DALLAS — On Nov. 15, Nate Bjorkgren returned to familiar surroundings, to Des Moines where he coached with the Iowa Energy for five seasons.
He and Carroll native Nick Nurse, in his second year as the NBA’s Toronto Raptors head coach, were in town as bobbleheads were given to the first 1,000 fans in the door. A limited-edition bobblehead shows Bjorkgren and Nurse holding their NBA D-League and NBA championship trophies.
“Yeah, we had a fun night,” Bjorkgren said before a road game in Dallas earlier this month. “He (Nurse) was able to see everybody and talk at halftime. They made a bobblehead with both of us on it, too, so that was pretty nice.”
Bjorkgren, 44, is a Storm Lake native who first met Nurse when Nurse was an assistant coach at South Dakota between 1993 and 1995. Bjorkgren then transferred to Buena Vista in his hometown to finish his collegiate career.
After graduating in 1998, he landed his first coaching job, as an assistant at Linn-Mar High School under Mark Hutcheson. After three seasons as a high school coach in Arizona, he returned to Iowa when Nurse became the Energy’s head coach in 2007.
“When he (Nurse) came back to the D-League, I really wanted to get into pro coaching. I was his volunteer assistant for a year,” Bjorkgren said. “Then I ended up being with him for four years and we won the title together (in 2011). Then he went to Rio Grande Valley to be the head coach. I went to Dakota, then Santa Cruz to be the head coach. When I was at Santa Cruz and he was at RGV, we played each other in the D-League Finals.”
Bjorkgren returned to the Energy as their head coach for the 2013-14 season. And after one more season in the D-League with Bakersfield, he landed his first NBA gig as an assistant with Phoenix in 2015.
“When I was with the Suns and he (Nurse) was with the Raptors, anytime I had a coaching question he’s the one I would ask and get coaching advice from,” he said. “Then, when he got the job last year with the Raptors, he brought me with him, and I love it.”
He and Nurse, who led the Raptors to the 2019 NBA title as a rookie head coach, are now in their sixth season working together and Nurse can’t say enough good things about his fellow Iowan.
“Well, Nate’s been my righthand man for a long time. We’ve spent a lot of time together over the years and he knows how I want things done,” he said.
“He’s preparing practice schedules or gameplans and I don’t have to do a whole lot after he prepares them because he’s been with me for so long. He’s one of those guys with an unwavering positive attitude. If you ever see us down in a game and I’m struggling, he’s usually the one that’s picking me up and keeping me in the game, saying we’re going to win, we’re going to win. And he’s right a lot of times.”
Bjorkgren and Nurse have now have two championships together, one in the D-League and earlier this year in the NBA, but being part of the Raptors’ improbable run to championship glory is one experience Bjorkgren will never forget.
“Coach Nurse does an excellent job just always getting the guys ready to play. Our guys (last season) just had this chemistry and togetherness, it was just unstoppable,” Bjorkgren said. “You could feel it. Once the playoffs were rolling, there was just nothing really bothering our guys. If we took a loss, they knew they were going to eventually going to win the series. I just give that credit to Coach Nurse and I give it to Kyle Lowry and Marc Gasol and the leaders of this team. They were relentless on winning basketball games and it was a lot of fun.”
And even if he was back in Iowa for just one night to see Nurse immortalized in bobblehead form, Bjorkgren considers himself blessed to again be back in his home state, which has played an integral role in both his coaching career and his life.
“It’s been great. I love Iowa,” he said. “Both my kids were born in Des Moines. It was always great coaching in my home state, to be around family and friends. A lot of those things that we did with the Iowa Energy, those same philosophies, that’s where they started. We do a lot of those same things here today with the Toronto Raptors.
“It was a great place to learn and coach basketball at.”