From An Iowa Basement To The NBA

by Chris O'Leary

It started in an Iowa basement with a whiteboard covered in the scribblings of two then-relatively unknown basketball minds, a manifesto of on-court success. 

Nick Nurse and Nate Bjorkgren have seen a lot in their 27-year friendship. Both Iowa natives, they’ve coached together and against each other in the G League, back when it was known as the D League and of course were together for the Raptors’ 2019 championship run. Bjorkgren was hired by the Indiana Pacers in October and on Sunday afternoon, the two will face each other as rival NBA head coaches for the first time in a back-to-back set in Indianapolis.

With the quarter-mark of the season approaching, Bjorkgren has enjoyed a good start, with his team at 9-6, sitting second in the Eastern Conference. 

It’s a long way from those long days in that basement and the two will likely take a moment before Sunday’s 1 p.m. tipoff to think about how long and successful their journeys have been. 

“My first taste of pro basketball was with him as an assistant in the D-League,” Bjorkgren said after the Pacers’ practice on Saturday. 

“After that first season we weren't satisfied with the way that we coached that very first year in the D-League and (the basement talk is) no joke. Those were 12-hour days, those were 8 a.m.  to 8 p.m. nearly every day for an entire summer. 

“It was whiteboards all around his basement and everything written up there that you can think of: Offence, defence, special teams, player development personnel, how we wanted to coach and a lot of those theories that we created then we use today.” 

Bjorkgren remembers shaking hands with Nurse at the conclusion of the 2013 D-League championship, when Nurse was coaching Rio Grande and Bjorkgren was coaching with Santa Cruz. Nurse told him that there was no reason they couldn’t both do this at the next level. 

“To learn from him and then to coach against him and coach with him, it's been an honour,” Bjorkgren said. 

Nurse detailed those early D-League days in his book, Rapture: Fifteen teams, four countries, one NBA championship, and how to find a way to win -- damn near anywhere. 

“Nate and I spent the months after the season in my basement, holed up like survivalists,” Nurse wrote. 

“I put up dry-erase boards on every wall. Day in and day out, we plotted how we could improve offensively, how we could get better defensively, what we could do differently in terms of player personnel.” 

Given their history and the impact that the last two years would have on any coach that went through a franchise’s most successful years ever, you see and hear similarities between Nurse’s Raptors and Bjorkgren’s Pacers. Bjorkgren quickly earned the trust of his new players and like Nurse, has gotten creative with some of his strategies. Pacers’ guard Malcolm Brogden praised his new coach just three games into the season for picking up on a Celtics’ weakness early in a game but waiting until the game’s most crucial moments to exploit it and get the win. 

On Friday night, Bjorkgren opted not to call a timeout late in the Pacers’ OT win over Orlando, instead letting Brogden make the play that got them the win. 

“Nate is one of the best coaches I’ve ever been around in my short life and he’s a better person,” Raptors guard Fred VanVleet said after the team’s win against Miami on Friday. 

VanVleet remembers Bjorkgren arriving in Toronto in 2018 and working him out like he was the most important person on the roster. When the Pacers hired Bjorkgren, VanVleet was quick to congratulate him on Twitter.

“I’m telling you, it’s hard not to like Nate. If you don’t like Nate, you’re crazy, there’s something wrong with you,” VanVleet said. 

“I think (the Pacers) was the perfect situation for him, that type of team with those guys and that’s why it was important for me to give Nate a cosign, to let the world know we were rocking with Nate, from the best player on the team to the last guy on the team. 

“We need him to suck for two days, then he can go back to killing it like he’s been.” 

In a normal, non-pandemic world, the Raptors trip to Indianapolis would have allowed for the two good friends to get some time together. When Bjorkgren was a kid, he saw Nurse play high school ball in Iowa, then ended up having Nurse coach him when he was playing at the University of South Dakota in the mid-90s before they began coaching together. They won’t be able to get their time together over this quick two-game series, but it’ll still be special to both of them. 

“We stay in contact a little bit,” Bjorkgren said. 

“We're competing against each other, big time. Him and I don't really spend a lot of time on the phone now talking (basketball strategy). If we text or talk, it's really not basketball because we're in...competition mode with each other. 

“Coach Nurse was a very important part in my life, he is an important part of my life. He gave me a lot of responsibility as a head coach many years ago. He's been a coach who I've learned a ton from, who was always doing his best to try to promote his assistants and promote his players. He wants his assistants to be head coaches. 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.” 

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