Nick Nurse remembers Nate Bjorkgren as a good-looking kid with a “full head of hair, and not a bad player” when Bjorkgren walked onto the University of South Dakota’s basketball team.
It was 1994. Nurse was 27 and an assistant coach. Bjorkgren was a 19-year-old point guard.
It was the beginning of a friendship that has spanned a quarter of a century, and saw the two win an NBA championship together.
Sunday, Nurse and Bjorkgren will coach Team Giannis at the NBA All-Star Game in Chicago, something the two Iowa natives dared to dream about years ago.
“Absolutely,” Bjorkgren said recently. “We talked about it when he was the head coach at RGV [Rio Grande Vipers of the G League], and when he was the head coach in the [G League] finals one year. We talked about it in those [G League] all-star days. It’s definitely an honour to be coaching during all-star weekend.”
Toronto’s staff will coach Team Giannis by virtue of sitting second in the Eastern Conference. Milwaukee leads the east but Mike Budenholzer coached in the game last season, and coaches can’t have the job in consecutive seasons. Raptors Pascal Siakam and Kyle Lowry are also on Team Giannis.
Nurse and Bjorkgren went their separate ways after South Dakota. Nurse headed overseas, where he coached for more than a decade, while Bjorkgren became a high-school coach in Arizona.
When Nurse was hired by the expansion Iowa Energy of the then-D League in 2007, Bjorkgren came calling. And calling.
“He wouldn’t leave me alone,” Nurse said with a laugh.
Nurse’s minuscule staff was full at the time, but Bjorkgren offered to work for free, keeping his job as a gym teacher to pay the bills. He would work in the morning, then hop in his car to drive to Energy practices or games.
The second season, the Energy found $500 in their budget to pay Bjorkgren. The third season, he earned $2,500. By the fourth season, when Bjorkgren became Nurse’s lead assistant, he was earning $25,000.
“It was evident pretty quickly that he was going to be a really good basketball coach,” Nurse said. “His care level was up there, and the biggest thing is he’s a super positive guy.”
The respect goes both ways.
“I knew [Nurse was a good coach] many years ago. … Very creative. He has an unbelievable feel and a pulse for the team,” Bjorkgren said. “He feels how the team feels. I think that’s No. 1 in coaching, just have that feel. Like I said about pouring your heart into it, he definitely does that better than anybody.”
Nurse said the two often spent as many as 18 hours a day together in their D League days. They’d practise, sometimes drive players home and then meet at Bjorkgren’s apartment to dissect game film for hours.
The 42-year-old Bjorkgren is still the voice of positivity in Nurse’s ear.
“He may just get me back in the right frame of mind 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,” the 52-year-old Nurse said.
Bjorkgren was Nurse’s first coaching staff hire when he was named head coach in the 2018 off-season.
“Nate is the [expletive] man,” Lowry said after a recent practice. “He’s always that positive, happy go-lucky [guy], always looking at the plus side, not looking at anything negative. We need that.”
Nurse and Co. clinched their all-star coaching job with a 105-92 victory in Detroit on Jan. 31. Lowry had been pushing his teammates to win for the coaches, and during the game’s final timeout, the six-time all-star point guard gave out handshakes and hugs to the staff.
“It shows the work that they put in for us,” Lowry said. “We put the work in for us, but they also put the time and effort and work into us, and that means a lot from the players’ aspect, those guys actually in so much time, passion that they do.
“We have a good relationship between players and coaches on this team.”
Siakam is both making his all-star debut and starting for Team Giannis on Sunday. The 25-year-old from Cameroon, who earned the NBA’s most improved player award last season, said most of his family will be in attendance.
“My sister in France can’t make it,” Siakam said. “But yeah, everyone that’s in North America is making it. Mom, we forced her to get there, because she doesn’t really like the basketball and she’s not really into all that. And she always tells me when she watches the game her heart beats fast.
“But yeah, we had to kind of force her to go to Chicago.”
Fellow Cameroon native Joel Embiid is also on Team Giannis, and Siakam said despite being Eastern Conference rivals, he and the Philadelphia 76ers centre exchanged congratulations via text on their all-star honours.
“Two Cameroonians starting the all-star game, being on the same team, that’s history right there,” Siakam said. “For people to come after us, to see that moment, it would be something special.”
Siakam is also in Saturday night’s skills competition.