Nate Bjorkgren had one plan, and only one plan. He was not a big-name player who could finesse his way onto the college coaching staff of his choosing. His uncle had been a long-time high school coach in Iowa, but his family was not state royalty. He had one connection, but that connection was tenuous at best. He had to shoot his shot, and it had to be pure.
The Nurse name carried some weight in the state. Bjorkgren, about 10 at the time, was in the arena when Nick Nurse had helped Kuemper Catholic win the state title in 1985. Nine years later, Bjorkgren made the University of South Dakota team as a walk-on player. Nurse was an assistant coach on the team. Nurse remembered him as a good player, but no special connection was made, and both went their separate ways — Nurse overseas to develop as a coach, Bjorkgren to Buena Vista University in his hometown of Storm Lake to finish his playing career.
After that, Bjorkgren moved to Arizona to begin his coaching career at the stereotypically named Cactus Shadows high School, but there was still no obvious path to a higher level. In 2007, word came that the D-League was coming to Des Moines, and Nurse, who was instrumental in making that happen, would be the coach of the Iowa Energy.
“I was emailing and calling and knocking on the door because I wanted that opportunity to coach pro players,” Bjorkgren remembered.
“He just called me up. He wouldn’t leave me alone, said he wanted to be an assistant,” Nurse said. “So he didn’t have any money and he’s a volunteer and he wouldn’t go away. And I was like, ‘It’s the D-League, I guess I got one assistant, I’ll take another one if the price is right.’ So he hung in there, he volunteered. I think in year two we paid him $500, I think, and year three $2,500. And the other guy finally left and he made $25,000 (in) year four, so he was beside himself. Hard to control at that level.”
It might have been sarcasm on Nurse’s part, although sarcasm laced with truth. Bjorkgren was Nurse’s assistant for four years in Iowa, and then one of Nurse’s first hires when he got the head job with the Raptors. After coaching in three D-League All-Star Games together, Bjorkgren will be at Nurse’s side when the Raptors staff handles the duties for Team Giannis during Sunday night’s All-Star Game.
Nurse as head coach of the Iowa Energy (Brian Ray/NBAE via Getty Images)
While Nurse is hardly surly, especially when it comes to the typical never-satisfied disposition of head coaches, Bjorkgren is a check on Nurse’s occasional bouts with realism. It is easy to picture Bjorkgren smiling, no matter the size of his salary.
“The biggest thing is he’s a super-positive guy,” Nurse said. “He’s the guy sitting next to me when I’m sensing disaster going on in a game and he’s saying, ‘We’re gonna win, we’re gonna come back.’ Constantly, ‘We’re gonna do it, we’re gonna come back.’ And that helps me out quite a bit.”
“Nate is the…,” Kyle Lowry said before restarting his sentence. “Yeah, I would say he is the fucking man.”
Rent might be cheaper in Des Moines than it is in Toronto, but it is hard to get by as a volunteer anywhere. Bjorkgren made a living as a substitute teacher and part-time physical education teacher. He credits his principals, who tried to load up his schedule with classes and duties early in the day so his afternoons could be free for coaching.
“He would literally be substitute teaching in the morning, come to practice over lunch break or whatever, and then go back to the school and do whatever he had to do there, and then come back after that and watch film or evaluate players,” said Keith “Lefty” Moore, who was an assistant with the Energy in the team’s first season. “We were always evaluating players in the D-League.
“I knew that Nate was always hustling and that Nate definitely had a passion for the game. I remember we used to talk about things a lot, and Nate used to say, ‘My goal is to coach at the highest level.’”
Moore, who now runs the All Iowa Attack AAU program, said that while it was plausible to get from coaching in the D-League to the NBA as a coach, at that time it felt like a lot of ex-players were immediately making their way onto coaching staffs. Hiring retreads as head coaches was the norm. Nurse’s path proves that: He was a highly decorated head coach in the D-League, a champion with two franchises, and he did not make his way onto an NBA staff until he coached six years in the minor league, landing a spot as an assistant to Dwane Casey in Toronto in 2013. And that came after a decade in Europe.
Moore admitted to getting frustrated at what seemed like an impossible route to the league. Not Nurse, though, and especially not Bjorkgren.
“You’d be impressed by any volunteer that worked as hard as Nate at anything. That got my attention. That’s one of the reasons I have so much respect for Nate,” said Gary Garner, another assistant with the Energy who is now the head coach at Dakota State University. “He had another job, and he just worked his butt off in the D-League. … I remember preparing for the draft, and my golly he worked his butt off in trying to find players, working so we’d have a good draft.”
“We spent literally, I don’t know how many hours together — 12, 16, 18 hours a day — trying to figure out how to win in the D-League,” Nurse said. “And lots of times, we’d go to practice and he’d (go) back home or whatever and we’d meet again and watch D-League games all night at his apartment and all that kind of stuff for a lot of days. It was pretty evident pretty quickly that he was gonna be a really good basketball coach. His care level was up.”
Nurse, far left, and Bjorkgren, far right, at the 2011 D-League All-Star Game. (David Sherman/NBAE via Getty Images)
The partnership almost came to an end in 2010, when Iowa State coach Greg McDermott, father of Pacers swingman Doug, had hired Nurse and Moore to be his assistants at Iowa State. However, before than season began, McDermott left for Creighton, and Nurse elected to go back to the Energy. (Moore stayed to work for Iowa State coach and future Bulls coach, Fred Hoiberg.)
Nurse and Bjorkgren won their first championship together with the Energy in 2011. After that year, Nurse left for Rio Grande Valley to work for the Rockets’ affiliate, wanting a chance to become immersed in the forward-thinking franchise’s culture. Bjorkgren became a journeyman D-League head coach — in Bismarck, N.D., Santa Cruz, Calif., back in Des Moines and, finally, in Bakersfield, Calif. That led to him making the leap to the NBA with the Suns.
In 2013, Nurse’s final year in the D-League, both Rio Grande Valley and Bjorkgren’s Santa Cruz Warriors swept through the playoffs, meeting in the Finals.
“We spoke to each other all year about games and all that,” Bjorkgren remembered. “And then we just shut it off, where we didn’t speak to each other for a week, week and a half. They beat us in two games. But after the game – this my favourite story of all that – when we shook hands, he said, ‘There is no reason we can’t do this at the next level.’”
Moore was working in North Carolina before Nurse called him up to join the Energy. The two had coached together in camps, and had a decent relationship. However, he did not really understand who Nurse was as a coach until he joined his staff.
“He had 9,000 different plays that he had put together,” Moore said. “The thing that I really liked about him was that Nick always thought a little bit outside the box. He wasn’t just pigeon-holed in how coaches did things. He wasn’t afraid to do things differently. … At that time people were playing screen-and-rolls, and everybody was hard-hedging and then the help (defender) recovered (to his original assignment, the screener). We weren’t afraid to double team the ball screens off of screen-and-roll back then.”
“I knew (Nurse was a next-level thinker) many years ago from when I was his volunteer assistant. Very creative,” Bjorkgren said. “He has an unbelievable feel and a pulse for the team. He feels how the team feels. I think that’s number one in coaching, just having that feel.”
That was evident when Nurse called on the Raptors to play a box-and-one defence against Steph Curry and the Warriors in the Finals, and has been evident again in this surprise run-it-back year.
As much as Bjorkgren needed Nurse for his big basketball break, Nurse needed his friend throughout his career after his return from Europe. As a volunteer assistant, an assistant, a peer or just a sounding board, Bjorkgren has been invaluable to Nurse. Bjorkgren said Nurse and the Raptors made him go through a detailed job interview once Nurse was named head coach, but it is tough to imagine Nurse not bringing his friend along with him once he got that shot. From minute one, the relationship just made sense to both of them.
“The other thing is that I noticed (right away in Iowa) was that Nate and Nick had a very unique relationship,” Moore said. “I don’t know that they had actually coached together. You knew that Nick trusted Nate. He trusted Nate a lot. He put a lot of responsibility on him even though he was a volunteer at the time.”
Obviously that relationship has been fruitful in the NBA, as Nurse led the Raptors to their first title in franchise history in 2019. This year, they are defying expectations with the second-best record in the Eastern Conference and third-best record in the league. As a prize, they will get to be in the huddle with some of the best players in the world.
It was not always like that. Every year from 2009 through 2011, Nurse, Bjorkgren and the Energy staff coached in the D-League All-Star Game during the weekend.
“I remember my very first one, watching all these (NBA All-Stars),” Bjorkgren. “Our D-League practice would be right before the NBA All-Star practice, and I’d kind of wait out there in the hall or sit out there on the bench as long as I could while the NBA guys were coming in. It meant a lot. And it means a lot today.”