The long, strange journey of a Raptors’ assistant

Nurse's path to the NBA took him overseas and through the NBA D-League, including a stint with the Rio Grande Vally Vipers. (Photo: Otto Kitsinger/NBAE via Getty)

On a typically cold Saturday afternoon earlier this month, the Toronto Raptors gathered for practice at the Air Canada Centre. The evening before, the Raptors had defeated the Los Angeles Clippers at home, ending a two-game losing streak. Now, just hours later, they were back on the court, continuing the grind of the regular season by preparing for their next matchup, a home date against the defending champion San Antonio Spurs.

On one end of the court, second-unit players engaged in a spirited scrimmage. By the practice court entrance, head coach Dwane Casey was speaking to members of the local media, presumably listing reasons why Jonas Valanciunas did or didn’t play in the fourth quarter the night before. Meanwhile, tucked away on another court, Patrick Patterson put up shot after shot from beyond the arc under the watchful eye of assistant coach Nick Nurse.

Nurse is in his second season with the Raptors, and like many coaches in his role across the league, he fulfills his duties in relative anonymity. Everyone is familiar with the players, the head coach and—in Toronto’s case—the general manager, but assistants are also crucial to a team’s success, especially in making sure their team is prepared for its next opponent. Their path to the NBA isn’t as celebrated as the players, who are written about extensively from a very early age, but making it to basketball’s biggest stage requires the same blend of hard work and dedication. Nurse’s story is a great example.

The Des Moines Register’s 1985 Male Athlete of the Year in high school, Nurse—a native of Carroll, Iowa—went on to a standout college career as the point guard at Northern Iowa, where he set a handful of school records for three-point shooting (chief among them his career percentage of 46.8). An NBA career wasn’t a realistic goal, and by the time Nurse had earned his B.A. in accounting, he knew he wanted to coach.

After serving as a student assistant coach at Northern Iowa, Nurse—still in his early 20s—received an offer from the Derby Storm of the British Basketball League asking him to be a player-coach. He accepted the job, turning down a more lucrative offer from Germany (where he would only be a player), and was on a plane overseas several days later.

Nurse’s age, and limited coaching experience, made the change overwhelming. Once he accepted the job, he needed to get himself somewhat ready to be both the team’s starting point guard and head coach. “I remembered calling my high school and college coaches right away,” Nurse says. “I also went and got a whole bunch of videos and books and just started making practice plans.”

Compounding the difficulty of the adjustment was the fact that Nurse was giving out orders to players who were more than 10 years older than him. “It was totally awkward,” he recalls. “The one good thing is because I was the point guard, I could control things [on the floor].”

Eventually, Nurse found his groove, though he admits it took a long time before he felt truly comfortable as a head coach. Altogether, he spent nine seasons in the BBL, coaching four different teams. His career coaching record overseas—which also included some time in Belgium—was 276-103, a .728 winning percentage. He was named BBL Coach of the Year twice and won two BBL championships.

In 2007, the NBA Development League (still in its early stages) awarded an expansion franchise to Des Moines. Given a chance to coach closer to home while simultaneously taking a step closer to the NBA, Nurse accepted an offer to coach the Iowa Energy.

Having coached at many different levels, Nurse says now that the D-League is the most challenging. The main reason is the unprecedented roster turnover that happens during the course of a season, as players are shuffled out of the league via NBA call ups, or decisions to take overseas offers or retire from the game entirely. “The nice way of putting it is that it’s a transitionary league,” Nurse explains. “It’s unbelievable training for rebuilding chemistry during a season. [In any other league], a coach will get a team, and once the chemistry is right, it stays that way. In the D-League, you’re rebuilding that 10 to 15 times within a single season.”

Nurse wasn’t just learning on the court and the sidelines. The D-League allows players to participate in continuing education courses through its player development program. Nurse became the first coach to take advantage of that opportunity. During his time in Iowa, he enrolled in online courses on Interpersonal Communication and Conflict Management offered by Michigan State University, which he said helped him improve his communication skills with both players and referees.

By the summer of 2013, Nurse had accomplished all that he could as a coach outside of the NBA. In his six seasons in the D-League—with the Energy and, later, the Rio Grande Valley Vipers—Nurse finished with a 192-123 record (.610) and became the first head coach in D-League history to lead two different teams to the championship. He’d also worked as an assistant for the British National Team and at NBA Summer League. He finally received the call from the NBA in July 2013, when the Raptors hired him to join Casey’s coaching staff for the 2013-14 season.

In addition to being anonymous, the life of an NBA assistant coach is not very glamorous. Nurse’s daily routine includes many hours in the film room. On this February morning, before practice commenced around 11 a.m., Nurse woke up and immediately set to work editing film from the Clippers game. By the time the coaching staff gathered minutes prior to practice, Nurse had edited a series of clips from the game into a mini-movie that he then presented to the players before they took the court for practice.

“It’s pretty draining, the amount of games I watch on a daily basis,” Nurse admits. “It’s pretty much non-stop. I always tell people it’s like being in college and you’re studying for a final exam. You can keep studying forever but at some point you have to cut it off. At some point you have to say, ‘I’ve watched enough.’”

On any given day, Nurse watches between five and 10 games. He studies his own team, the opponents they’ve just played and those that are coming up on the schedule.

When practice finishes, Nurse will head back to the film room to get ready for San Antonio. Because the two teams haven’t played each other this season, he’ll watch the Spurs’ most recent games and prepare notes. Before the game tomorrow, he’ll put together yet more clips for the players to review as part of their pre-game preparation.

Even the break in between seasons is relatively short and demanding for an NBA assistant. After last year’s game seven loss to the Brooklyn Nets, Nurse took a few weeks off before getting right back to the film room to start putting together player development plans.

“When it gets done,” Nurse says, “you just want to get out of the film room and get off your computer for awhile.”

During his downtime, Nurse likes to play the piano. When he has a free night, he looks for live music spots, preferably jazz and blues. The film room is never far away, though, even when the film in question has nothing to do with the game of basketball. Nurse is a huge movie buff. Last September, before the start of the season, Nurse returned to Toronto early to attend the Toronto International Film Festival. He caught three or four movies in a day, roughly on par with the amount of time he’d normally spend watching game film. A creature of habit, it seems.

Given Nurse’s track record, it might not be surprising the Raptors are on their way to a second consecutive winning season since hiring him as an assistant coach. After more than two decades on the bench, it might be tempting for Nurse to think about the next step in his career: an NBA head coaching job. But he’s not thinking about it. At least not yet.

“I just want to keep getting better,” Nurse says. “People used to ask me—when I was winning in the D-League—why I wasn’t in the NBA, and I’d tell them, ‘I just want to learn and get better.’ I figured it’d happen one day, and if it didn’t, I really enjoyed my time coaching anyways.”

Even Nurse admits that he’s had a crazy path to the NBA. “It’s been a wild journey,” he says. “But it’s been cool. I love it.”

As the players headed off the practice court with a chance to spend the rest of the day away from basketball, it was back to the film room for Nurse.

Hearing him tell it, he wouldn’t have it any other way.

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