Plenty of history between Raps’ Nurse and Pacers’ Bjorkgren

There aren’t going to be a lot of surprises for either Nick Nurse or Nate Bjorkgren when their two teams take the court these next two days.

Nurse and Bjorkgren have a history together like few others. Bjorkgren played for Nurse. He coached with Nurse. He coached against Nurse and then the two won a championship in their first year in the NBA together with the Raptors.

Through it all they have been friends, competitors and underneath all of it, the bedrock has always been a healthy respect for the other.

Before today’s 1 p.m. tip and Monday’s back end of the back-to-back, the last time these two men opposed one another on a basketball court came in the 2013 D-League final when Nurse’s Rio Grande Valley Vipers took out Bjorkgren’s Santa Cruz Warriors with back-to-back wins for the title.

Bjorkgren said Saturday it was at the end of that series as the two men shook hands following the Vipers clinching win that Nurse told him “There’s no reason we can’t do this at the next level.”

That respect isn’t just between head coach and head coach either. As Fred VanVleet explains, there are a number of guys on the Raptors who quickly grew to like and respect Bjorkgren.

“From day one when he showed up to Toronto and he worked me and Greg Monroe out before I even knew who he was, he treated me as if I was Kawhi Leonard and he kept that from day one all the way to the end, and our relationship grew over time,” VanVleet said. “If you don’t like Nate, you’re crazy, there’s something wrong with you …I’m glad that he’s been doing well but we need him to suck for two days, Sunday and Monday and then he can go back to killing it like he’s been.”

The seeds of both Bjorkgren and Nurse’s coaching philosophies were sown over one very long summer back in 2008 following the first year of the expansion D-League Iowa Energy.

“My first taste of pro basketball was with him as an assistant in the D-league,” Bjorkgren said of that Iowa team.

Bjorkgren doesn’t mention it, but he was working for free that first year and either paying his own flight fare for away games or driving there himself. Nurse would pay for his meals. It wasn’t until his second season that Bjorkgren actually got paid which makes that first summer, spent in the basement of Nurse’s home, all the more telling about the level of devotion.

“After that first season we weren’t satisfied with the way we coached and that’s no joke,” Bjorkgren recalls. “Those were 12-hour days, 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 could think of – offence, defence, special teams, player development, personnel and how we wanted to coach and a lot of those theories that we created then, we use today.”

Bjorkgren really didn’t want to answer the question when I asked him how he and Nurse differ on a basketball court.

“He’s great in so many ways,” he said of Nurse. “He’s very creative. He’s got a great feel for his team. I think that is really important as a head coach. You got to know when to push, when to pull back, how long to practice, film session. How to manage your team. I think that’s very important. I learned a lot of that from him on the team management side

“I don’t know about the differences,” Bjorkgren said. “There are similarities and differences but I would just like to focus on what I was able to learn from and grow. The biggest thing he did for me was giving me so much responsibility a long time ago. He would have me do film sessions and coach practice and do drills, you name it. He would let me draw plays in huddles. He gave me a ton of responsibility from Day 1.”

Bjorkgren is very much aware of what he has gained from the relationship and Nurse will tell you he got plenty out of it as well, but anyone who thinks either will be thinking about anything but beating the other come this afternoon, really doesn’t know these two men.

Today they will do just that.

Bjorkgren spent the last two years as Nurse’s right-hand man on the Raptors’ coaching staff before the Pacers came calling and offered him their head coaching job.

Through 15 games this season, Bjorkgren has already dealt with the trading of his marquee player in Victor Oladipo, injuries to key pieces like TJ Warren, and now the return in that Oladipo trade in Caris LeVert, who has yet to suit up for the team following the discovery of a mass on his kidney.

Bjorkgren, though, in very Nurse-like fashion has overcome the injuries and the distractions and has his Pacers sitting in second place in the East with a 9-6 record.

Chasing the Pacers in the standings are the likes of the Milwaukee Bucks, the Boston Celtics, the Brooklyn Nets and yes Nurse’s Raptors, all of them pre-season picks to better the Pacers.

Bjorkgren and Nurse will not be able to get together before the game as they would normally do. Restrictions due to COVID protocols mean the Raptors can’t leave their Indianapolis hotel. Were the world not in pandemic lock down though, rest assured the two men would be breaking bread together.

But had they actually sat down for a meal, Bjorkgren is pretty sure the talk would have been easy and free flowing, just not about basketball.

Both men have a strong sense of competition and, friends or not, they are very much competing against one another right now.

“It’s always been that way between us,” Bjorkgren said. “When we have been two head coaches on two different teams —In the D-league, it was this way. We talk and we text but it’s obviously not nearly as frequent as when we are working together and seeing each other every day. It’s a good balance that we have on our competitiveness and our friendship and just a respect.”

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