University of Kansas

Kansas raids NBA for new strength coach Nijem: It’s ‘best college program to join’

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From early in the day until the moment of tip off for a game, Kansas basketball is steeped in tradition in Allen Fieldhouse.
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From early in the day until the moment of tip off for a game, Kansas basketball is steeped in tradition in Allen Fieldhouse.

Ramsey Nijem, the Sacramento Kings’ head strength and conditioning coach the last three seasons, says he wasn’t actively looking to leave the NBA for college basketball when a similar position opened at Kansas on Aug. 15.

Yet the more he thought about it, the more the NBA’s youngest head trainer (at the age of 28) desired to be the person to replace Andrea Hudy, Texas’ new basketball trainer who spent 15 seasons at KU..

“Ultimately it’s an opportunity to work alongside a Hall of Fame coach in coach (Bill) Self and his staff,” Nijem told The Star in a phone interview Wednesday, the day he was hired as new men’s basketball director of sport performance at KU.

“Kansas is certainly in most eyes — in my eyes — the best college program to join. Here’s an incredible opportunity to be part of a tradition like no other. Ultimately it was sitting down and making a decision, ‘This is something I can’t pass up.’

“Coach Self and I spoke multiple times through the process. As it unfolded it became clearer and clearer it was a good fit on both sides, an opportunity for us to grow and build together,” Nijem added.

In all, Nijem spent five seasons with the Kings. The San Francisco Bay Area native was assistant strength coach two years prior to taking on his current responsibilities with the NBA team.

Before joining the Kings, Nijem was the head strength and conditioning coach at Santa Barbara City College. He was assistant strength and conditioning coach at UC Santa Barbara prior to that.

Nijem earned his Doctorate of Science degree in Human and Sport Performance as well as Health Promotion and Wellness in 2018. Nijem has published research in top scientific journals in strength and conditioning and is currently investigating injury risk in NBA athletes.

He earned his bachelors of science degree from UC Santa Barbara and masters from Cal State Fullerton’s Center for Sport Performance.

“I am thrilled, beyond excited to start this next journey, obviously move across the country to the Midwest and experience Lawrence, get used to the weather of course,” Nijem told The Star.

“It’s going to be a change, but an exciting one full of growth and opportunity and ultimately a good amount of winning so I’m looking forward to it.”

KU coach Self recently told The Star there was great interest in the job opening. Nijem (pronounced “Nigh-jum”) surfaced quite early in the process and ultimately was offered the job.

“We are excited Ramsey will be joining our staff as our director of sport performance,” Self said. “Having the doctorate and academic background he has, Ramsey should fit very nicely, not only with the men’s basketball program but also with the future of Kansas Team Health (KU’s new model of student-athlete care that includes collaborating with The University of Kansas Health System and LMH Health).

“At 28, he’s the youngest head strength coach in the NBA and comes very highly regarded by his peers. He will bring an academic element along with energy, toughness and a track record of working with professional athletes that will also aid us in recruiting,” Self added.

Nijem told The Star he’s a proponent of the Kansas Team Health model.

“For sure. I think that adds another unique element to what I consider a competitive advantage over those who aren’t taking this approach,” Nijem said.

KU athletic director Jeff Long credited 17th-year KU coach Self for his role in what turned out to be a quick hiring process.

“Bill had the lead for us on it in identifying people, then we certainly had the (Kansas) Health System and others in our department that weighed in on behalf of coach,” Long told The Star on Wednesday. “(I’m) really excited about the depth and breadth of the (talent) pool. I think that we were able to attract someone with a doctorate just shows the level of study they’ve done in this area.

“But then when you combine that with the real-life experience working in the NBA, we think that’s a real positive and something almost unique to our program to have that co-experience of the doctorate in the study and the actual use of it with NBA-caliber athletes,” Long added.

Long said he’s not surprised KU was able to land what he considers a home-run hire.

“I would just say Kansas has a great reputation. Coach Self has a great reputation. There were going to be outstanding candidates for this job. This is one of the premier jobs in the country, if not the (premier job),” Long said.

“I’m really pleased with that depth (of pool of candidates). Then for him to have the foresight to want to fit in and be part of the new model in college athletics, Kansas Team Health, it’s all a positive for us. I think Bill is thrilled and I think the student athletes are really going to benefit from this leadership and experience-wise.”

Nijem said he became extra enthused about the possibility of working at KU after talking to former Kings players Frank Mason and Ben McLemore, who have stated many times they loved their time in Lawrence.

“I love them. I certainly love ‘em,” Nijem said. “Part of the nature of our business is players come and go. Certainly those two were a pleasure to work with. They are model professionals and model human beings, what they bring to their craft and dedication, their willingness to work hard to be great. I think nothing but great things are ahead for Ben and Frank. They know that I feel this way. We spoke during this process. They couldn’t be more excited, more thrilled for me. I’m just as excited to watch their growth and development as their careers unfold (McLemore now with Houston; Mason with Milwaukee).”

Nijem will begin his new job on Monday.

“First and foremost I hope to come in and provide the best sports performance program I can,” Nijem said. “Take care of the young men currently on that roster and those that come (in future). The players are focus of everything we do. We start there. Obviously the coaching staff … the goal is to continue to build with them and work together, have collaboration. Then obviously winning. I think we are in this to win games.

“Another top priority beyond all that … help these young men become model citizens and model basketball players. We obviously want them to become best of both worlds. I think it starts with the human side that turns into the athlete side. Make sure they are doing everything they need to do off the court and ultimately on the court.”

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Gary Bedore covers all aspects of Kansas basketball for The Star — the current team as well as former players and coaches and recruiting. He attended KU and was born and raised in Chicago, as well as Lisle, Ill.