THE ROAD LESS TRAVELED: Connected by Iowa
By BRANDON HURLEY
CHICAGO - To an outsider, U.S. Highway 30 has little significance in the basketball world.
But to anyone in tune with the NBA landscape, it connects two of the league’s most unlikely, yet uniquely talented leading men.
Roughly 67 miles and an hour’s worth of windshield time is all that separates Kuemper Catholic High School in Carroll and Ames High, the respective gyms where Nick Nurse and Fred Hoiberg began their basketball journies.
This past Saturday, they finally crossed paths again on one of the grandest stages, on the historic hardwood of the United Center in downtown Chicago. The same court where Michael Jordan and the Bulls won six championships in the 90s, ironically when Nurse and Hoiberg first crossed paths.
After Nurse, who’s in his first year as head coach of the Toronto Raptors, first hired Hoiberg to work his shooting camps more than 20 years ago, he met his colleague again last week, this time moving in swiftly to put the proverbial smack down on the Chicago Bulls head coach. The league-leading Raptors (19-4 as of Nov. 30), who didn’t arrive at the arena until 5:30, a mere 90 minutes prior to tip-off, shook off a rushed warm up to prevail, 122-83 in a blood bath in front of dozens of Iowans in attendance.
With only 30 NBA teams and the state of Iowa entirely excluded from the prestigious club, it lays claim to two NBA head coaches.
Try that one on for size at your bar trivia night, tell your friends what state, without a single professional franchise, is home to two NBA head coaches. You’re sure to stump a few.
The Nov. 17 coaching matchup in Chicago, the first time Nurse and Hoiberg had squared off against each other in a coaching setting, stirred up memories of shooting camps in the 90s. It even prompted Hoiberg to jokingly take a jab at his former boss and current NBA colleague, calling him a cheapskate.
“Yes, it’s very unlikely,” Hoiberg said dead-pan about the two Iowans before emitting a sly smile. “I’ve known Nick for a long time.
I used to work Nick’s camps at (Kuemper Catholic) in Carroll. He’d pay me 50 bucks for three hours of work, it wasn’t very good. But he’s a good guy, a good person and he’s doing a really good job.”
Hoiberg was in the midst of tearing through the Iowa State record books when he hooked up with Nurse for a few summers, attracted by his stranglehold on developing young talent.
“He had a dynasty over there in Carroll,” Hoiberg said.
What separates these two fairly young coaches, in a professional sense (Nurse graduated in 1985 and is now 51 but making his first run as head coach in the NBA) is how they reached the profession’s pinnacle, and the direction their respective careers seem to be heading now.
Hoiberg, 46, in his fourth season with the Chicago Bulls, captivated fans at Iowa State University in the 1990s with his silky smooth shooting stroke, earning the nickname “The Mayor” before going on to play in the NBA for the Minnesota Timberwolves, the Bulls and the Indiana Pacers. He then held several jobs in Minnesota’s front office before returning to Ames to coach the Cyclones for five years. He was hired by the Bulls in the summer of 2015 but has led the proud Bulls franchise to the playoffs just once. Hoiberg was left to lead a depleted roster this year without a single all-star, as the young Bulls continue to tangle with injuries and inconsistency.
Chicago was a mere 27-55 last season, tumbling to 13th in the Eastern Conference while they have stumbled into just four wins a month into Hoiberg’s fourth go-around.
Nurse, as it’s been well documented over the past year, never played professional basketball of any kind, and while he set records at a Division I school, it came at a mid-major, the University of Northern Iowa in Cedar Falls.
He’s held several coaching jobs all over the world, including stints overseas and in the NBA developmental league before spending five years as an NBA assistant in Toronto. He first became the lead guy at the age of 23, taking over the Grand View program in Des Moines after graduating from UNI. Nurse made some noise along the way, coaching the British Olympic team while becoming the only coach in NBA G League history to win a championship with two different teams – the Iowa Energy and Rio Grande Valley.
He was later named the Raptors newest head coach this summer.
Though both coaches have their teams headed in opposite directions (The Bulls are 5-17 and tied for the fourth-worst record in the league while the Raptors are 19-4 and a half game up for the best record in the league), Nov. 17 was a chance for Iowa to have center stage, even if the fans in attendance had little to no idea.
Nurse’s situation is fairly unique, as the rookie head coach inherited a squad that won 59 games a year ago and captured the No. 1 seed. The Canadian franchise also added Kawhi Leonard in the off-season, one of the best two-way players in the entire league.
The chips were stacked in Nurse’s favor when he took over for 2018 NBA Coach of the Year, Dwane Casey, and he’s thrived. The 1985 Iowa high school state basketball champion had the Raptors off to a scorching-hot 12-1 start, the best in franchise history, before dropping three straight. The Carroll-native has settled in nicely a month into his new gig, and was in a dapper mood in Chicago prior to tip-off.
“I am extremely grateful and realize how lucky I am to get this job, primarily because of the players,” Nurse said. “That’s the key. But there are a lot of other things about this job that are unbelievable – the city, the sellouts, the fans, the owner. There are a lot of positives. It’s a great, great job to have in this league.”
The Raptors quick start (they were 12-1 at one point, the best start in franchise history) has come as no surprise to Nurse. He’s no stranger to coaching success, winning 11 professional championships in Europe and in the NBA developmental league. The former Knight has won well over 500 games professionally, so naturally, there’s only one thing on his mind as the 2018-19 season nears the quarter mark.
“We are on track. Our thoughts are all about winning. I like it that way,” Nurse said. “Other than a few seasons in my 20-plus years as a head coach, I’ve always been thinking about winning.
Whether it was realistic or not, it’s what gets you out of bed. We expect to win and we want to win.”
When prompted to discuss their Iowa connection, Nurse knew he couldn’t go wrong with hiring Hoiberg to work his camps all those years ago. He’s aware how former Cyclone fits into the state’s folklore, as he chuckled a bit when touching on the subject.
“Hoiberg in Iowa is worth every penny,” Nurse said. “He was a big draw.”
The Nov. 17 matchup actually featured three native Iowans among the two Eastern Conference staffs, as Storm Lake-native and Raptors assistant Nate Bjorkgren has become Nurse’s right-hand man early into the new regime. Nurse consulted with Bjorkgren during each timeout and could be seen bouncing ideas off the fellow Iowan prior to the game.
There was a fairly significant Iowa feel to Saturday’s game, even if you had to search for it and pay attention to notice.
Nurse’s supporters came out in droves to the United Center, the first time the rookie head coach had made a stop in the midwest on a weekend.
The stands were littered with friends, family, former Kuemper teammates and even a colleague from Europe, as Nurse often scanned the crowd during Saturday’s 39-point blowout win, sharing a handful of smiles and waves with his supporters.
“Had a lot of them. Brothers, sisters and nieces and nephews drove over from Iowa,” Nurse said. “A couple guys from my high school showed up unexpectedly and a guy I used to play with in England in the crowd. A lot of them came over. It was a close trip, obviously.”
Though Hoiberg’s Bulls are a long shot to make this year’s playoffs, he let loose a phrase only real Iowans would notice as he walked away from the pre-game media scrum Saturday… “Highway 30.”
Not many, if any besides this reporter, knew what he meant, but it was a tell-tale sign just how connected the two coaches really are.
The Bulls and Raptors will square off three more times this year, twice in Toronto before returning to Chicago March 30.