior season in search of his role, and he found it.
“It’s not just about scoring, the stat line,” said May, averaging 4.5 points and 3.8 rebounds his senior season. “It’s the intangibles. It takes maturity just to realize that is an important role on a team.”
Nothing sums up May’s senior season more than the last regular-season game of his career, Saturday’s 74-60 victory over Nebraska. May scored two points but had six assists to just one turnover and played his usual bulldog defense.
“The funny thing is, if you had ever asked me if I thought my son would score two points and it would be a great day I’d of said, ‘Are you kidding me?’ ” Bill said. “And it was awesome.”
May received a rousing cheer when he was introduced before that game as part of a senior day ceremony. That cheer was even louder when May was the last Iowa starter introduced.
“As a parent it’s pretty tough when your kid’s on top, and then you watch them struggle a little bit,” Bill said. “When the crowd erupted like that I thought, ‘You know, they get it.’ It brought a tear to my wife’s eye. It was cool.”
SIZING UP THE BIG 10 MEN’S TOURNAMENT
When: Thursday through Sunday
Where: United Center, Chicago
Television: First round on BTN, ESPN2; quarterfinals on BTN, ESPN; semifinals, finals on CBS.
PAST FIVE CHAMPIONS
2012 – Michigan State
2011 – Ohio State
2010 – Ohio State
2009 – Purdue
2008 – Wisconsin
You’ve got to wonder about Michigan’s motivation. The Wolverines are ranked sixth in this week’s Associated Press poll, but are seeded fifth in Chicago. The 12th seed, Penn State, should make them a bit uneasy in today’s second game. The Nittany Lions were 0-14 in Big Ten play when they beat visiting Michigan on Feb. 27, 84-78. That loss cost Michigan a share of the Big Ten title.
MOST TO LOSE
Minnesota lost just once before Jan. 11. The Gophers are 5-10 since. A team that was ranked as high as eighth nationally now is clinging to their NCAA bid. A bad loss to Illinois, in a game featuring two teams that defeated regular-season champion Indiana, could be problematic. Illinois has lost three of its last four games. This game is a tug-of-war for seeding purposes.
MOST TO GAIN
Iowa will be trying to borrow a page from Penn State’s 2011 Big Ten Tournament run. The Nittany Lions were on the wrong side of the NCAA bubble, but ran off wins over Indiana, Wisconsin and Michigan to get to the title game. Penn State lost to Ohio State, but that late run got them an at-large NCAA bid.
SIZING UP THE IOWA HAWKEYES
Iowa enters today’s game with six wins in its last eight games, the best close to a regular season since 1995-96. The Hawkeyes are a much improved team when it comes to defense and rebounding. The offense continues to be a work in progress, and scoring droughts continue to plague them. But with the program’s first 20-win season since 2005-06 already in the bank, and co-captain Eric May the team’s lone scholarship senior, Iowa hopes a strong finish at the United Center and a second straight postseason appearance generates some momentum for 2013-14.
BIG TEN TOURNAMENT SCHEDULE
11:00 a.m. – Illinois (21-11) vs. Minneosta (20-11) (BTN)
1:25 – Michigan (25-6) vs. Penn State (10-20) (BTN)
5:30 – Purdue (15-16) vs. Nebraska (14-17) (ESPN2)
7:55 – Iowa (20-11) vs. Northwestern (13-18) (ESPN2)
11:00 a.m. – Indiana (26-5) vs. Illinois or Minnesota (ESPN)
1:25 – Wisconsin (21-10) vs. Michigan or Penn State (ESPN)
5:30 – Ohio State (23-7) vs. Purdue or Nebraska (BTN)
7:55 – Michigan State (24-7) vs. Iowa or Northwestern (BTN)
12:40 – First semifinal (CBS)
3:05 – Second semifinal (CBS)
2:30 – Championship (CBS)
Category: Iowa Hawkeyes men's basketball