The Early Lead: Pay attention to the NBA, you might just run into an Iowan
By BRANDON HURLEY
It’s an odd thing, really.
Iowa and its strong NBA presence. We’ve become somewhat of a hotbed for home-grown, professional talent as of late, haven’t we?
Players, coaches, trainers, you name it, there’s a Midwestern connection in the NBA.
The names are fairly familiar by now – Doug McDermott, Harrison Barnes, Nick Nurse, Fred Hoiberg, Nick Collison, Kirk Hinrich, Kyle Korver and Nate Bjorkgren, you can even go back farther to Ricky Davis, B.J. Armstrong and Bobby Hansen, if you’d like.
There’s a rich history of Iowans in the league, and it’s growing even stronger by the year.
More than any year before, Iowans should absolutely turn their gaze to the highest level of basketball. Collison is the perfect lead in. A role player from Iowa Falls who became the first Thunder player in franchise history to have his number retired, which happened just last month as former teammates and front office executives gushed about his play and his personality.
I’m sure you’ve heard of Carroll-native Nick Nurse by now, the first-year head coach leading the Toronto Raptors to the second seed in the Eastern Conference, but he’s also enlisted Storm Lake native Nate Bjorkgren as his top assistant. One of the top coaching staffs in the league with multiple Iowa connections.
Then you have Ames graduates Harrison Barnes and Doug McDermott with the Kings and Pacers, respectively. That’s before I even get to NBA shooting coach David Nurse, the nephew of Nick and a Pella native.
How could we forget Kyle Korver, another Pella native who’s been setting all sorts of shooting marks for over a decade? He’s a quality veteran presence on any team and was born and bred in our lovely state.
We may soon have even a bigger presence in the NBA, as Bettendorf’s D.J. Carlton is a five star recruit headed to Ohio State while Ames’ Tamin Lipsey just wrapped up his freshman season and looks poised for a star-studded career.
The Nick Nurse and Bjorkgren connection is perhaps my favorite, for obvious reasons. Two absolutely down-to-earth guys. Professionals who fought tooth and nail to gain their way into the league and now they find themselves guiding one of the best teams in the league. Bjorkgren’s appreciation is never far from his mind. He started off as an unpaid assistant for Nurse and the Iowa Energy some 10 years ago.
“It’s amazing the places a basketball will take you,” Bjorkgren said recently. “I love basketball and I wanted to coach so bad. I wanted to coach the best players in the world.”
The common denominator with all these Iowa guys is how they grew up. Basketball was essentially how they lived during their childhoods, and it has stuck with them ever since. McDermott is the son of a Division I coach, Barnes began playing AAU at a very young age, while Nurse, Bjorkgren and Korver all played huge roles on their high school teams.
Iowa may not be known for its basketball talent and knowledge, with the nearest NBA team several hours away, but we sure hold our own.
To many, Iowa is known as a wrestling mecca. But basketball is quickly rising through the ranks, with success to show for it.
“It’s a great basketball state, any level you’re talking about, high school, college and the NBA, there are great coaches all over,” Bjorkgren said. “The NBA is being followed more and more closely than ever before. It’s extremely popular right now and that popularity is going to continue to rise. Iowa, to me, has always been great for my love of basketball.”
Bjorkgren worked his way through the D League while developing a close relationship with the elder Nurse early on.
We all know the story of Nick Nurse by now, how he’s worked his way to the top by taking jobs overseas and in the D League, but his nephew, David, has been nearly as productive. He’s coached more than 100 professional athletes and has maneuvered his way into close relationships with many of those players. Nurse spent several years in Greece and has been a full-time shooting coach for more than eight years. True to his uncle and Bjorkgren, David has prided himself on building connections.
“I lived out of my suitcase,” he said in a recent interview by Rafe Bartholomew on Nurse’s The Game of Life podcast. “I never was really concerned this was going to be my living. I didn’t go in needing to make a lot of money. I found the relationships were the most rewarding thing.”
Uncle Nurse has transformed into one of the more innovative minds in the game today, and it’s certainly nothing Bjorkgren has let slip past him. His boss is as willing as they come, he’s quick to offer advice, no matter who comes along. That’s the unique thing about Iowans in the NBA today, they’ve all shared similar paths, give or take the rise of Barnes, who crushed it in high school, went off to UNC and then Golden State. These Iowans all share a common characteristic - they are selfless. It’s part of that midwestern charm. That’s not to say they don’t have ridiculous drive, because they certainly do. But relationships are key. Nurse’s warm hospitality has played a big role in Bjorkgren’s career.
“If I’ve ever had a basketball question in the last 12 years, he’s the first person I call. There’s no doubt about it,” Bjorkgren said. “The games that he’s seen, the games that he’s coached in the countries that he’s coached in. He’s coached all over the world. He’s been a head coach for years and years and years. So there’s not much he hasn’t seen.”
What’s most intriguing about this playoff run we are about to endure is how rare of an opportunity Nick Nurse has in front of him. He’s head of the second-best team in the league (record-wise), a franchise that is poised for its deepest playoff run ever. Can an Iowan capture an NBA Championship in his first year, with a fellow Iowan at his disposal? Only time will tell, but it’s sure going to be an exciting ride.