Twenty nine years ago, Nick Nurse embarked on a nomadic coaching journey that would see him take 15 jobs in five countries.
In 1990, the fresh-faced 22-year-old arrived in the East Midlands from Iowa near penniless as a player-coach for British Basketball League (BBL) team Derby Rams.
He stayed in a budget hotel, without television, and even struggled to find the £5.40-per-week required to shoot hoops at a corroded basket on a leisure-centre wall near Derby County’s old Baseball Ground.
“Paying 80 pence per day just to practice hit me pretty hard,” admits 52-year-old Nurse, who led Derby Rams to the playoffs for the first ever time, negotiating player strikes and broken-down buses along the way.
“It was a struggle at times, but it was also an opportunity to shape my coaching philosophy.
“We were a close team, driving up and down England to games. There was a lot of time to talk through tactics and really just life. It was fun going to all the obscure venues and facing challenges that don’t exist in the NBA.
“I think my first game was somewhere in the Docklands and the stadium announcer’s mic didn’t work, so he just stated screaming out our names and I remember thinking, ‘Wow, I’ve hit the big time!’”
No one could have predicted Nurse’s 12 months in Derby would catalyse an unorthodox path to the 2019 NBA Finals, where he would guide Toronto to their maiden championship in his rookie season as coach.
Toronto now tip off their NBA title defense against New Orleans Pelicans on Wednesday at Scotiabank Arena. And fittingly, one of Nurse’s closest allies will be on the opposing bench.
Pelicans associate head coach Chris Finch was in charge of Great Britain during the London 2012 Olympics and chose Nurse as his assistant, citing at the time his “calmness and shrewdness” as being valuable assets.
Team GB failed to get out of their group, despite running silver medal winners Spain close, but crucially the experience allowed Nurse to rub shoulders with then Raptors coach Dwane Casey for the first time – the man who would hand him his NBA break in 2013 and he’d ultimately replace as coach in June 2018.
Casey was in London scouting 7ft Lithuanian center Jonas Valanciunas, who had signed for Toronto that summer; and in keeping with his ever-curious nature, he decided to drop in on a Team GB scrimmage. He was immediately impressed by Nurse’s attention to detail and unwavering belief in the triangle offence – a style of play influenced from a decade of watching Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls in the 1990s.
“It’s no secret I was a fan of Phil Jackson’s Bulls and their triangle offense,” says Nurse. “I would order VHS tapes of their games when coaching in England and I was lucky enough to have Dennis Rodman at Brighton Bears for a few games [who played under Jackson with the Bulls].”
When Rodman signed for Brighton in 2006, he was 44 and had just been evicted from the Celebrity Big Brother house. Nurse assumed he was inheriting a “superstar jerk” but was pleasantly surprised; and by London 2012 it dawned on him that players of that calibre had helped basketball become quite popular in England. In fact, even the Queen was a fan.
“I met the Queen in the Olympic Village in London,” recalls Nurse. “She’s charming and actually quite funny. She was joking that you need to be really tall to play, but she knew her stuff and explained how the game was becoming more popular in schools.”
Nurse had obviously seen first-hand the growth of basketball in England at both elite and grass roots level. By 2012, he had coached five BBL teams, winning the championship with Birmingham Bullets (1996) and Manchester Giants (2000). But despite being tempted back by the allure of an Olympics, he was now firmly embedded in the NBA G League as head coach of Texas-based team Rio Grand Valley Vipers.
Twenty three players on his rosters got called up to the NBA during a six-year G League spell that also saw him coach Iowa Energy. That record was enough to pique the interest of Casey who brought Nurse to Toronto as his assistant in 2013. The pair slowly laid foundations before masterminding a franchise-high 59-win season in 2017-2018 that earned Casey the NBA’s Coach of the Year award.
But when the Raptors crashed out of the post-season in emphatic style, losing 4-0 to Cleveland Cavaliers in the Conference Semifinals, Casey was fired and Nurse handed the biggest break of his career from Raptors president Masai Ujiri. Bournemouth-born Ujiri had also played for Derby and come up against Nurse’s Birmingham in 1997.
“He left an impression on me from our time in England,” said Ujiri at Nurse’s unveiling last year. “His teams were tough. As a coach he is unique. The appeal of Nick is that he is not afraid to try new stuff. We want a balance between a tactician and an innovator. That’s what makes Nick the ideal coach for us.”
Spearheaded by Kawhi Leonard, Toronto won 58 regular season games last season before beating Orlando Magic (4-1), Philadelphia 76ers (4-3) and Milwaukee Bucks (4-2) to set up an NBA Finals matchup with Steph Curry’s Golden State Warriors. Finals MVP Leonard then averaged 28.5 points per game and Pascal Siakam added 19.8, shooting at over 50%, as the Raptors won the series 4-2.
“It’s all just about started to sink in,” says Nurse, who had limited time to celebrate after coaching Canada during the off-season in an ultimately failed bid to qualify for Tokyo 2020.
“It’s funny, I was on the plane to China [for a pre-season tour] and there was this documentary on about the NBA Finals. There is a ton of footage I hadn’t seen.
“I was listening to myself give a half-time speech and, I’ve got to be honest, I couldn’t believe what I said. It’s been a wild year and I still don’t remember all the twists and turns.
“I got to jam with [rock band] the Arkells and sing ‘Take Me Out To The Ball Game’ with the [Chicago] Cubs, but it was also important to not just look back and stay hungry for this season. As soon as we beat the Warriors I was thinking about the next draft.”
Last season, Nurse not only inherited solid foundations – which admittedly he helped lay – but had a squad brimming with talent.
Leonard lived up to his all-star billing, Siakam was rightly named the NBA’s Most Improved Player, Kyle Lowry was an assist-machine – his regular-season average of 8.7 per game was the second-best in the NBA behind only Russell Westbrook – and veteran Marc Gasol’s grit and steel underneath both baskets proved priceless.
But this season presents a whole different challenge. Leonard has departed for Los Angeles Clippers leaving a points’ void of almost 30 per game. Potent three-point shooter Danny Green has also left for the Lakers. That puts pressure on Siakam, who must still improve his own perimeter shooting and ultimately become the Raptors primary scorer.
The 33-year-old Lowry will inevitably still be both a creative and scoring force, but surgery over the summer on his left thumb may affect his minutes and productivity in the early part of the season.
“A lot has been made of Kawhi’s departure,” says Nurse. “But we played 22 games without him last season and won 17. We obviously need to work out where the extra scoring will come from, but first and foremost we have to defend well as a team.
“This season is a real opportunity for some of our younger guys to step up and I think we have a good level of competition in our roster.”
The worry for Raptors fans is they haven’t really added any big names. Terence Davis, Dewan Hernandez, Stanley Johnson and Rondae Hollis-Jefferson will provide squad depth, although Nurse hasn’t been overly impressed by some of his new faces.
“Those guys have not understood how hard we play, our schemes, that defence is a priority for them,” he recently told Canadian sports broadcaster TSN.
“These guys need to learn to play a little harder. They think they're playing hard, but they need to play harder. That's another thing we learned from two months in the playoffs, how hard to play. So we've got some work to do. We've got to find who is going to blend in quickly defensively with this crew."
Nurse can be charming and unassuming, but he’s clearly not afraid to mince his words and Toronto may need to hear some harsh truths if they are to realistically defend their title without a box office all-star.
If Nurse does endure ‘second-season syndrome’, his first port of call will probably be to grab the small elephant statue that sits in his office. It’s there as a “light-hearted” symbol, to encourage all players to talk openly and not ignore the ‘elephant in the room’.
Nurse will no doubt relish trying to replicate last season and embrace being billed as underdogs to succeed. One thing all his teams have in common is they always found a way to win. The Raptors might not get quite as close to 60 wins in 2018-2019, but they should still be comfortably in the playoff mix. And one thing is for sure, a Raptors title defense can’t be written off with a genial yet gritty tactician like Nurse at the helm.
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