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STORM LAKE, Iowa - A voice piped up at the first team meeting Brian VanHaaften ever held as the head coach of Buena Vista University's basketball team.

"Guys, listen, we want to win a conference title," VanHaaften recalled hearing - something the Beavers hadn't done in 21 years.

The voice didn't belong to the team's star, either. Just a backup point guard who stood little more than 6-feet tall.

Buena Vista went on to win the Iowa Intercollegiate Athletic Conference that season. And that backup guard?

He's now coaching a professional basketball team.

Earlier this month, Nate Bjorkgren replaced Rory White as the head coach of the NBA Development League's Dakota Wizards, based in Bismarck, N.D. The Development League -- or "D-League," as it's better known -- is the official minor league organization for professional basketball in the U.S.

And though he might be as hot a coaching prospect as there is, the 36-year-old Bjorkgren -- a native of Storm Lake, Iowa -- is the first to admit he's never been a superstar on the court.

"I was an average high school player, average college player, but I just tried to learn and lead the team the best way that I could," he said.

His old coach can attest to that.

"He probably wasn't the most gifted player, but he was certainly a guy that was our leader," said VanHaaften, still the head man at Buena Vista 14 years later. "He knew the game very well."

Consider that Bjorkgren had 57 assists his senior year at BV. He had just eight turnovers.

He also had the respect of his teammates.

"He was really good at challenging them without making them feel bad," VanHaaften said. "And he's always one that would crack jokes at the right time. That's an important factor."

Perhaps that's why success seems to follow Bjorkgren wherever basketball takes him - from Storm Lake's 17-4 record during his senior year of high school, all the way to the NBA's doorstep.

After graduating from BV with a major in exercise science, Bjorkgren started out as an assistant at Sioux Central High School in Sioux Rapids, Iowa. He then headed west for his first head coaching job in 2004 and directed Cactus Shadows High to the Arizona state tournament all three years he was there.

Once Bjorkgren heard in 2007 that pro basketball was coming to Iowa in the form of the expansion Iowa Energy - "I jumped all over that," ;he said. "I've always wanted to coach at the highest level of basketball possible."

He also said his leap from the prep ranks to the pros wasn't as big of a contrast as some might think.

Even at this level, the ball is still round. The baskets are still 10 feet high. And there's still no substitute for hustle.

"A lot of guys coming into the league think they can make it to the NBA by scoring 20 points a game and that's it. They just shoot it every time they touch it and try to build their stats," Bjorkgren said. "We've got our guys playing team basketball. Playing team defense."

"Number one, we win," he added. "And number two, that leads our guys to better jobs."

The proof is in the product. Iowa captured three consecutive Eastern Conference titles over the past three seasons -- a stretch during which seven different Energy players were called up to the NBA.

Bjorkgren's imprint was obvious, because the Energy led the league last season in both defensive field goal percentage and rebounding - two "hustle" categories.

That's the type of edge Bjorkgren loves to see.

He hopes to see the same in the Wizards, who finished last season 19-31. They're one of the Energy's biggest rivals, so Bjorkgren is also looking forward to going up against his former boss and mentor Nick Nurse (Iowa's coach).

Bjorkgren even filled in once for Nurse last season after the Energy coach was suspended for a game. Iowa won that contest in overtime - meaning that technically, Bjorkgren's career coaching record in the D-League is 1-0.

"I might be the only undefeated professional head coach in the country," he laughed.

What does he love most about basketball?

"The competition. That competitive part of it never leaves me," he said, sounding an awful lot like that old, backup point guard.


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