TORONTO – Sometimes you need a little luck to go along with best practices and good intentions.
And for once, it’s the often snake-bitten Canadian men’s senior national team that ended up finding a winning lottery ticket in an old coat, just when the house needed a new roof and kids were about to start school.
Men’s national team general manager Rowan Barrett and Basketball Canada chief executive officer Glen Grunwald were well into a search for a new head coach that was aiming high, but had yet to hit the mark in the early weeks of April.
Top Canadian candidates had been interviewed and found wanting. They had been close with some impressive international candidates, but had not been able to get over the finish line.
Time seemed to be pressing. The World Cup of Basketball draw was already out and Canada’s first game was scheduled for September 1st against powerhouse Australia. After Barrett was announced as the successor to Steve Nash as GM on March 6th, he said he wanted to have a coach in place by March 31st.
That internal deadline came and went, and a sense of mystery began to surround the process, but they were guided by the recognition that with the team on the cusp of contending for medals internationally, they needed to make the right choice. So they decided to wait it out a little longer.
It turns out the best conceivable choice – their lottery ticket – was sitting under their noses. The future of the men’s national team – marked by more disappointments than triumphs on the international stage over the past 20 years – began to brighten considerably when Toronto Raptors head coach Nick Nurse reached out to Barrett – after checking in with executives Masai Ujiri and Bobby Webster – and let him know he was available and interested in becoming the next head coach of the men’s senior national team.
"It was great. We felt good," recalled Barrett of when he learned of Nurse’s interest. "Once we knew, philosophically, our thoughts lined up, we felt really good."
On Nurse’s end it was a matter of matching his inherent interest in coaching at the World Cup and potentially the Olympics in 2020 – "two great competitions, covering this summer and next. It’s just an opportunity that doesn’t come around in anybody’s life, a coach’s life, whatever, very often" – with the reality of there being only so many weeks in a year.
"Would it fit in time-wise without having any serious ramifications to the Raptors? Did I want to give up my summer vacation to do it? Obviously, my wife and family had to support the thing, that was big as well," said Nurse on his thought process in taking the job. "I was probably at about 65 per cent and my wife said ‘100 per cent you take that job,’ so here I am."
An understanding was reached in mid-April, just before the Raptors and Nurse embarked on what ended up being a two-month playoff run culminating in the Raptors earning their first NBA Championship after eliminating the Golden State Warriors in six games on June 13th. The contract was only finalized this past weekend.
Nurse became the first coach in NBA history to win an NBA championship and a G-League championship. He also was an assistant with the national team representing Great Britain, helping the then-fledgeling basketball nation to two European Championship appearances and the 2012 Olympic Games in London.
But amidst the glow of his latest triumph Nurse has another challenge staring right at him. On his whiteboard across from his office at OVO Centre, Nurse has a list of Canada’s potential players sorted in rows divided by position, with notes about their availability. It’s an impressive group, with a lot of solid NBA talent and some accomplished European pros as well.
"I think it’s a tremendous opportunity," said Nurse at his introductory press conference Monday morning at the Raptors practice facility. "Again, I see a tremendous opportunity for growth for myself. That’s always really, really important to me … I’m honoured to be able to do it and excited to do it."
Once an understanding was reached with Nurse, the challenge was two-fold for Canada Basketball: make sure that word didn’t get out as Nurse was guiding the Raptors through the playoffs – something they managed to do for about six weeks until it leaked out after the Raptors eliminated the Milwaukee Bucks and earned a spot in the NBA Finals.
The other was to continue planning for contingencies, recognizing that a lot could happen over the ensuing two months to affect Nurse’s availability or interest in taking on the role that will be a six-week, full-time commitment in early August. The commitment will take a bite out of what would ordinarily be vacation time for him, no small consideration given Nurse has two kids under three, including a son famously born during the Eastern Conference Finals.
Barrett says Canada Basketball continued to field inquiries from a range of high-profile international coaches before Nurse was finally confirmed for the job, and now as potential members of his staff.
"I won’t get into names but there are a number of coaches that want to coach for our country. We’re excited," said Barrett. "I think it speaks to what we’ve built here in this country. When you look at the fans, you can see the viewership up year after year, loving this game … but it’s definitely exciting that the rest of the world now believes in what we’re doing and what we’re building."
There is hope too that given the TV ratings the Raptors drew, the passion shown at the team’s championship parade and the star power of Nurse and NBA pros such as Jamal Murray among others, corporate Canada may finally step in and provide the kind of sponsorship revenue desperately needed for a program that has typically been run on a shoestring. An airline sponsor would be a start.
"Corporate support is always important. I think you guys know the history there," said Barrett. "And we want to see it grow. Look, taking the team to China, those flights, with NBA guys? I think we all know that’s not going to be cheap. We are going to make sure our players are flying in first class, they are flying in style. They can rest and all those things. They shouldn’t have to have their knees beside their ears to get to China because we can’t afford to foot the bill. We need support from the corporations."
As for Nurse’s staff, Gord Herbert – one of Canada’s coaches during the World Cup qualifying process – is expected to be named as one of the assistants and it would not be surprising if he brings along at least one member from his Raptors staff and one or more of the club’s video coordinators in order to make the transition as seamless as possible with training camp scheduled to start on August 4th at the OVO Centre.
Given how much emphasis Nurse puts on his own professional growth and development it wouldn’t be a surprise if he left one of the three assistant spots open for a high-profile veteran coach that he could do some learning on. Another name that will likely surface is Scott Morrison, the former G-League coach of the year from Prince Edward Island, who is currently an assistant with the Boston Celtics.
"I’m looking to put together a world-class staff," said Nurse. "This competition requires it and these players deserve one. It’s a scheduling thing, guys have jobs, but we want the best staff we can get."
And the players?
After years when securing commitments from Canada’s top professional players was at times uncertain, Nurse is confident he’ll be able to draw on a strong cross-section of Canada’s best.
"I know there’s a strong buy-in already, that guys wanna play," said Nurse. "But it’s just kind of like when I got the job [with the Raptors]. I’ve gotta look these guys in the eye a little bit, and get on the phone with ’em and get to know ’em and go from there.
"[But] I’ll have a pretty big role, I think."
And as a result, Canada Basketball – and basketball in Canada – may have finally cashed a winning ticket.