On Wednesday, the greatest collection of Canadian men’s basketball talent ever assembled will take the floor with an eye toward making history, and Nick Nurse’s latest coaching adventure will begin.
He’s been almost everywhere in a career that began in obscurity and developed modestly but in recent years has taken him to the peak of his profession, with an NBA championship and NBA Coach of the Year honours as consecutive entries on his resumé, and a lucrative multi-year contract as head coach of the Toronto Raptors in his pocket.
But as he prepares to lead the Canadian men’s team into a do-or-die moment more than 20 years in the making, Nurse’s goal is to return to one of the most formative and transformative experiences of his life, let alone his coaching career: Coaching at the Olympic Games.
For five years leading up to the 2012 Games in London, Nurse was the assistant coach to British Basketball League friend and coaching rival Chris Finch on the Great Britain national team, helping put together a program from scratch that proved to be capable of competing with some of the top teams in the world.
Standing in the tunnel before their opening game of the Olympic tournament is a memory that Nurse still cherishes.
“I remember kind of walking down that hallway, and it was a real long hallway and nobody was in it, and we were getting ready to take the floor,” Nurse said in an interview with Sportsnet. “And I kind of looked at Chris and I said, ‘Hey man, thanks for involving me in this. This is a really, big-time thing we’re getting ready to go do.'”
The hope is he can replicate the experience with Canada in Tokyo by winning the Olympic Qualifying Tournament in Victoria, B.C., which begins on June 29th, with the final scheduled for July 4th.
Canada’s men’s team hasn’t appeared at the Olympics since 2000 in Sydney when Steve Nash led them to a seventh-place finish. Prior to that, the men’s team hadn’t been to the Olympics since 1988, the last of four straight tournaments.
For Nurse – the transplanted Iowan who has called Toronto home since 2013 – the mission has taken on a personal dimension as well.
“I pretty much tell the players on every Zoom call we have my two sons – my second and third sons – were born in Toronto and they’re going to be playing for the national team in 2040, or whatever,” said Nurse. “So listen, I’m in Toronto. I’ve been there eight years now and in the trenches there. And there’s a lot of pride for me in tying to grow the game and this golden age and basketball in Canada.”
Nurse has plenty to work with. He knew that when he took the job. Canada has had more players in the NBA than any other country than the United States for several years running now, and increasingly the pool comprises of players with significant roles. Similarly, the profile and experience of the players in Europe has elevated as well.
The challenge, as always, is getting them on the floor at once. Nurse saw that firsthand in his first experience coaching for Canada at the 2019 FIBA Basketball World Cup where – one by one it seemed – players it was depending on to make a run at a medal, or at least pre-qualify for the Olympics, dropped out either before training camp or before leaving for China.
Canada ended up finishing 21st in the 32-team competition and seventh among teams from FIBA Americas. The result was Canada needs to win their six-team OQT to gain one of the four remaining spots left in the 12-team Olympic field.
Since the World Cup, and again after the Olympics were postponed due to the pandemic, Nurse has been working closely with men’s national team general manager Rowan Barrett to actively recruit Canada’s top players. The sands keep shifting as they navigate injuries, contracts, family situations and level of interest in making a three-week commitment in what is already a shortened off-season for professional leagues across the world in order to get Canada through qualifying, with the potential for an additional four to six weeks if they advance to the Olympics.
“I knew that it is a process. It does take a plan and then it takes time,” said Nurse. “And – like with the recruiting of any players, whether it be NBA free agents or college players when I was coaching in college or trying to get guys to come into my team in England or even in the [G-League] – you’ve got to stay with it, it takes a lot of daily and weekly work.
“You’re trying to answer any questions at all times and you’re trying to develop some relationships,” he said. “And you’re understanding that this is difficult. We’re in a pandemic and with everything so unsure with everything … you know there’s lots of moving parts, and we’re just trying to do our best to give the information as we have it, so [players] could make the best decision.”
Canada Basketball had 21 players accept invitations to training camp for the OQT, and while there have been some high-profile players drop out – Dillon Brooks, Tristan Thompson and Oshae Brissett among them – there have been some wins too, with Andrew Wiggins returning to the program and fast-risers Luguentz Dort and Nickeil Alexander-Walker joining the senior team for the first time.
But Nurse’s commitment has never wavered. He jumped in to fill the void after former national team coach Jay Triano didn’t have his contract renewed and Canada’s coaching search had stalled.
“The job became open,” recalled Nurse. “And I kind of thought ‘Geez, there’s a lot of NBA guys that could play and I’ve got international and Olympic experience and FIBA experience, you know, I just thought I might be a decent candidate, so I threw my name in the hat.”
Luckily for Canada, he’s been in with both feet since, even if his day job with the Raptors is full-time work.
This is no surprise to those who knew him during his years with the Great Britain program like Ron Wuotila, the transplanted Albertan who was head of basketball operations for British Basketball leading up to the 2012 Olympic cycle.
“Nick sees everything as an opportunity,” said Wuotila, who recently was a consultant to Canada’s Own The Podium program. “Everything is cool, everything is an adventure. Like, who goes from winning the NBA championship to deciding they want to embed themselves with a national team program that’s [typically] underfunded and going to travel across the world [for the World Cup in China] for three or four weeks after the championship? But it was the same with GB. Both his and [Finch’s] attitude was they thought it was super interesting and ‘We’re good at our work,’ and ‘We could do this.’”
Those close to Nurse and even the Raptors had some concerns about him stepping up to coach Canada, a decision that became public on the eve of the NBA Finals and was formally announced just two weeks after he led them to the NBA title in June 2019.
With the World Cup scheduled for September 2019 and – pre-pandemic – the Olympics for the summer of 2020, it was a lot of high-intensity competition with limited down time.
“It surprised me [that he took the Canada job] for what he had on his plate,” said Finch, one of Nurse’s closest friends in coaching. “I worried about him burning out coming straight off a championship year.
“I told him: ‘Make sure you enjoy the championship.’ But the dude’s a machine. He’s so passionate about the game and he just loves it.”
For Nurse, the international game is almost a tonic, both a return to his roots coaching domestically in Europe and a new environment where he can both observe and attempt new strategies and approaches.
“One of Nick’s best traits as a coach – and he has many – is he’s so good about figuring out what’s new, what’s coming next, how to be different,” said Finch. “It’s a non-stop dialogue with him and the [international game] is another lab for him.”
And for a competitor, the international game is the purest form of drug there is:
“In the NBA, every game is meaningful – you play 82 games and miss the playoffs by one, you realize that, but it doesn’t always feel that way,” said Finch, who was on Nurse’s staff in Toronto before leaving mid-season to take the head coach position with the Minnesota Timberwolves. “Whereas [internationally] … everything matters. You’re playing for point differential in a two-legged affair, you’re playing in a small group to advance to the knockout stage, you’re playing in the knockout stage – every game just feels so big and there’s no margin for error and that’s just intoxicating.”
The Olympic experience itself was beneficial. Nurse is working on a PhD in sports leadership and being part of an Olympic cycle opened his eyes to standards beyond basketball and what high-performance sport looked like through the lens of other disciplines. Great Britain was a well-funded sports nation as they strove to shine as Olympic hosts. There were dollars even for a dormant basketball program with little domestic tradition – Britain hadn’t played at the Olympics since they hosted them in 1948. At one point, they were able to insure then-NBA star Luol Deng – Great Britain’s best player – for $400,000, according to Wuotila.
“We did things at such a high level,” said Nurse. “Just from preparation, human performance or psychology, analytics, practice planning … it was really impressive to be a part of it, it really, really was, that was a tremendous learning experience for me on that end of things. And we played great.”
Under the guidance of Finch and Nurse, Great Britain rose from the depths of European basketball – they started in EuroBasket’s B Division and had to advance from there to even attempt to qualify for the European championships, which they did in 2009 and 2011. Based on their proven level of competitiveness, the IOC granted them a host nation spot. At the Olympics, the team that started from nothing was a significant threat – losing to powerhouse Spain by a point, Brazil by five and leading Australia by 10 at half before finishing the group stage with a blowout win over China.
But it was the moment that was more lasting than the results.
“The Olympic experience was unbelievable, from a human experience point of view, from a sporting point of view,” recalled Finch. “We’re eating lunch and in walks Usain Bolt; we’re watching the best women’s volleyball teams in the world play; we’re preparing to play the best basketball teams in the world; we’re standing in front of the Union Jack while ‘God Save the Queen’ plays in our own stadium. It just never ended.”
“I remember Nick saying to me, ‘I got to get back here.’”
Nearly a decade later and a year delayed, Nurse has his chance to do just that, and bring Canadian basketball along with him.