May 3, 2018, 9:13 am
Shoot the Bull: Volume 2 – An interview with Bulls Assistant Coach Nate Loenser
Did you know that prior to serving in his current role as an assistant coach with the Chicago Bulls, Nate not only coached at the high school level, the NCAA level (with stops at Southern Mississippi University and Iowa State University), and was also the first-ever head coach of the Windy City Bulls (Chicago’s G-League franchise)?
Nate was gracious enough to spend some time with me detailing his path to the Bulls’ bench, sharing his thoughts on the rapidly expanding G-League, and much more!
Be sure to follow Nate on twitter @NateLoenser
For more information on NubAbility Athletics – they can be found on the web at NubAbility.org and/or on twitter at @NubAbilityAthletics
Q: How is vacation treating you?
Nate: It’s one of those things where they want us to take some time, but my wife works so it’s not like I can really leave or anything like that or else I probably would have been coming back to an empty house.
I’ve been chipping in and helping out, being a regular dad for just a little bit, which has been nice.
Q: Do you make your permanent home in the Chicago area?
Nate: We live out in the Western Suburbs. We have two little ones, a two-and-a-half and an eight-month old, so it’s been nice to reconnect with them and help-out around the house.
It’s been time off, but it’s been busy and productive.
Q: You were a four-sport athlete at Northern University High School in Cedar Rapids, Iowa – earning 11 varsity letters, highlighted by four in baseball, where as a senior you hit .596 and were named All-State.
In addition, you also earned varsity letters in football and golf (three each), and a letter in well as in basketball while also playing the cello and tuba in the school orchestra and finishing No.1 academically in your graduating class.
You accomplished all that despite being born without a left forearm/hand.
How were you able to achieve at such a high level both athletically and academically at such a young age?
Nate: First and foremost, being born the way I was is something that I’ve never looked at as anything other than just a difference.
I don’t look at it as a handicap, I don’t look at it as anything that would inhibit me from anything.
I think that can be traced back to my parents not putting any limitations on what I could do.
The did a great job of supporting me and encouraging me.
From there ultimately it was up to me to decide the path I was going to choose. They just wanted me to be involved in different activities and make sure I was well-rounded.
They knew that I had a passion for sports growing up. That wasn’t difficult at all for them to encourage.
They just wanted to make sure I was well-rounded and taking care of my academics, and that’s where the tuba, cello, and all the other activities came into play as well.
Q: You mentioned last night when discussing the interview that you recently came across an organization called NubAbility Athletics and that you hoped to do some work with them in the future.
Can you tell us a little bit about NubAbility?
NOTE: More information about NubAbility Athletics can be found on their website at NubAbility.org
They can also be found on twitter @NubAbility
Nate: Yesterday I met with an individual from NubAbility Athletics who runs camps for individuals with limb differences.
He reached out to me after seeing some print stories that had been done about me in the past.
He and his partner help fund and organize these camps, and we just had lunch yesterday.
As my path has continued, there’s a lot of people that have given back to me.
There have been many opportunities to share my story across different media platforms.
Growing up I used to go to my mom’s classroom as she taught elementary school and I would talk to her class about differences and making the most out of the tools in your toolbox.
From there it spread and in high school I would work with other teachers and other classrooms – so I’ve always had a passion to help-out and share my story.
As I said, there are many people that have helped me along the way, so I find it interesting to see an organization like NubAbility starting to grow and help others as well.
I grew up going to Shriner’s Hospital for Children in Minneapolis. Just like you would go to a dentist or doctor’s appointment, every six months I would go up to Minneapolis, and they provided everything for me up until the age of 21.
That had a big impact on my life, and that’s also how my parents and I started developing a passion for sports.
We went to a lot of Iowa State games growing up, but we would always schedule either a Minnesota Twins game or a Minnesota Timberwolves game on the Wednesday night before my Thursday appointments, because that’s the day my doctor was in.
With the time off that I have now, just last week I went to the Chicago Shriner’s Hospital and got to take a tour of their facility.
Q: After graduating from high school, you attended Iowa State University, where in 2002 you earned your bachelor’s degree in Exercise and Sports Science while also playing a season of baseball for the school.
While you were still attending Iowa State, you also began your coaching career, serving as head basketball coach at Northern University High for a season before moving onto Ames High School, where you served as an assistant coach for two years.
Was getting into the coaching profession always the plan?
Nate: I have a little window yet where I can still play for the White Sox, Cubs, or any other major league team, if they want to give me one last crack.
Until I turn 40, that’s when I will probably let that dream go.
I’ve always had a passion for sport and for helping people, that’s why I went to Iowa State.
I wanted to play baseball as long as I could and knew I wanted to be involved in sports and athletics in some way, shape, or form.
I went to Iowa State originally as a manager for (former Iowa State head basketball coach) Tim Floyd, and I did that over the summer and into the fall.
My (high school) senior year in baseball I had a pretty good year, and I felt I still had a passion to play.
I stopped being a basketball manager at Iowa State with the idea that I would get into coaching eventually, but I wanted to try to play (baseball).
After my freshman year, that summer I was an assistant baseball coach at a high school in Cedar Falls.
I also spent that time working out and I tried out for the Iowa State baseball team my second year in college, but was one of the last cuts and did not make the team.
From that tryout, I met a few guys that played in a wooden bat league in Eastern Iowa and I did that for the next two summers while I continued to coach baseball.
My fourth year at Iowa State I was playing pick-up basketball and a guy I played against in that wooden bat baseball league saw me playing – this was already in January or February, and the guy was just sort of staring and looking at me.
I had a friend on the Iowa State baseball team and I asked him what the guy wanted – on a side note, that friend was Spencer Allen, currently the head baseball coach at Northwestern University.
He was one of my teammates at Iowa State, and one of my best friends.
Spencer told me that the guy liked me and wanted to meet me.
I was relived, as previously I had doubled off that guy in the wooden bat league, and he plunked me in the thigh on my next at bat.
Long story short, he ended up calling me into his office and asked me if I wanted to be on the team, even though it was already my fourth year at Iowa State right before Spring.
I walked onto the team, and within a couple of week I was on the traveling roster, which was a big deal because there were 40 or 50 guys on the roster and the school only traveled 25.
I made my first appearance as a pinch runner against the University of Iowa and then had my only at bat at home against Northern Iowa.
Even though I quit being a basketball manager at Iowa State to take that detour into baseball, it was nice to finish that last part of playing baseball.
I would have had one more year, but they cut the program the next season, so after that is when my coaching career became my main focus.
I coached at my former high school, I was the head baseball coach and the head basketball coach at age 21.
At the high school, they were having budget cuts and didn’t think they could offer me a full-time teaching position the following year.
I moved back to Ames, got a teaching job, and I spent two years there as an elementary school PE teacher while coaching at baseball for a year and basketball for two years.
One of the kids that I coached on the freshman team, his dad was the Associate Head Coach for Larry Eustachy at Iowa State.
He was coming to my practices, and he invited me to their practices, and I had the thought that I might join their staff at Iowa State as a graduate assistant, but then Coach Eustachy left Iowa State.
Coach Eustachy took a break from coaching for a year and I stayed at Ames High School.
When Coach Eustachy took the head coaching job at Southern Mississippi University, I went to his Associate Head Coach Steve Barnes and told him that if there was anything available, I would love to help-out.
They offered me no guarantees but told me to come on down in June.
I just packed up my life, stopped teaching full time and coaching at Ames High School where I had made a nice living, and went to Mississippi sight unseen.
Within two weeks I was running Coach Eustachy’s basketball camp, and he hired me as his operations guy after the summer.
I worked operations, then in December we had an assistant coach leave the program and I got hired as a temporary assistant coach for the rest of that season.
For the next four years I was on the bench as an assistant coach.
The following year I moved back into an operations role.
Moving back into operations made me take a step back, it was hard to not be able to be on the floor coaching.
I had spent six years at Southern Mississippi and loved it there, but I had only gotten back home to Iowa three times.
I wanted to get back to the Midwest and put to work some of the things I had learned at Southern Mississippi and that’s why the idea of taking the head coaching job at Spirit Lake High School back in Iowa intrigued me.
I wanted the chance to run my own program and move closer to home.
That’s how I ended up back in Iowa.
I had a great time in the three years I was there, as in addition to coaching basketball, I was also an assistant football coach, and the head girls golf coach.
Taking a break from coaching at higher levels allowed me time to take a step back and reevaluate.
I went to a lot of college practices, I studied a lot, and was fortunate enough to meet my wife while I was there.
I felt I had put myself on a different path, and it was a path I was really excited about.
She was willing to let me explore other avenues, and that’s how I ended up with Fred Hoiberg at Iowa State.
Not many people go back to school as a 34-year old graduate assistant, but obviously I had a passion for Iowa State growing up.
I had met Fred a couple of times and I was excited about what he was doing.
I also had a passion for getting my master’s degree – so everything really aligned the right way even though step-wise in the progression it might not seem too linear.
I felt that I had a very strong defensive background after working with Coach Eustachy, and I was intrigued about the things Fred was doing at Iowa State.
That’s how I ended up there – Fred was great.
Fred was awesome to work with, and still is to this day.
I appreciate his leadership style and the way he treats people.
His balance is really good as well.
Balance, making sure that I’m in the moment, treating people the right way, and making my family a priority while continuing to coach and perform at a high level is something that I think is more and more important now that I have completed my 17th year in coaching.
I think balance makes it easier to relate to the players you are coaching, the people you’re dealing with, and with understanding that you are in high pressure situations on a daily basis, but still enjoying what you do each and every day.
Q: As we all know, Fred Hoiberg would leave Iowa State to become the head coach of the Chicago Bulls for the 2015-16 season.
The rumors connecting Fred with the Bulls had been swirling for some time, and you had grown up a Chicago Bulls fan.
Did you know all along that if Fred went to Chicago you would be joining him?
How did you find out that you would be going with Fred to be on staff with the Bulls?
Nate: Our contact was pretty limited around the time everything was aligning.
Everybody hears the rumors, and those rumors had been fairly persistent from the time I joined Fred at Iowa State.
I’m a big believer that you can control only what you can control, and I didn’t want to get caught up in the day-to-day rumors.
I wasn’t going to ask Fred about the things I was hearing, that’s not the type of relationship that we had.
It was a difficult situation only because I had gotten to coach at my high school and had now gotten to coach at my alma mater and loved the things we were doing at Iowa State.
I signed up to go to Iowa State with a lot of perks from my past, but I as I explained earlier, I also went to Iowa State to coach with Fred.
I had talked to my wife before hand without even talking to Fred to discuss what we would do if the idea of moving to Chicago with Fred ever came up, to see if she would be ok with that and how she felt about it.
I was in a different situation than I was in at Southern Mississippi, where I could pick up and leave and it was just myself – I had a wife and a family, and to me it was important for her to understand what could possibly be coming.
The time came when Fred told me he was going to Chicago.
He said he thought I would have some opportunities, maybe at some other places, or possibly even to stay at Iowa State.
He told me he didn’t know who was going to be hired as the next head coach, and that he would help me any way he could – but did I want to come with him to Chicago?
Luckily, I was prepared for that question, and had already talked to my wife about it.
I said – Yes, I want to come with you. I signed up to coach with you, and it would be a privilege to come along with you.
Ultimately, I believe in Fred’s vision, I believe in working with him, and he’s treated me well.
It wasn’t a relationship at that time that I was ready to let go of, and that’s still how I feel today.
Fred has been very good to me and my family, and it’s been an unbelievable journey these past five years.
It’s something that I cherish every single day.
Q: In 2015-16, your first season with the Bulls, you served as the team’s Video Coordinator.
Can you tell us a little bit about the role of a video coordinator and what the day-to-day responsibilities of that job entailed?
Nate: It’s been a blessing and a curse, but I’ve always been a “bottom of the funnel” guy.
Even with a title of Video Coordinator, Director of Player Development, or even as an operations guy, one of the things I’ve always prided myself on is being the guy that can catch all of the little things before they slip through the cracks.
I think that’s been my niche as I’ve moved up through the coaching ranks.
It becomes a stressful position, and a position where you have to be aware of everything that’s going on while staying organized, on top of everything, and ready to make quick decisions.
I was involved with all the scouts throughout that year helping funnel the information to the assistants that were working with them.
Helping Fred with all his edits, whether they were offensive edits or defensive clean ups –
Helping (Bulls Assistant Coach) Jim Boylen with his edits for the team, cleaning them up –
Helping on the floor when the other coaches would be tied up with their day-to-day responsibilities –
Having spent two years with Fred prior to coming with him to Chicago, I obviously had a pretty good handle on his offensive playbook – so making sure everything was organized and up to date.
It was a jack-of-all-trades role that allowed me to have my hand in a lot of different areas.
One thing I enjoyed was being able to be out on the floor coaching.
In the NCAA’s, there are a lot of restrictions on who can be out on the floor coaching – whether it was at Southern Mississippi or Iowa State.
So even is a supporting role, and even though I never knew what I would be helping with out on the floor from day to day, just the ability to be back on the floor coaching and helping out was something that I was really excited about.
Q: The next year, in 2016-207, you were named Head Coach of the Windy City Bulls, Chicago’s G-League franchise.
It was the teams inaugural season.
Can you talk a little about how you prepared for that?
Nate: I had no intention of being the Windy City head coach throughout that entire summer.
It wasn’t until the end of August the concept of becoming the Head Coach of the Windy City Bulls came to fruition.
Even though by title I wasn’t preparing for that opportunity, in all reality from day one I had been preparing for an opportunity like that just like I continue to prepare for the next opportunity if I happen to become a head coach in a different situation someday.
Just as we spoke earlier about me in my mother’s elementary school classroom telling children about tools in the toolbox, over time that’s how I look at my coaching career.
It was just a matter of accepting the challenge of becoming the Head Coach of the Windy City Bulls.
It was an exciting experience to get to tie together my experiences and mold them into my own philosophy and be able to assist the organization in a different capacity.
I was also able to get a feel for the front office side of things.
I hadn’t been privy to conversations as far as free agents, trades, draft, or things like that my first year with the Bulls as a video coordinator.
All of a sudden, as the Head Coach of our minor league team, I was in constant communication with our Windy City front office, which in turn grew to include the Chicago Bulls front office.
There were challenges, especially with us being an expansion team and it being our first year.
I relied on a lot of the people that I had worked with and the traits I had been developing my whole life as far as trying to be organized, only focusing on what I could control, staying positive, and making the most of the opportunity to help my organization in whatever capacity had been asked of me.
It was a great experience, I loved every day of it and it really helped me grow as a person and as a coach.
Q: One of the Windy City players you coached last season was Spencer Dinwiddie, a second-round draft pick of the Pistons in 2014 who had spent some time with the Bulls.
Spencer enjoyed a breakout season with the Brooklyn Nets this past season and speaks glowingly of his time working with you.
How rewarding has it been to watch what he’s been able to accomplish?
Nate: It goes back to my days as an elementary school physical education teacher, you want to try to help other people succeed – because there’s been a lot of people that helped you succeed.
Not everybody was as fortunate as I was, and I’m not speaking of anything with Spencer’s case, but my parents, my coaches, my teachers – all helped me.
That’s why I coach, that’s why I do this – to try to help people on their own paths.
There’s Spencer Dinwiddie, but there’s also Jarekus Singleton – a blues artist who played for us at Southern Mississippi who I just talked to yesterday.
There’s Demar Dotson who plays for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers (Demar layed basketball under Coach Loenser at Southern Mississippi and is currently a starting offensive tackle for the Bucs).
The first point guard that I coached at University High School when I was 21-years old – I still stay in contact with.
Ultimately that what I want to do, I want to see guys succeed. That’s such a great thing to be a part of and it’s why I am involved with coaching.
Q: While we’re discussing the G-League, there has been a lot of talk about the G-League becoming an alternate path for high school players with NBA aspirations to take instead of going to college for a season.
As a guy that’s spent four years as a high school head coach, eight years coaching Division I basketball, and now three years coaching in the NBA including a season as a G-League head coach –
What are your thoughts about that?
Nate: The first thing I would say, and this is something I wasn’t prepared for, but the G-League is a lot more competitive a league than ever I gave it credit for.
Getting a chance to witness it first hand, made me appreciate the G-League and the players that are in that league so much.
The league has grown exponentially, especially lately.
Once they get to 30 teams, I think it’s really going to take off to another level.
The salaries are being made more competitive, but the exposure and level of play for the NBA makes the G-League second to none.
With that said, just like anything, for 18-year old kids, or for anyone that is going to skip a level of progression, skip a step, there are risks that go with that.
Will people be able to do it? Yes.
Will people fail at it? Yes.
But that’s the same as great college players that play four years at a school and for whatever reason can’t cut it at the NBA level.
My concern, as with any potential athlete whether its high school or college, is anyone that puts all their eggs in one basket.
The NBA is roughly 450 of the best basketball players on the planet, so getting to that point is quite a feat, and there is no exact recipe for it.
We have No. 1 draft picks from two or three years ago that are out of the league and we have guys like (Bulls guard) David Nwaba who paid their way to go to a G-League tryout that are in line to go into restricted free agency and get a contract that gives them more far more long term stability than they had a year ago.
There’s not going to be any sure-fire way for the one-and-done players to skip right though.
I’m a big believer in giving guys – and I keep going back to this – as many tools in their toolbox as possible.
The skills that they need for basketball are obviously essential, but along the way my hope is that these players that are making the jump at least have some sort of other base as well in the event of an injury or if doesn’t work out.
After that, it just becomes a calculated risk, no different that a kid who skips ninth grade. There are risks with that.
That doesn’t mean it hasn’t been done, but just like anything else, some kids are ready, some athletes are ready, some are not.
Ultimately there is going to be risk no matter how it plays out.
Digging a little deeper into it, there’s a lot of moving parts with the G-League.
The Windy City Bulls are owned and operated by the Chicago Bulls.
When Denzel Valentine, Bobby Portis, or Cristiano Felicio came to play for us, those guys were going to take precedence because they are the property of the Chicago Bulls.
We had games where we had three Bulls assigned to us, so there are going to be some challenging dynamics that a kid that going straight from high school to the G-League is going to have to maneuver around.
Can he handle that adversity?
Can he handle choosing that path, and potentially playing really well, only to have the parent team assign one of their players to the team at the same position resulting in a reduction in minutes and/or touches?
That’s one of the things that as a professional basketball player, as you move up, those are some of the realities that guys are going to have to face.
It’s the same thing on an NBA bench.
You’re a stud in high school, you’re a stud on your AAU team, you’re a stud in college – and now you get drafted, and you go from in to the rotation to out of the rotation to maybe not even playing at all.
There are going to be challenges.
Does that mean it can’t work? No.
Some guys just weren’t meant to be student athletes. It’s sad, but it just wasn’t meant to be.
Just like successful entrepreneurs that didn’t go to college, there will be those situations as well – the elite, some players that may not need the extra schooling or grooming that comes with college basketball.
As a society we want a perfect solution, a perfect answer for everything, but if you plug one hole, you have to make sure you are looking for what other holes could occur.
It’s going to be up to the individual make the most of their opportunity, whatever path they choose.
That’s what life is about.
Q: I think you’re absolutely right, it’s about what the player makes of the opportunity, and there are going to be tough lessons learned in the G-League that can’t be learned in the NCAA, and vice versa.
Nate: That’s the beautiful thing about the NBA.
You’re not going to make it if you run your organization with entitlement and politics.
If a player in AAU is in a world where he’s being entitled or being enabled, ultimately that is going to come back and hurt the player.
Not being able to battle through adversity doesn’t allow you to get a gauge of where you’re at.
That’s why you hope the people around those kids are good influences in their lives and are telling them the right things.
No one cares at this level what you did yesterday.
It’s all about what you can do today, how you can help our organization.
That’s no different than any other company that we all might work for.
You need to be productive, you need to earn your keep and help out your organization.
If you’re not doing that, then you become a liability.
Q: This past season you returned to the Bulls’ bench as an Assistant Coach.
Are there any parts of the game you concentrate your efforts into – for example I know Jim Boylen does a lot with defense – what facet of the game do you seem to gravitate towards?
Nate: A lot of my background would have been defense in my short stint as a player and then at the beginning of my path working with Coach Eustachy.
I have a strong defensive background, but I’ve been a part of Fred’s system now for five years, so I think I have a good grasp on what he does as well.
I think being a head coach last season helped me with how I give suggestions and how I try to help-out on both sides of the ball.
I think that’s important while also still navigating working with the team, understanding my role, and even understanding my fit working alongside (Bulls Assistant Coaches) Pete Myers and Randy Brown, current Video Coordinator Paul Miller, and the interns.
I think there’s always a balance to understanding your role and giving good, solid input no matter the situation.
That has always been one of my goals, to be a well-rounded coach.
I don’t ever want to pigeon-hole myself into just one facet of the game.
I just want to be a valuable asset, a valuable set of eyes and ears, whether it be for Fred and his offense or Coach Boylen and his defense.
At the end of the day I’m a part of (Bulls owner Jerry Reisndorf) Jerry’s Bulls, whatever I can do to help the organization is what I want to do, no matter what that role looks like.
Q: We talked a lot about the G-League as a tool for player development.
After last year’s draft night deal that sent Jimmy Butler to Minnesota, the Bulls found themselves in a position where player development of their young core was the main focal point of the season.
While the stated goal is the same, how is player development different, or perhaps more challenging at the NBA level than at the G-League level?
Nate: It only becomes challenging if you allow it to be.
It may sound like a cliché, but ultimately, I know what the Bulls vision is from Jerry to John to Gar to Fred to Jim.
Our organization chose a path and I believe in that path.
When I was asked to come back and serve in a different capacity as an Assistant Coach with the Bulls this past season, I knew what I was getting into.
Just like any position I’ve ever held, whether it was an elementary physical education teacher or a high school head coach, I’m here to teach and I’m going to do it to the best of my ability.
If I rely on my core or staying organized, controlling what I can control, and having a positive attitude, then no matter the direction we’re taking, or the point in the road we are at in our journey, then everything will fall into place.
There’s going to be internal and external factors that will try to bump you off your path and make things difficult, but that’s life.
I don’t worry about those things and I focus on what we’re trying to get done and attack whatever my role is and let the chips fall where they may.
Q: The NBA lottery is two weeks away. From there it moves right into the draft combine, then onto the draft itself and summer league play.
The Bulls just played their last game two weeks ago, but is your off-season already starting to wind down with the lottery right around the corner?
Are you going to be involved coaching in the summer league this year?
Nate: I will be involved coaching the summer league, though I do not know in what capacity.
There’s no real off-season.
The front office is doing their draft due diligence, and now as we convert from in-season to pre-draft our responsibilities shift as a coaching staff and we’ll be prepared for it just like we are each and every year.
The good news is this is my third off-season, so I know what to expect.
There is more comfort for me knowing where the potential bumps are and what expectations are.
Just like preparing for your next game, you’re preparing for your next day.
I’m excited for each day and the tasks of that day knowing it’s all a part of the grand vision of this organization that I’m a part of.
The season doesn’t change, but maybe we’re in a different phase.
We’re going to make sure we make the best decisions and do the best things for the Chicago Bulls.
Q: Any closing thoughts you’d like to share as we wrap up the interview?
Nate: I feel very fortunate to be a part of the Chicago Bulls.
I don’t take that lightly.
I grew up following the Chicago Bulls.
We’ve discussed my belief in Fred and how much I value him as a mentor and a leader.
It’s been a great opportunity for me to get to work with and get to know John Paxson, Gar Forman, and our front office more and more.
We have great people working very hard on our vision to take the Chicago Bulls where we all want them to be.
We have some great leaders in place and I feel very fortunate to be a part of the Chicago Bulls organization.