1 on 1 with Canada hoops star Kia Nurse

Nurse is . (Nathan Denette/CP)

Kia Nurse, the 19 year-old breakout star for Canada’s Senior Women’s National Team, has been on a roll, to say the least. From winning the NCAA championship last season in her freshmen year at UConn to leading Canada to Pan Am gold and FIBA America’s gold, booking a ticket to the 2016 Olympics in Rio, Nurse has emerged as a dominant force in the women’s basketball scene. I caught up with the Hamilton, ON native to talk about the turning points in her hoops career, parlaying a high school career in Canada to a scholarship to the most iconic NCAA women’s program around, and why it wasn’t until a few weeks ago that she believed she could own the stage at the highest level.

Dave Zarum: You’ve always proudly represented Hamilton. It maybe not quite be on the hoops radar in Canada in the same way as some GTA cities like Brampton, etc, but what was the basketball scene like growing up there?

Kia Nurse: On the women’s side Hamilton is a hotbed for basketball talent. There’s a lot of great female players who have come out of the city. I played with a lot of them when I was younger on a team called Hamilton Transway—our club team—and we were a dominant powerhouse. We won seven provincial championships in a row. So, yeah… I grew up in that environment, and my mom and sister always played, so there’s a vibrant scene there.

DZ: You were able to stay in Canada and still lock down a scholarship to an esteemed program like UConn. Until recently that path was quite rare, but people like yourself and now Kentucky-bound Jamal Murray are able to parlay high school careers in Canada to scholarships at some of the biggest, most iconic programs around. I can’t help but compare your path to the NCAA to someone like your Team Canada teammate, Nirra Fields. Are you familiar with her story? [ed. Fields left her Montreal home early and attended prep schools in the U.S., including Oak Hill Academy before eventually living with former Lakers head coach Mike Brown and his family and securing a scholarship to UCLA. Check out Zarum’s profile of Fields from the Sportsnet magazine archives]

KN: Yeah, she was gone forever. She’s basically an American now, we count her as an American.

DZ: Haha, exactly! Still, that was always the traditional route. You said you wanted to go to UConn since you were a little kid, but at what point did you realize you could accomplish that goal while staying at home?

KN: Obviously I’d heard a lot of talk about going to prep school in the US, and that if you wanted to those big college offers that’s where you had to go. I figured, 'Well I always wanted a chance to play in the NCAA tournament.' That was my original goal. And then when I started playing tournaments in the States during the summers with our rep team I ended up being seen by Connecticut twice. Suddenly I started receiving interest from NCAA schools that were actually contending for national championships. I was like, ‘Woah!’ It was a whole new thing for me. I never thought that would happen. I always figured I’d be at a program that just got to the tournament, and I’d go every year and experience that, make it as far as I can.
But when I started to get interest from those bigger schools I started thinking ‘Well, maybe I have a chance to do more than that now.’ When I was younger I always thought: If I’m good enough, they’ll find me. And nowadays there’s so many more opportunities to stay at home, prep schools opening up, opportunities to get seen—for girls and boys basketball. Going over to the States is obviously beneficial, but now that you can stay in Canada is incredible.

DZ: “If I’m good enough they’ll find me” is a pretty bad-ass mentality to carry with you. Where do you think you got that from?

KN: That’s a family thing, for sure. My mindset has been shaped by them my entire life. Personally I had always sold myself short. I never really believed I was as good as people told me I was. I would think “I’m good, but I’m not UConn good.” Then it slowly dawned on me when they started coming around with offers, “They don’t just recruit anybody.” I figured out I could play, if I had confidence I could play.

DZ: Was there a single turning point?

KN: I came back from China with the national team and played a tournament in Washington—this was right before Grade 12. I was super skinny because I didn’t eat for two weeks but I played well and after this one tournament I was getting calls from Kentucky, Tennessee, Notre Dame, all those schools, and I thought ‘I have a shot at this. I think I could be good.’ I still doubt myself, and it wasn’t until that final Pan Am game where I realized ‘You need to have confidence in yourself because look at how you play when you do. You’re good.’

DZ: Wait... You're talking about just a few weeks ago?

KN: Yeah, honestly. That was the first time I really realized ‘You need to believe in yourself more, because look at what you’re capable of.’

DZ: Glad you brought up that Gold Medal game. At one point at the end you were on the free throw line with a chance to ice the game. What’s going through your head in that moment?

KN: They were chanting "MVP!" when I got to the line, so it was like, “God, now I really have to make the shot!” [laughs]. They were chanting MVP! I can’t miss it now! That was absolutely what was going through my mind. But I was pretty confident at that point because I had shot, I think, 50,000 free throws that game. Phew, when I saw it go in…Crazy.

DZ: One of the most noticeable thing about the makeup of the national team is the wide range in terms of experience, the balance between youth versus veterans. Has that dynamic changed at all over the past month? Are the vets still making you go on coffee runs?

KN: The dynamic is pretty much the same. We’re fortunate to have a great group of veterans who make sure that each and every day they’re teaching you something new. They relish that role, in being leaders. But I’m a permanent rookie, forever. Maybe when I turn 20 that will change. Maybe. But it’s great to have them around, not only for their experience on the court but off the court as well. They’ve gone through everything from dealing with pro contracts, letting you know places you should or shouldn’t play, everything. They’ve just been phenomenal.

DZ: How far ahead have you thought in terms of your career?

KN: I have three more years left at Connecticut, but the first year went by in, like, two minutes. So you have to think everything is moving so quickly now that you do have to look ahead. I hope one day to play in the WNBA. And then a lot of the WNBA players go to play overseas as well, so I hope to do that, too, at a great location with great fans. Two of my teammates [at UConn] were drafted to the WNBA this past year and I was able to go to the draft with them and see what that was like. It was really interesting, really cool to see that atmosphere.

Check back to Sportsnet.ca/nba tomorrow to get to know Kia off the court as she takes on the world famous Free Association Questionnaire (FAQ)