APU's Nate Kleppe: Done And Not Done
It was over.
That is what Nate Kleppe thought after he played his final high school game. Yes, he still had the All-State Game to look forward to, but he did not think there would be much recruitment going on there.
Why would there be?
After averaging 12 points and five rebounds as a 6-7 senior at the suburban Seattle school, he had garnered little attention. If he did not receive any recruitment offers while playing competitively in high school, who would be sold on his abilities at an All-State Game?
Kleppe measured out at 6-2 as a freshman in high school and played behind current-NBA player Corey Kispert. Once Kispert graduated and moved on to Gonzaga, Kleppe found a role at King's High School … especially when he shot up to 6-7 before his junior year.
During his growth spurt, he did not sleep much, his knees always hurt, and he was a bottomless pit for his dad’s steaks, fresh off the grill. He even earned the nickname Bambi from his trainer as he tried to calibrate himself with his new, elongated arms and legs.
Kleppe decided if he could not play basketball in college, he might as well go to school somewhere enjoyable, so he enrolled at Azusa Pacific, where the weather is almost always warm and it rains only 25 times a year.
He knew APU had a great basketball program. Noah Bundrant, another King’s alum, played for a Cougars team that made the NCAA Division II Tournament when Kleppe was a high school junior.
Kleppe did not even consider basketball while figuring out where to get his business management degree.
“I never thought I was good enough to play here,” Kleppe admitted.
Other people did.
(Photo by Andrew Ciciari)
At the All-State Game, Kleppe competed with Ken West, a forward from Bellevue Christian, one of King’s biggest on-court rivals. Kleppe and West hit it off that weekend and shared their desires to go to APU. West had committed to play on the basketball team, and Kleppe had no plans to play. They figured it would still be fun to room together.
Kleppe and West moved into the dorms at APU in 2019 and did all the typical things roommates do: played video games and beach volleyball, hung out with friends and played pick-up basketball. The only time they were separated was class and when West did team-related activities.
Without basketball, Kleppe found himself with a little more free time than he expected and West knew a perfect hobby for him. When Kleppe and West played 3-on-3 at the campus courts, West thought to himself, “wow, this guy can move.” West quickly inquired with his coach, Peter Bond, about potential tryouts. He told Bond that he needed to take a look at Kleppe for one simple reason: “It’s not often you find a 6-8 forward just walking around campus.”
Kleppe was not immediately excited about the idea. He did not think he was good enough and was burned out from a fruitless recruitment process in high school.
“I just thought basketball was done, and I had to accept that,” Kleppe said. “I might as well move on.”
West peppered his roommate with pleas to try out. Eventually, Kleppe conceded and thought to himself, “If I don’t make it, oh well.”
He agreed to try out, but things did not go as planned. Kleppe had barely touched a basketball after high school and went 2-10 in an around-the-world shooting drill and felt he left an uninspiring impression on the coaches after some speed and conditioning tests and playing 4-on-4.
But Bond didn’t even need the tryout. He had heard of Kleppe, knew he was a good player, but did not know he was coming to APU until West clued him in.
“The things that Nate brings to the table become more apparent when you spend more time with him…he’s just super solid and super reliable,” Bond said.
It was never about talent. Bond just needed to know Kleppe would buy in. When Bond called him into his office, he asked if he really loved basketball.
Kleppe’s reply was convincing: “I have loved it my whole life…I just thought I had to move on from it. I will do everything I can to get better and help the team.”
That was all Bond needed to hear. He offered Kleppe a spot on the team, and Kleppe redshirted his freshman year as they made an NCAA Tournament run.
(Photo by Holly Magnuson)
Kleppe immediately fell in love with the team. The guys became like brothers to him and practice was something he looked forward to everyday. It also did not hurt that West, his roommate and good friend, became his teammate.
Kleppe’s bond with the team made it that much more painful when COVID-19 interrupted the Cougars’ championship dream. The Cougars were practicing on site the day before the first round of nationals when someone came into the gym and told them, “we’re shutting this thing down.”
Kleppe felt terrible for the seniors because he knew they were poised to make a run and the whole team had high hopes, but the pandemic did provide a silver lining for Kleppe. He had been working on a new jumpshot right before the shut down and quarantine allotted much more time to work out the kinks. He also added 15 pounds which helped him keep up with the physicality at the Division II level.
Once the PacWest Conference allowed teams to begin practicing for the upcoming season, Kleppe quickly transformed from a walk-on into a key player.
“We didn’t get to do anything all fall,” Bond said leading up to the 2020-21 season. “In that type of setting, being solid and reliable is really important. That side of [Kleppe] really stood out.”
Kleppe worked his way into the lineup and dropped 18 points in his first eight games into the condensed season.
“It just felt like everything came full circle. I felt super blessed to have that opportunity. I am thankful for the opportunity from the coaches, and I know it was all part of God’s plan.”
This past season, Kleppe solidified himself as a starter, averaging 6.6 points and five rebounds a game.
“He’s just Mr. Consistent,” West said. “He’s one of the best rebounders and defenders in the conference.”
Coach Bond confidently assigns Kleppe to the opposing team’s best scorer or anchors him in the middle of the zone. On top of all that, Bond loves how Kleppe can, “provide in a very quiet, very mild type manner, a very steading presence on the court.”
(Photo by Ken Spainhour)
With Kleppe serving as a sturdy foundation for the Cougars, APU earned an at-large bid to the 2022 NCAA Division II tournament. He helped the team beat its biggest rival, Point Loma, in the first round before being bounced by Alaska-Fairbanks. West dropped a season-high 29 points that game.
Kleppe and West were upset the way the season ended, but know with all five starters coming back next season, “the sky is the limit.”
Kleppe said it was “super surreal” to play and win in the tournament and he is happy how things have come full circle after he originally thought his playing days were over.
“I’m not sure why I wasn’t recruited,” Kleppe said. “But I am grateful I ended up in the best possible spot for me. It was a weird way to get here, but I wouldn’t trade it for the world.”
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