A MENTORSHIP TURNED COMPETITIVE: Native Iowans, Nick Nurse and Nate Bjorkgren, battle as leading men on the NBA hardwood
By BRANDON HURLEY
Nick Nurse leaned in, shook hands with his protege and somehow predicted the future.
The Rio Grande Valley Vipers had just defeated the Santa Cruz Warriors in an NBA D League championship sweep in 2013. The current Toronto Raptors head coach’s thoughts weren’t on the victory, but what the coming years could hold for he and his fellow Iowa native, Nate Bjorkgren, the then Santa Cruz coach.
So, Nurse made a bold statement in the heat of the moment, a rare instance of clarity which eventually rang true.
“Let’s go up another level,” the current Raptors head coach said. “If I ever get a chance, I hope you’re with me.”
Here they are, eight years later, both atop the coaching profession, fresh off their first-ever NBA showdown. That unique developmental league battle doesn’t enjoy a revival if not for a number of fortunate breaks and hard-work.
It began with a risk, an incredible gamble which paid off in Bjorkgren’s favor.
The first-year Indiana Pacers head coach surrendered a stable career as a high school faculty member in a year-round paradise to return home for no pay, a chance to realize his dream.
Bjorkgren’s passion for the NBA reached a fever pitch in the early 2000s. The Storm Lake native and Buena Vista University graduate pestered his eventual mentor for a job. The constant badgering eventually led to an unpaid role as an assistant with Nurse and the Iowa Energy, Des Moines’ NBA Developmental League franchise, which later became the Iowa Wolves.
That risk blossomed into an successful partnership, one that has allowed the pair to each snag high profile gigs in the world’s greatest basketball league. Their collective passion reached a climax over the weekend when the Pacers and the Toronto Raptors took to the floor in Indianapolis.
Nurse, capitalizing off the glory of a 2019 NBA championship and 2020 coach of the year honors, took on his former assistant and the Pacers in a unique moment.
It was an all-Iowa matchup, the master (Nurse) squaring off against the young gun (Bjorkgren), a unique opportunity for a pair that recently, as of last season, shared the bench in Toronto.
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If viewers paid attention during Raptors broadcasts the last two years, they’d have noticed Nurse, a Kuemper Catholic graduate, and Bjorkgren in constant discussion. Nurse trusted the fellow Iowan, leaning on him for advice when proper perspective was required. They could be seen diagramming plays and exuding similar reactions to thrilling, in-game moments. The pair transformed that relationship into more than 100 victories in two seasons and an NBA championship.
The Indiana-Toronto matchup, an intense, head-to-head battle at the highest level, was the relationship pinnacle, a testament to the careers each coach has built. Bjorkgren wouldn’t let it escape without a few moments of reflection. His mind wandered to those intense nights in the basement, which probably felt like a million miles from the actual NBA.
“My first taste of pro basketball was with (Nurse),” Bjorkgren said in a press conference Saturday, Jan. 23. “After that first season (in Des Moines) we weren’t satisfied with the way that that we coached. Those were 12 hour days, - 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. nearly every day for an entire summer. (We had) whiteboards all around his basement. We had everything written up there that you can think of - offense defense, special teams, player development, personnel.Just to learn from (Nurse) and then to coach against him and coach with him. It’s been an honor.”
Grueling 12-hour brainstorming sessions in small-town Iowa sure seems like an alternate universe. A pair of colleagues born 50 miles apart managed to fight their way into the NBA, carving out a special spot on the map.
Bjorkgren and Nurse first met in 1994 when Nurse was an assistant with the University of South Dakota. Bjorkgren was a young Coyote guard, feeling out high-level college basketball prior to his transfer back home to BVU. Nurse would later head back overseas while Bjorkgren headed down to Iowa. The pair would reconnect again a decade later when Nurse helped create the Energy franchise. Bjorkgren peppered Nurse with emails and texts, begging for a job in Des Moines. Engineering a startup minor league basketball franchise in central Iowa didn’t allow Nurse much leeway, but he offered Bjorkgren a volunteer position. The former Beaver made the small window of opportunity work, beginning his own climb to the big-time.
“There wasn’t much to offer, and he eventually came to work for nothing. Nothing to offer other than a chance,” Nurse said. “He was making a pretty good living as a teacher and a coach down in Arizona. He gave all that up and he found a way to make it work.
I think it’s a great story.”
Bjorkgren and Nurse epitomize the grind to the top.
Nurse later went off to win a G League title with the Rio Grande Valley Vipers, an affiliate of the Houston Rockets before jumping on as Dwane Casey’s assistant with the Toronto Raptors in 2013. Bjorkgren spent a bit of time as the Santa Cruz head coach under the Golden State Warriors moniker, later joining the Phoenix Suns as an assistant.
When Nurse became head coach of the Raptors in 2018, he immediately hired Bjorkgren as his top assistant. Together, the duo coordinated a remarkable run to the NBA Finals, culminating with the franchise’s first-ever championship. That success combined with Nurse’s trust of his long-time friend, allowed Bjorkgren to position himself for head coaching gig with the Indiana Pacers in October of last year. He took the reins of a unit which finished in the top half of the Eastern Conference a year ago.
The master got the best of the protege in round one, though the protege didn’t waste much time evening it up. The Raptors defeated the Pacers, 107-102 Jan. 24, though Indiana bounced back to secure a convincing, 15-point win the following evening. As things stand now, the Iowa battle is even at one win apiece. Bjorkgren wasn’t shy about his admiration for his championship-level mentor.
Bjorkgren is the grandson of former Manning School District superintendent Paul Bjorkgren, a 35-year veteran in his own right. Nurse helped lead Kuemper to its only basketball state championship in 1985 while he set a number of three-point records at the University of Northern Iowa. Both coaches have shown an immense knack for adapting to the grind. They’d do whatever it took to reach the top. Nurse spent more than a decade in a professional league in England while Bjorkgren tried to gain an edge in the high school ranks. They eventually found each other, rocketing up the ladder of success. Without one or the other, perhaps they aren’t where they are today.
“Coach Nurse was a very important part in my life. He gave me a lot of responsibility as an assistant coach many years ago,” Bjorkgren said. “He’s been a coach who I’ve learned a ton from. He’s always doing his best to try to promote his assistants and promote his players.”
Nurse is not only a player’s coach, but he’s also a giant supporter of each and every coach he hires. He never picks up a guy - or woman - who is satisfied with remaining under the radar.
“He wants his assistance to be head coaches,” Bjorkgren said. “He wants his players to maximize their ability and to improve their contracts and improve their job situation, you name it. He’s always coached that way.
It means a lot.”
A strong media focus was trained on Bjorkgren’s relationship with Nick prior to tip, but it went off with barely a hitch once the players took the court. The duo was focused on leading each of their respective teams.
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A simple wave was a discouraging climax from highly-anticipated battle with Iowa ties.
Intense NBA COVID-19 protocols prevented Bjorkgren from sharing a post-game hug and words with Nurse Jan. 24, dampening a moment that should’ve been of celebration.
That wasn’t how a partnership created by all-night whiteboard sessions in the comfort of a Des Moines basement was supposed to reconnect. Regardless, the two-game, Raptors-Pacers series Jan. 24-25 was a culmination of perseverance and dedication. A desire to rise to the top despite any number of obstacles and re-routes. This was a moment for the state of Iowa and a pair of long-time friends to celebrate.
Even if the master won the first round, the protege’s resilience allowed him to even the score. The Raptors and Pacers split their two-game series, with each team coming away with victory. Nurse brushed off the quick, fleeting moment as one he’ll reflect on later. Sunday’s win was needed, and he didn’t have much time to think about the implications on his relationship with Bjorkgren.
“I talked to Nate real quick. We exchanged a few words. Nate was in a good mood, better mood than I was, I think,” Nurse said in Sunday’s post game press conference. “It’s obviously unique in the fact we grew up in Iowa 50 miles apart in small towns. We’ve shared some really cool moments, competed against each other.”
Naturally, Bjorkgren, playing the role of sturdy sidekick who finally got his shot, was a bit more eager to reflect than the championship-tested Nurse. The Raptors head coach, deservedly so, sounded like a man who was busy with preparation, worrying less about a deep Iowa connection and more on how to find a way to win.
Perhaps if the Pacers would’ve caught Nurse and company at a different moment in time, the back-and-forth would’ve been a little more receptive. When the Raptors touched down in Indy, they were three games under .500 for the first time in what feels like forever. Nurse wasn’t too focused on his first matchup with his protege, but he still found a moment to reflect prior to Sunday’s showdown.
“I think it’s the start of something, it’s certainly neat,” Nurse said in the Jan. 24 press conference. “There (were) a lot of people in Iowa sending well wishes and they tuned in. I hope it’s like that for many, many, many, many battles we have for a lot larger stakes at some point.”
The Raptors and Pacers Iowa connections went well beyond the leading characters as well. Former Ames High star Doug McDermott is one of the best shooters not only on the Pacers roster but in the entire league while the Indiana franchise is also home to general manager Chad Buchanan, a West Des Moines Valley High School graduate. If those ties weren’t enough, Sioux City North graduate Brittni Donaldson is a member of the Toronto bench under Nurse. Five Iowa connections in one NBA game makes for some pretty wild stuff.
Like Toronto Star reporter Doug Smith said in Nurse’s pregame press conference Sunday, it probably felt like a holiday here in Iowa.
Bjorkgren and Nurse don’t necessarily catch up often now since the two are leading entire professional organizations. The grind of an NBA season keeps everyone in constant motion, and now that the duo is on top of the coaching profession in the same conference, any basketball talk is usually shelved when they do happen to carve out time. The days for advice and experimentation are done with. Things are a bit more courteous and light during the season.
“”I don’t really spend a lot of time on the phone now talking like, ‘what do we do against them? What should we do here?’” Bjorkgren said. “If we text or talk, it’s really (not about) basketball because we’re in such competition mode with each other.”
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It’s been quite the up-and-down season for both the Pacers and Raptors.
Since opening the season at a disappointing 2-8, Nurse’s third year at the helm in Toronto, the Raptors won five of their next six, culminating with their Jan. 24 victory in Indy to push their record to 7-9. Entering Wednesday’s slate of games, Toronto was 8-12 in 10th in the East.
The Pacers, on the other hand, blitzed their way to a 6-2 start before stumbling a bit as of late thanks to a string of injuries and a league-altering trade. Indy is still sitting pretty with an 11-9 record, firmly in fifth place in the Eastern Conference.
Bjorkgren’s offensive style has the Pacers drawing fouls at a rate the franchise hasn’t done so in nearly 10 years. Indiana is attacking the basket with remarkable intensity thanks to a solidly built lineup anchored by the sizable frames of Malcolm Brogdon and Domantas Sabonis. That’s exactly how Bjorkgren wants it, the coach said.
“We want to attack the rim, we want to play through the hits,” the coach said following Monday’s 15-point revenge win over the Raptors. “It’s the best shot in basketball is getting to that dunk, a layup, to the free throw line. Trying to put constant pressure on your opponents, trying to create good space so you and attack and finish at the rim.
If you’re aggressive and the defender is in the wrong position, you’ll get that foul call.”
Bjorkgren is very well spoken in press conferences and seems to have already commanded the respect of his Pacer players, something he likely picked up from years spent on the sidelines with Nurse. The spotlight doesn’t phase Bjorkgren, and why should it? He took aim at his current position the moment he decided to give up on his teaching career, a few hundred miles south of Iowa. He cherishes the thrill and intensity an NBA job provides. He fits in perfectly.
“It is very busy. My favorite part is when I’m with the team on the court, in practices and in the games. This job entails a lot of responsibility. It’s managing players, managing personalities, managing on the court and off the court. Helping the players in any way that I can and always being there for them,” Bjorkgren said. “That’s not a challenging part. It’s just a part I want to do very well.
The games come at you quickly. The opponents and the players and the coaches are very good. You have to just constantly be preparing. You constantly have to be teaching and trying to improve your team. That’s all part of being a head coach in the NBA.”
Since Nurse has his hands full trying to make a push for the NBA playoffs, it doesn’t allow many chances to follow Bjorkgren’s new coaching endeavor. The way the duo fed off each other in Toronto and Des Moines is not something Nurse has forgotten, though.
“We obviously set and developed a philosophy together and had success with it, both in the minors and the NBA,” Nurse said. “There’s a lot of similarities (between us), but there are some glaring differences. I don’t want to point those out for our team sake.”
From what he knows and what he’s seen, Nurse is confident Bjorkgren will have a long, fruitful career in the NBA. Maybe someday soon, the Pacers and Raptors will square off in the playoffs with a shot at the Finals on the line.
Perhaps that’s the next prediction Nurse will conjure up. It doesn’t seem too far fetched, especially after all the pair has been through.