By Kristina Rutherford in White Plains, N.Y.
By Kristina Rutherford in White Plains, N.Y.
Kia Nurse made Team Canada at 16, won two NCAA championships by 20 and set franchise records in her rookie WNBA season — all that was just her opening act.

Kia Nurse just spent 15 minutes taking pass after pass and throwing up threes and mid-range jumpers, and now somebody ought to get her a microphone. The New York Liberty guard waits in line for a team warm-up drill and she’s swaying back-and-forth, eyes closed, arms moving while she sings with the conviction of someone who’s in the shower, sans audience. But Nurse is here at her team’s home facility, Westchester County Center in White Plains, NY, along with a nearly sold out crowd of more than 2,200 people, most of whom are already settled into their cushy burgundy seats with about 15 minutes to tipoff.

All I ever wanted was a Rolly Rolly,” Nurse sings, along with Ayo & Teo, whose song “Rolex” blasts over the speakers. Nurse’s turn comes up in the layup line, her eyes open wide as she receives the pass. She dribbles into the paint and floats in an easy left-hander. Jogging back to join the line on the right side, the former University of Connecticut star picks up the lyrics: “Cooler than a snowman with the ice all on me.”

Before she and her teammates head to their locker room, before the lights dim and a disco ball appears at centre court along with a dog mascot named Maddie who wears a plush version of Lady Liberty’s crown, Nurse signs a little girl’s mini basketball. She moves another kid’s ponytail aside so she can autograph the back of her t-shirt. She chats with an older man wearing her No. 5 Liberty jersey. She even kisses a baby. (Her teammate’s.)

Nurse seems so at home you’d never guess the 22-year-old from Hamilton, Ont., is in the midst of her rookie season. On this Sunday afternoon in July, she’ll drain the final bucket against Chicago in a 107-84 New York win, a rare occurrence for a team that would go on to lose its next 10 straight and fail to crack the post-season, which starts this week. But despite the dismal record for this original WNBA franchise, it’s been a valuable season for the lone Canadian on the roster.

“You saw the speed and athleticism and toughness, and you knew she had a lot of intangibles, too. That combination, it’s very, very rare to find.”

Nurse has already proven to be just what Basketball Canada needs, the face and young star of the team that’s now a genuine contender at every major international tournament, ranked fifth in the world. Along the waterfront in downtown Toronto, you can even see Nurse’s face — fired up, yelling, wearing her Canada jersey — plastered to the side of a building and flanking a court that her sponsor, Nike, recently spiffed up. And while she’ll be the first to admit she’s still finding her footing among the biggest and best in the WNBA, that didn’t stop Nurse from becoming an immediate fan favourite, or from setting a couple franchise records.

Nurse is just the 16th Canadian to crack the WNBA in the league’s 22-year history, and while she’s hardly the only star to emerge with this country’s national team program, none have been as bright. That’s in part because her timing has been perfect. The WNBA was founded the same year Nurse was born, for one, in 1996. The 2015 Pan-American Games were held just a couple hours east of where she grew up, meaning Canada’s historic win came on home soil. Add incredible skill and a dynamic personality, and Nurse is just the type of player needed to sell women’s basketball, and the world-class product that is the WNBA. And with her rookie season behind her, she’s going to try to bring home some world championship hardware next month — and then she’s taking her talents to Australia.

Nurse doesn't shy away from contact and always finds her way to the centre of the action — to the degree that teammates expect any whistle to involve the rookie in some way.

The gifted athletic Nurse lineage is well known and documented. A quick revisit: There’s a cousin who plays for the national women’s hockey team, a brother in the NHL, a dad who played in the CFL, a mom who played university basketball, a sister who played collegiate basketball, a basketball-playing aunt who was Syracuse’s athlete of the year in 1997, a former NFL quarterback uncle (though that last one’s by marriage).

So, it’s a surprise that as a youngster, Nurse liked to stay indoors at recess and help clean up. Her earliest career ambitions had nothing to do with sport. “I wanted to become a teacher,” she says, black hair piled atop her head, chicken parmesan in a container in her hand. She’s dressed head-to-toe in black Nike gear after a two-hour practice at MSG Training Facility, and now it’s lunchtime. “I think it’s because the teachers always gave me candies, so I really liked them,” she adds, taking a bite of chicken.

Nurse’s meals are generally healthy, but to this day she loves sugar — just ask the folks at the Cold Stone Creamery that’s walking distance from her apartment in White Plains (they know her by name), or her older brother, Darnell, who forced her to watch a documentary on healthy eating that resulted in zero lifestyle changes. Canadian Cheetos, Tim Horton’s chocolate dipped doughnuts and ketchup chips remain favourites, and Nurse has had her fair share of cavities, though she blames her dad, Richard, for that. “It’s hereditary,” she says. A little like that aptitude for sport.

Nurse has been told she gets her aggressive on-court nature from her mom, Cathy, who played at McMaster, but she never saw her mom in action, and has only heard stories about hard screens. It’s her sister, Tamika, who’s nine years older (and suggested, just before Nurse was born, “Let’s name the baby ‘Ikea’”) that she looked up to as a kid. Says Nurse: “She was the Michael Jordan of my world.”

Nurse was four when she started playing basketball because Tamika did, though she also played soccer and ran track and did just about every other sport you can imagine, too. “I was a better skater than my brother,” she says. “But once they introduced the puck and stick — forget it. I was out.”

Nurse, who’s now six feet tall, doesn’t recall a specific growth spurt because she was forever the tall kid who was always growing. She was part of a powerhouse Hamilton Transway club team that won seven straight provincial championships, but it wasn’t until Grade 7 that Nurse heard much about the WNBA, saw a collegiate game on TV, and thought about her own future in basketball. Her family was travelling in the U.S. and she saw Maya Moore starring on ESPN for the University of Connecticut. “That’s when I thought maybe I could do this,’” she says. “Maybe.”

“She could guard the best players in the country as a college freshman.”

By the time she was 14, Nurse was very much on the radar of national team coach, Lisa Thomaidis. “You saw the speed and athleticism and toughness, and you knew she had a lot of intangibles along with the athletic ability. That combination, it’s very, very rare to find,” says the coach, who also played alongside Nurse’s mom in university. “She sent a message loud and clear that she was going to be prominent on our national team for years to come.”

Still, nobody expected it would happen so fast.

The Canadian team had recently returned from the 2012 Olympics, where they’d been clobbered by the U.S., 91-48, in the quarterfinal. That’s when Nurse, then in Grade 11, got her first invite to a senior team training camp, because it was in her hometown of Hamilton. It was just a good chance for her to get an early taste of the top level. Well, that was the thought. “After the first day or so of that training camp, we realized, ‘Oh, this is where she belongs already,'” Thomaidis says.

Nurse, meanwhile, wasn’t so sure. At the week’s end, the coaching staff asked her to come to China for a tournament. Nurse remembers just staring at Thomaidis like a deer in the headlights, then taking time to talk it over with family. “School was still going on, and I was like, ‘These are grown women. They talk about taxes, marriage. I don’t even know what’s happening over here, mom!’” she says now, laughing.

Safe to say Nurse achieved her childhood goal of playing in March Madness, she and her Huskies teammates won a pair of national titles.

But Nurse went, and in China it occurred to her for the first time: She could be at the Olympic Games in four years, at 20. “It hadn’t crossed my mind before that,” she says. Her only goal in basketball to that point was to play in college, like Tamika had, and to make it to the National Championship tournament, “even if it was just for one game,” she says. “Just to say I played in March Madness.”

She was 17 when the best college basketball program in the world found her. Nurse was in Washington to play a tournament with Transway Hamilton, and that’s where a few big college programs realized she was unsigned. “They called late — they didn’t know how old I was,” she says. Nurse had already narrowed her list of schools down to a top five, but she went on a visit to Connecticut and tossed that old list. She was sold. “I was also really nervous,” she explains. “But I knew if I went to Penn State or Indiana, one of those other schools, I’m going to be really angry when I watch UConn win championships. I thought it was a risk to go to UConn, because I figured I’m going to sit on the bench for two years behind some really good players, and try to learn as much as I can from them and see what happens.”

Instead, Nurse started as a rookie. “She could guard the best players in the country at the time — and right away, which is really special as a freshman,” says Kiah Stokes, who was then a senior on the team. “Seeing her work ethic was crazy; every possession she wanted to get that stop, get that steal, pressure the ball. I thought that was incredible as a freshman, coming in, wanting to take that responsibility. You just don’t see that.”

In her sophomore year in 2015, Nurse won her first of two NCAA championships with the Huskies. That summer, she became a household name in this country. In front of a capacity crowd in Toronto at the Pan-Am Games, Nurse turned in the performance of her life against the powerhouse Americans, putting up 33 points to lead Canada to gold. “I have no idea what happened, to be honest,” Nurse says of that night. “I remember not thinking, which is usually when I play my best. I just remember using the energy from the crowd to make something happen.”

Thomaidis had never seen anything like it from Nurse. “She took over the game at both ends of the floor,” the Canadian coach says. “That was the game where a star was born. I think all of Canada, if they hadn’t known Kia before that night, they certainly got to know her after.”

“I remember not thinking, which is usually when I play my best. I just remember using the energy from the crowd to make something happen.”

The spotlight kept returning to Nurse, too. A couple weeks later, the team secured an Olympic berth at a qualifier. In the next three years, Nurse would go on to win another NCAA championship, represent Canada at the Olympics and figure big in a win over Serbia, win the NCAA’s Div. 1 defensive player of the year as a senior, and get selected 10th overall in the 2018 WNBA draft.

“Everybody had always talked about the men’s team, ‘Let’s talk about Andrew Wiggins, there’s Jamal Murray, Rowan Barrett, they’re all coming up, they’re going to be great’— which is understandable, absolutely,” Nurse says. “But no one ever talked about Canadian players coming up on the women’s side. Once Pan-Ams happened, everybody started noticing, ‘Hey, there’s some really good women coming up and this team has been performing really well on the world stage.’ People finally actually looked at us like we were serious, and that we were actually good at what we were doing.”

Nurse pauses.

“Thankfully,” she says. “It’s about time.”

One of the biggest challenges Nurse faced in her rookie WNBA season was dealing with the downtime. When Netflix or a good book couldn't fully beat the boredom, she'd go for a walk.

Nurse’s arms are going, her feet are shuffling and she’s bumping up against Shavonte Zellous. Every time the veteran guard moves, Nurse moves with her, gets in her way. It’s two days before the Liberty play Chicago, and they’re in the midst of a five-on-five half-court drill near the end of practice.

Zellous has two words to describe what it’s like to be defended by her rookie teammate, as she often is in scrimmages: “Annoying. Aggravating.” The 31-year-old American adds: “Which means she’s somebody you really want on your team. When she gets in a game, if a whistle is blown we’re always like, ‘Well, who was involved in it?’ Kia Nurse. Always.”

Watch Nurse on defence and you’ll see what her national team coach means when she calls her “disruptive,” what Stokes means when she calls her “a gnat.” That’s where Nurse wants to make her biggest impact. “I think some people just forget to play defence now, because people only talk about stat lines and offence,” she says. “But defence is something I’m really proud of.”

“She doesn’t want to settle where she is today. She wants to be really great.”

In her rookie WNBA campaign, Nurse was used to try to shut down some of the league’s top players, like 14-year veteran Diana Taurasi of Phoenix. When the Liberty drafted Nurse, head coach Katie Smith knew they were getting a player who’d earned a reputation as the best on-ball defender at the college level. “But I think only once you get her here day-to-day and see what she can do, you realize just how good of a defender she is,” Smith says. “She’s an excellent athlete who can run all day, and her competitive mindset and spirit is something you see every single day. She brings it and you love it, ‘cause good stuff happens.”

Near the end of this practice, Nurse and Zellous race, while most of their teammates jog from one end of the court to the other. Zellous leaves the line early, Nurse catches her at about half court, and then crashes into the blue padding on the practice facility wall, with her index finger in the air. “First,” she says, grinning and gasping for air.

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As her teammates hit the showers, Nurse stays on the court, working with assistant coach Herb Williams on her three-point shot. The offensive part of her game has improved dramatically since her early college days, but she’s still adapting to the breakneck speed and physical play in the WNBA, where space and time are limited. She’s still learning to hold onto the ball under pressure and turn possessions into points. “She realizes she hasn’t earned a stripe yet in this league and she’s making sure that she does that,” says former Liberty star turned team director, Teresa Weatherspoon, as Nurse launches threes behind her. “Her basketball IQ is very high, and she’s a worker. She doesn’t want to settle where she is today. She wants to be really great.”

There’s no question in Weatherspoon’s mind that Nurse will be. “This kid is so aggressive and so tough and she wants to win in everything. You see us running a line drill, she wants to win. She’s not one of those kids that you have to say, ‘Come on.’ She’s one of those kids you have to say, ‘Ok, ok,’” Weatherspoon adds, putting her hands out in front of her, as though to say, simmer down.

Nurse figures she’s a good five years away from reaching her full potential in the WNBA. More than halfway through her rookie season, she describes her play as “OK” overall. “I’m not angry about it; I’m not ecstatic about it,” she says.

“New York is all about effort and hard work, and so is Kia Nurse. Because of that, her name will always resonate.”

In just her fourth game in the league, Nurse broke a franchise record for most points by a rookie, and most points off the bench, with 34. Near the year’s end, through 32 of 34 regular-season games, her 8.7 points per rank second on the Liberty, behind only star Tina Charles, and seventh among rookies league-wide. Still, she says, “I have a lot to learn.”

Part of the early learning curve had nothing to do with basketball, though. It was figuring out what to do with all that downtime, a common struggle for WNBA rookies. Nurse devours Netflix and books on her iPad, including a recent Ruth Ware thriller and a practical guide to mindfulness. “I try to walk when I’m bored,” she adds, spinning in a swivel chair in the practice facility’s media room. “I almost bought a dog one day.” She decided against it, though, because the flight to Australia is going to be too long for a puppy.

The reason she’s headed to the other side of the globe is to play for the University of Canberra Capitals in the WNBL. And the reason she’s doing that is because the highest-paid player in the WNBA makes a little north of $100,000, and the lowest-paid comes in a little south of $40,000 plus accommodation, a car (if they want one) and a couple meals a day. More than 90 per cent of the league plays overseas starting from October or November, because that’s where the big money is. But that also means little to no time for rest: If you win, say, the Turkish league, you’ll miss a couple games to start the next WNBA season.

New York selected Nurse with the 10th pick in the 2018 WNBA Draft. She's just the 16th Canadian to crack a roster in the league's 22-year history.

Like many of the league’s 144 players, Nurse doesn’t want to discuss her WNBA salary. As for her first season overseas, she’s not talking numbers there either, but she left some money on the table. Nurse picked Australia for a few reasons that outweigh cold, hard cash and even her fear of sharks and spiders: It’s a shorter season, she speaks the language and she knows she’ll like the food. “Generally speaking, [if] you go somewhere where your lifestyle’s going to be pretty good, you’re not going to make as much money,” she explains. “My happiness was put over money on this one. It will not be for the rest of my life, but this year, it is.”

Nurse’s goal in the short-term, before her second year with the Liberty, is to help Canada to a podium finish at the world championships in Spain in late September. She says a medal is a realistic goal for the team. “Whatever colour it is, we’ll deal with that,” she adds, “and then, move quickly to gold.” Then she’ll head to Australia and get a feel for what it’s like to play in a pro league overseas.

That all works toward her long-term goal, which is to grow women’s basketball both at home and abroad. “I know there’s a spotlight on me now, and what I post on my social media, what I’m doing in my daily life, which means I can’t get in trouble,” Nurse says, grinning. “I understand that, and I think if I can help one girl decide she wants to play basketball and learn the life skills that I’ve learned from it, I feel like my job is done.”

Playing in New York will only help the cause. It can take rookies some time to find themselves, to make an impact, to make a name, but Nurse stepped right in, and not just because she’s a star at home in Canada and a graduate of the famed UConn program. “New York is all about effort and hard work, and so is Kia Nurse,” says Weatherspoon, who led the Liberty to three finals in her playing days. “Because of that, her name will always resonate.”

“It’s the way she plays,” adds coach Smith. “She shows her emotion. When she hits a shot while she’s tangled up with somebody, she’s not stone-cold. She gets hyped, and I think the fans feed off of that. She has an impressive personality.”

On this Sunday afternoon, after Nurse drains the final bucket of the game just before the buzzer, she celebrates with her teammates at centre court. Later, in the locker room, she explains that last play with the clock winding down, her quick move past one defender and around another as she drove to the hoop.

“I just had to make something happen,” she says.

When it comes to Kia Nurse, it seems you can count on that.

Photo Credits

Design by Drew Lesiuczok.
Steve Freeman/NBAE/Getty Images; Ron Hoskins/NBAE/Getty Images; Chris Szagola/AP Photo; Tim Heitman/NBAE/Getty Images; Julie Jacobson/AP Photo.