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Raptors’ Nurse, Bjorkgren celebrating friendship with All-Star Game roles

Toronto Raptors Head Coach Nick Nurse. (Frank Gunn/CP)

The NBA All-Star Game is a showcase to celebrate the game’s best, to shine a spotlight on unique talents and provide a stage where they can shake, shimmy, fly and strut.

But those in the know recognize it takes a team for individuals to have a chance to shine.

So you won’t hear Toronto Raptors star Kyle Lowry talk about his individual accomplishments as he lines up in Chicago for his sixth All-Star appearance. He’s only there because others helped make it happen. Coaches, for example.

In an 82-game season, there are big goals and mini goals. One of the Raptors’ goals as their 15-game winning streak began to take shape was to be in second place in the Eastern Conference by Feb. 2, and thus guarantee head coach Nick Nurse and his staff the honour of coaching Team Giannis (since Mike Budenholzer of the first-place Bucks coached the All-Star Game in 2019, he was ineligible).

Mission accomplished.

“We go through all of it together. All the hard work, they put in hard work. I think it’s just important that we do that for them, too,” said Lowry before heading off to Chicago where he and Pascal Siakam will play for Team Giannis. “Not that we didn’t want to win [and] be in second place or whatever. But knowing that is an extra motivation, and something that we felt like we’ve got to go out there and do it and make sure they get an opportunity to be out there too.”

But within every team there are alliances and partnerships; micro-units that weave together to make the whole stronger. And while the entire Raptors staff gets to coach in Chicago, the honour carries a little more weight for Nurse and his right-hand man Nate Bjorkgren, a couple of Iowa-born hoops junkies who have known each other since Bjorkgren was a walk-on point guard with a full head of blonde hair and Nurse was a young assistant coach at the University of South Dakota in 1993-94.

It’s only taken 25 years, but the two Iowa boys have arrived at the centre of the basketball universe.

“I mean, I did a couple [of All-Star weekends] as a D-League coach,” said Nurse referring to years when the G League All-Star Game was an undercard to the main event. “And we got to kind of, you know, cross paths with the NBA guys when we were coming off the practice floor and they were going on. That was cool to us. Nate and I were going like, ‘Oh my God, that was LeBron James.’ And now we devise plans to beat those guys.”

There were some detours along the way.

After two seasons together at South Dakota, Nurse left on his lengthy tour through the British Basketball League and Bjorkgren eventually went on to become a successful high school coach in Arizona after his university playing career was over.

But their paths to the NBA All-Star Game began more than a decade later in 2007. Nurse returned from Europe and became the head coach of the Iowa Energy in Des Moines, with the expansion franchise in what was then the NBA Development League, now the G League.

Bjorkgren heard about it and so began a mission.

“He just called me up, he wouldn’t leave me alone,” recalls Nurse. “[He] said he wanted to be an assistant… 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 [in Year 1] and I think Year 2 we paid him $500, I think, and Year 3 $2,500 and the other guy finally left and he made $25,000 Year 4 so he was beside himself.”

“I always wanted to get into pro basketball,” says Bjorkgren. “When he was named coach of the Iowa Energy, I was emailing and calling and knocking on the door because I wanted that opportunity to coach pro players. … That was the opportunity. That’s what took me.”

It’s not what paid him though. Bjorkgren was able to coach for free because he took on substitute teaching roles at a pair of local elementary schools – Cattel Elementary and Walnut Street – and was able to come to an understanding with a very sympathetic boss.

“I had a great principal that she would let me do all the morning duties and all the lunch duties so I could get out of there at 12:30 to go to practice,” says Bjorkgren. “I’ll never forget it. And then after school sometimes, I’d hop in my car and drive to the road games.”

It was that unwavering dedication that caught Nurse’s attention.

“I didn’t know him all that well as a coach,” says Nurse. “To be honest we took him because we could use the extra pair of hands around. But then it was total dedication from minute one. 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 and lots of time, we’d go to practice and he’d [drive] all the players 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. It was pretty evident pretty quickly that he was going to be a really good basketball coach, his care level was up, and the biggest thing is he’s a super-positive guy.”

If Nurse’s trademark is his confident, easy-going chill, Bjorkgren’s trademark is a seemingly natural tendency to see the bright side of things; a rock-solid belief that the best is around the corner.

He does it with an earnestness that is rare in an NBA world where cool rules, and it’s welcome.

“I think Nate’s fun,” says Siakam. “I hear him all the time in my ear talking about something. Every morning he’ll say hi to you and give you a dab. He’s present and I think his energy is felt and needed on this team. He’s a great guy to have, a great coach and somebody who is a likeable person and so serious about his job … Nate’s fun.”

Bjorkgren doesn’t discriminate. Walk around the halls at Scotiabank Arena and it’s common to see him dabbing up security staff, maintenance staff and even reporters.

“We gotta get this one,” he’ll say.

It was one of the qualities that stood out when Bjorkgren was coaching for nothing in the D-League.

Gary Garner saw it first-hand when he worked with Nurse and Bjorkgren as Nurse’s lead assistant with the Energy. Garner was a long-time Division I head coach at the time and connected with Nurse through the team’s owner. He quickly came to appreciate Nurse’s overall abilities – “student of the game,” “fire in the belly,” “great feel for the team and each of his players” were among Garner’s Nurse-related superlatives, but he was also quickly impressed by Bjorkgren.

“The best volunteer assistant coach in the history of basketball,” says Garner, now the head coach at Dakota State University. “He just worked his butt off. Ran from teaching school to the arena, wanted to learn everything he could. You knew he was going to make it in coaching, someway, somehow. But most importantly just a really good guy. I could talk about him for 20 minutes and not have a negative thing to say about him.”

Within the Raptors eco-system, Bjorkgren serves as a sounding board and Nurse whisperer, a gift honed after years in the trenches together.

“They have a special bond,” says Adrian Griffin, who – along with Sergio Scariolo – rounds out Nurse’s staff of assistants, the core of a much larger basketball operations group. “Everyone needs someone they can lean on, their right-hand man that they can confide in. That’s priceless. [Nate] is kind of the glue that keeps everyone together. Every staff is like a team in itself and everyone brings something to the team. Nate brings that togetherness. A lot of times I’ll go to Nate before I go to Nick, just because he knows him so well.

Bjorkgren also serves as an in-game flashlight when things fog over; for those moments when Toronto is down 10 and hasn’t hit a three for going on a full quarter and even Nurse’s cool gets tested.

“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 then helps me out quite a bit,” says Nurse. “… I love it and that’s the thing I keep saying, his sense of positivity is off the charts, in those games he’s always confident we’re gonna win and he keeps saying it and he keeps prodding everybody and it spreads. He helps teams win … when I’m constantly saying, ‘We’re in trouble, we ain’t got it, we’re not moving, what’s wrong with us,’ blah blah blah and then I get those out and he’s got me back on track. He might say ‘Do something then, change defences or something,’ [or just] ‘Be quiet!’”

Being around Bjorkgren, you get the sense that the positivity comes easily, but he’s also made it a conscious choice.

“That’s the fun part of it, that’s why I coach basketball,” says Bjorkgren, who was an assistant coach with the Phoenix Suns before Nurse tapped him to join his Raptors staff in the summer of 2018. “I always had fun playing it when I was a little kid. After college I couldn’t play it anymore, so I just wanted to keep having fun while I coached it.”

Being in the NBA hasn’t changed a thing for Bjorkgren.

“I’m biased. I think [Nurse] does an excellent job. I think our players play their hearts out for us [and] I’m happy to assist in any way I can at that,” he says. “One of my strengths is being positive. I wanna win really, really bad. I want to win every night. And I think being positive is the best way to do that.

“In the games that we have, these NBA games that you see so much, there are so many highs and lows. You’ve got to always stay positive. You might get down eight, nine, 10 points, but if you put your head down and start pouting, you’re going to get deep. These games can turn quickly. I think it’s very important to stay positive throughout all areas of the game.”

It was a quality that Nurse eventually deemed indispensable, although they each had to go their separate ways before they could reconnect. After four years working together in Des Moines – which culminated with the Energy winning the D-League title in 2011 – Nurse took a job with the Rio Grande Vipers, the Houston Rockets’ affiliate, while Bjorkgren got his head-coaching opportunity with the Dakota Wizards – which became the Santa Cruz Warriors, the Golden State Warriors G League team.

Each found great success, and in 2013 found themselves opposing each other in the G League championship finals. It was one of the only times their coaching bromance was put on hold.

“We spoke to each other all year about games and all that and then we just shut it off,” says Bjorkgren. “We didn’t speak to each other for a week, week-and-a-half – they beat us in two games.”

But it was the conversation they had after the final buzzer sounded that was the most meaningful and prophetic.

“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.

“That meant a lot [to me] and here we are coaching this team today.”