TORONTO’S CHIEF OF STAFF
By BRANDON HURLEY
The Toronto Raptors needed a boost while the brisk Canadian winter bore down on the outside walls of Scotiabank Arena.
The world-class athletes towering over their counterparts, dragged through offensive sets, as if cement cylinder blocks tethered them to the hardwood. Jump shots, one after another, continued to clank off the rim and routine passes bounced harmlessly into the hands of opposing defenders.
Victory seemed like a distant dream. The Raptors fell behind by 15 and visions of a magical season began fading into the past. But, when a situation looks dire, Nate Bjorkgren is waiting to pounce.
The Storm Lake native and Raptors assistant was made for situations like these.
As Toronto huddled together for a timeout, Bjorkgren confidently popped out of his seat and strolled over to his good friend and Raptors head coach, Nick Nurse. He shared a quick word with the fellow Iowan, assuring him things were alright.
“We’re ready to get hot,” Bjorkgren turned to Nurse and said.
And just like that, the comeback began. Nurse’s self-dubbed “chief of staff” leading the charge, years of experience rising to his aid.
Bjorkgren and Nurse form an unlikely Iowa duo on one of the hottest teams in the NBA, the Eastern Conference second seed, a franchise starved for a championship.
It’s a relationship that goes way back, sewn together by basketball. A journey filled with dedication and road blocks, motivating each other to grow. The duo now reins atop the NBA, ready for their shining moment, sharing it as Iowans, a small state making an impact in a gigantic league.
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A satisfying smile filled Bjorkgren’s face as the calming noise of pre-game activity – squeaking sneakers and the bounce of basketballs – filled the air of Madison Square Garden a few weeks back. The former Buena Vista University role player delightfully touched on his adventure to this point while he lingered inside the world’s most famous basketball arena. The NBA Developmental League (Now the G League) thrills of the dark road trips on old, sun-stained buses, and overnight stays in frigid, run-down highway motels were well in the past.
It started with an email. A massive pay cut was a fair trade-off for an opportunity of a lifetime.
The day-to-day responsibilities of an unpaid D League assistant sure isn’t glamorous, but for the now NBA assistant, it was well worth the gamble. Bjorkgren hoped to one day brush shoulders with the world’s best, and if that meant pushing his chips all in, at least he knew he’d taken his shot.
The grandson of former Manning superintendent Paul Bjorkgren – a 35-year veteran – Nate has kept the NBA in his crosshairs. Here he sits, on the precipice of a head coaching gig in the NBA, a steady presence on the bench of one of the most successful teams over the past few years, led by one of the world’s most unique and innovative minds.
Nurse and Bjorkgren both grew up in small, rural Iowa towns. Bjorkgren from a lake town in northwest Iowa, roughly an hour from Nurse’s hometown of Carroll.
This isn’t the first time the duo has shared a bench, either, though it’s certainly the brightest stage either has been on.
Bjorkgren first came in touch with Nurse in 1994 while the head man was an assistant at the University of South Dakota. Of course, Nurse soon hopped across the pond into the European leagues while Bjorkgren hit the high school ranks, working at Linn-Mar and Sioux Central before taking a gig at a Phoenix High School.
Bjorkgren never lost sight of Nurse’s career, keeping tabs on his ever-growing pile of victories. When his now boss helped birth the Iowa Energy D League franchise, Bjorkgren pounced and the light-hearted harassment began. He had to join the staff, even if it meant a full 12 months without a pay check.
So he let fly a few emails and texts, letting Nurse know of his intense interest.
The passion coursed through Bjorkgren’s veins, thicker than mud sliding down a storm drain. The urge pulsed through ever nerve of his body, a piercing desire to not only compete with the best, but to some day rise to the top.
Bjorkgren’s introduction into the professional ranks was a humbling experience, but he never lost sight of the ultimate goal, winning a championship at the highest level.
His initial stint on the Energy bench was unpaid, but the lessons he gathered along the way were much more valuable. He’d start his professional career in Des Moines, just a few hours south of his hometown, even if it meant building his way up from the bottom. While success came at the high school level, leading Cactus Shadows High School in Arizona to three straight state tournaments, he knew the prep ranks limited his potential.
There was something pulling Bjorkgren in, the possibility of an NBA gig.
“I wanted to coach pro basketball so bad,” Bjorkgren said. “I loved coaching high school basketball, but I always wanted to coach the best players in the world.”
And so, the journey intensified.
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Pull back the curtain on Nurse’s coaching style and one instantly spots freedom. He preaches constant innovation and responsibility, which allows his players, and coaches, to grow. View him as a modern day Hayden Fry, if you will, grooming his assistants to one day become head coaches. Fry was notorious for producing big names. At one time, the legendary University of Iowa football coach had Bob Stoops, Kirk Ferentz, Barry Alvarez and Bill Snyder all on the same staff. Each of those coaches would go on to compete for conference championships and national titles. Nice validation, huh?
Nurse prepares his staff for the bright lights by encouraging them to become as well-rounded as they can be. The responsibility of the top assistants rotates every 10 games. Bjorkgren could be tasked with running the offense, then a few weeks later he’ll format the defensive scheme. It’s been a great way for Bjorkgren and his colleagues to feel valued.
“Nick is very creative. And he has a great feel for the players and a great feel for every situation that he’s in,” Bjorkgren said. “And the best thing that he did for me, and he did this all the way back then and continues to do it to today, is he gives me a ton of responsibility.
Bjorkgren and Nurse’s rise through the NBA have several parallels. They both cut their teeth and made a name for themselves in the developmental league before cracking into the NBA as assistants. Their Iowa connection and their passion for the game has helped each immensely, staying closely in tune on the court.
Nurse hasn’t lost sight of those fruitful days in Des Moines, either. The duo helped guide the Energy to the 2007 D League title, growing together. They scoured over hours of game film, running the franchise as a talented duo, pulling all the strings.
“We spent about 24 hours a day together for about four straight years trying to figure out how to win win in the D league,” Nurse said. “So obviously, we developed a close relationship. He keeps me organized, keeps me on schedule and all those kind of stuff.”
After departing the Energy, Bjorkgren pioneered a trio of D League teams, later latching on to the Phoenix Suns as an assistant. Nurse’s guidance has been key throughout the process. He’s always had a soft spot for helping others blossom. He’s kept the best basketball minds close.
“Even when I was (Nurse’s) volunteer assistant, he was throwing me right into the fire, letting me (run) drills and talk to the team, doing scouting reports,” Bjorkgren said. “He gave me a lot of responsibility on anything that you can think of. Even today, he does such a good job of letting his assistance grow.”
Bjorkgren compiled a 126-74 record in the D League, coaching for the Bakersfield Jam, the Dakota Wizards, the Energy and the Santa Cruz Warriors. Even when Nick jumped to the NBA as an assistant with the Raptors, Bjorkgren wasn’t far behind. He was hired as Phoenix Suns assistant for a number of years before being let go in 2017. He quickly became a member of Toronto’s scouting department before Nurse inked Bjorkgren to a deal last summer, one of his very first moves as head coach. It was a fitting nod to a fellow grinder.
Bjorkgren’s potential is just reaching the surface. The 1993 Storm Lake High School graduate is gaining steam throughout the league. HIs boss leans on him for help, as the two are often seen exchanging ideas in team huddles or on the bench during game action. They’ve connected on a level not often seen among NBA coaching staffs. Bjorkgren can be seen bouncing ideas off Nurse, even in-game. He is especially vital when the Raptors are stuck in a rut, trailing yet again to an opponent not up to their level. That’s when the former Beaver leans over and offers up a confidence boost.
“He’s really been my right hand guy,” Nurse said. “Sometimes as a head coach, when you see things unraveling, it’s good to have somebody there in your ear doing that, because we have come back from a lot of those games whether the D league or with the Raptors over the years.”
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Nurse has complete trust in the former Buena Vista University Beaver, staying in touch even after they parted ways following the 2011 season in Des Moines. The mentorship paid off in big ways, as the duo squared off in a head-to-head D League championship matchup two years later, as Nurse’s Rio Grande Valley Vipers took on Bjorkgren’s Santa Cruz Warriors. The success Nurse witnessed has helped the transition in Toronto, but its that close bond from afar that’s allowed Bjorkgren to thrive. There’s never been much hesitation as to who he’d reach out to if he was having a hard time on the sidelines, even when Nurse was rising through the ranks of the Raptors organization.
“If I have a basketball question (now), or if I’ve ever had (one) in the last 12 years, (Nurse) is the first person I call. There’s no doubt about it,” Bjorkgren said. “The games that he’s coached in and the countries that he’s coached in, (he’s been) all over the world. He’s been a head coach for years and years and years. There’s not much he hasn’t seen. If you have a basketball question. He’s a good one to ask.”
To reach the top and run an NBA team of his own some day, Bjorkgren and the Raptors must win, and win big. That’s the bottom line. Hires aren’t usually made on potential, they need accolades and a track record. Bjorkgren’s thrived in the minor leagues, impressing Nurse enough to hire sign him as his lead guy. But what will it take for Bjorkgren to reach that next step and follow in the footsteps of his mentor?
Bjorkgren is cut from the same mold as the boss, looking for the next edge, on the prowl for ways to improve. There’s never a moment of monotony on the Raptors bench.
“Whatever I do, I have to keep learning,” the assistant said. “I have questions for Nick all the time. And not just him. It’s a great learning experience for all the assistant coaches. Myself and the other assistants talk all the time on how we can do things better, whether it’s in a practice or before a shoot around. You’re always learning and every game that you coach, you can take something away that you learned that night. It’s every single night. Whether you win or lose, you learn something.”
Nurse’s confidence in Bjorkgren is obvious in-game, but once you get the coach talking about his trusty assistant, it’s hard to get him to stop. The Iowa connection has tightened the staff, as a whole. Bjorkgren will get a head coaching job in the NBA sooner than later.
“He did an unbelievable job as a head coach in the minor leagues,” Nurse said. “He knows what he’s doing. He knows how to run a team.”
For now, it’s a matter of helping the Raptors to a title. Simple as that. And as the Eastern Conference’s second seed with a deep roster, there’s no better time than now.