By Evan Rosser in Toronto
By Evan Rosser in Toronto
Toronto Raptors head coach and offensive mastermind Nick Nurse has won at every stage of his career. Now he just needs to do it on the biggest one of them all.

Nick Nurse was on the I-235, cutting across the top of downtown Des Moines, Iowa, when he properly noticed “The Well” for the first time. It was 2006, and he was 39 and back in his home state after wrapping up his 11th season as a head coach in the British Basketball League. “I was trying to get back to the U.S.,” he says now, sitting behind the desk in his office at the Toronto Raptors practice facility. “It felt like it was time to do it. And I was trying to get jobs in the D-League.”

Since he’d landed in Iowa, Nurse had reached out to several team owners and even the league office to put himself forward for any position that could help him get a toehold in the NBA. He’d been shut out across the board. “I couldn’t get an assistant job in the D-League,” he says. “But I knew it was my entry point. I knew it was, right?”

Nurse pulled off the interstate at the next exit and looped around to where he’d seen the building. Wells Fargo Arena, a 16,000-seat facility he would eventually come to know intimately, had been completed the previous July. Nurse pulled into the parking lot and started making calls from his car. He got through to the arena’s general manager, who told him the building’s only permanent resident was a minor-league hockey team and, well, they’d love to host some basketball. Nurse took that bit of momentum and threw it into his next few calls.

He started with the NBA head office, where he was told to try the D-League office, where he was eventually put through to the league’s president, Phil Evans, who heard his pitch and agreed that Des Moines was the perfect place for an expansion franchise. Evans was on board, but Nurse still didn’t have a team lined up. “OK, they want to do it and they want to do it,” he thought to himself when the last call wrapped. “Now what am I supposed to do?”

It was a friend and fellow coach named Orv Salmon who suggested Nurse reach out to Jerry Crawford. An Iowa lawyer and Democratic Party lobbyist, Crawford ducked Nurse initially, trying to pawn him off on other members of his firm. “I said, ‘It’s gotta be Jerry and I can’t tell anyone else what it is,’” Nurse remembers. “[Crawford] finally got on the phone and his direct quote was, ‘Not another f—ing minor-league basketball team.’ But he said, ‘Come on down.’” A year later, the Crawford-owned Iowa Energy took the floor at The Well for their inaugural season with Nurse at the head of the bench.

With his promotion to head coach of the Toronto Raptors in the summer of 2018, Nick Nurse was handed the keys to a very good team. And between that announcement and the start of the season, the organization added Kawhi Leonard, a superstar with the potential to rank among the best three to five players in the NBA. As a result, Nurse was expected to deliver a genuine title contender in his first year at the helm, something that had been asked of only two other men in recent memory: Steve Kerr and Tyronn Lue.

Both of those coaches were well-known former NBA players when they took charge of the Golden State Warriors and Cleveland Cavaliers, respectively. Nurse was neither of those things, and that’s part of the reason he had to hustle so hard to get to this point. In the 29 years since he first signed on as a graduate assistant with the University of Northern Iowa’s men’s squad, Nurse has coached 15 different teams in five different countries; he’s worked on big, well-equipped staffs and shoestring one-man operations; he’s coached college walk-ons, world-travelling journeymen, and the best players in the world; and he’s found a way to win — damn near everywhere.

Nick Nurse is a man who, while hunting for a job, created a D-League team out of a drive down the highway. And now he’s facing a new challenge: Doing the same things he’s always done on the biggest stage in basketball.

Nurse long knew he wanted to be an NBA head coach, and the day finally came in June when the Raptors named him Casey's successor.

Nick Nurse was born in Carroll, Iowa, a town of 10,000 a couple hours’ drive west of Des Moines. His mom, Marcella, was a teacher. His dad, Maury, who passed in 2015, worked for the U.S. Postal Service and was heavily involved in the local sports scene, coaching basketball and volunteering as president of the Little League program for many years. The couple had nine kids: three girls and six boys. Nick — who came along in 1967, 14 years after his eldest sibling, Jim — was “the little caboose,” as Randy Newman would say.

Nurse wasn’t gifted with otherworldly athleticism, but he was a natural at most sports he tried who, his brother Steve says, “could throw a ball with almost perfect mechanics from the moment he could walk.” He happily played whatever was in season, and didn’t shy away from slightly more unusual offerings. There was a homemade pole-vault pit in the family backyard on Elm St., and between trips to the rec-centre basketball courts or the ball diamond, he and Steve would risk concussion and fracture in head-to-head competition. “We had a pole that one of our older brothers had broken [in training or at a meet], so it was about eight-feet tall. We’d go out there and pretend like we were actual pole vaulters,” Steve says. “We just had whatever we could find to land into — pads off the couch if Mom didn’t see us take ’em out there. Probably wasn’t the safest thing in the world.”

By his senior year at Kuemper Catholic High School, Nurse was a state qualifier in pole vault, as well as the quarterback of the football team and a starting pitcher on the baseball team. He was also the starting point guard on the Kuemper Knights basketball team that won the 1985 class 3A state championship. He says now that football was probably his best sport, but he knew he was too small to withstand the beating he’d take under centre at the next level. Instead, Nurse committed to play baseball at Northern Iowa, intending to walk on to the basketball team. And that’s the path that was laid out in front of him on the night Ed Conroy cracked a rib.

Iowa, in Nurse’s day, put together an annual showcase of top high-school basketball players called the Dr. Pepper All-Star Game. The event divided the state in half, north versus south, and pitted teams from each class against one another. Conroy was the first-team, all-state guard. “He was starting and I was his backup. And in practice the night before Game 1, he cracked his rib,” Nurse says. “He went out, couldn’t play. I became the starter and had 27 points or something — more than I normally would.”

The whole all-star weekend was being held on Northern Iowa’s campus. Within days, Nurse was offered a scholarship to play the point at UNI by head coach Jim Berry. He accepted, waved goodbye to competitive baseball and turned his attention to basketball more fully than he ever had before. To this day he admits his life could have “100 per cent” broken differently if Conroy had suited up that game.

At UNI, Nurse was a sharpshooting guard on a string of fairly bad Panthers teams. After going 8-19 in Nurse’s freshman year, Berry was replaced by Eldon Miller, a veteran college coach who had won the National Invitation Tournament with Ohio State the previous season. “[Nurse] couldn’t run very fast, couldn’t jump at all, but as soon as practice started you could see he wasn’t going to make a lot of mistakes,” says Miller, now 79 and a volunteer assistant on his son Ben’s staff at UNC Pembroke. “He’s a natural leader. Everybody on the team respected him. Everybody knew that he was gonna direct traffic on the floor — it didn’t take but about one day of watching to figure that out.”

Nurse would finish his senior year owning the Panthers’ records for career and single-season three-point percentage — 46.8 and 49.7, respectively — along with a streak of 27 consecutive games with a made three, also a school record. But as that end was coming into view, the finality of it struck him full-force. I got half a season left here and it’s over, he thought to himself. I’m not going to the NBA — it’s over over.

“I’ve been coaching basketball for 48 years, and in all that time I’ve had a few people who’ve excelled in a passionate study of the game and of people. Nick certainly is one of those,” says Miller. “He loves the game. He just has an absolute love for the challenge…. There was no question in my mind, I knew right away he was going to coach.”

Miller offered Nurse a graduate-assistant position for the 1989–90 season. “Nick is a positive force multiplier,” Miller says. “He’s very, very smart, and he’s a very caring person. It will not be about him. It will be about the team. It will be about the people on the team. And it will be about their passion for finding out how good they can be together.”

“I was getting a degree in accounting, and I was going to go off and account,” Nurse says, punctuating the line with a laugh that comes out quick, loud and infectious. “And as it worked out, I haven’t accounted for anything since.”

Nurse was instrumental in the launch of the G-League’s Iowa Energy, connecting the arena, league and eventual owner.

The guy on the other end of the phone had a British accent, but as Nurse tells the story he’s respectful enough not to try one on himself. It was 1990, and the call was from an executive with the BBL’s Derby Storm. “Hey, I’m reading your letter here,” Nurse remembers the Brit saying, “and it says ‘Dear Mr. Whatever, I am interested in playing and/or coaching overseas.’ How ’bout both?”

Nurse had just finished his first season as Miller’s assistant, one that had seen Northern Iowa upset No. 3–seed Missouri in the first round of the NCAA tournament. Despite that success, he was set on playing again and had worked himself back into competitive shape for a Brazilian pro team only to have the deal fall through. He’d garnered some other interest, including from a Japanese company looking for an accountant who also played basketball, but if Mr. Whatever was saying what it seemed like he was saying, Derby’s offer was undeniably appealing.

“What do you mean?” Nurse asked.

“Well, we want you to come be our head coach and play.”

Nurse agreed on the spot and was told to get on a plane to England that weekend. “And then you hang up the phone and you’re like, ‘Holy shit, I gotta do this job now!’” he says.

If taking the reins in Toronto after five years as an assistant with the club seems like an intimidating transition, imagine what it felt like for the 23-year-old Nurse to prepare for his first season as a professional player and his first as a head coach, simultaneously. For help, he reached out to the men who’d laid the foundations of his basketball education. Wayne Chandlee, Nurse’s coach at Kuemper, shared diagrams and practice plans he’d kept since the ’70s. “This was, like, stuff written down on notebook paper that he sent me,” Nurse says. “I’ve still got it somewhere.”

The generosity of older coaches gave him a base to work from, but the league Nurse was entering presented challenges he could only solve on his own. “You didn’t have a big staff. It was almost like a high-school coach; it was you plus maybe a part-time guy or one full-time guy, if you were lucky. So you really had to do everything,” says Chris Finch, an assistant with the New Orleans Pelicans who helmed the BBL’s Sheffield Sharks from 1997 to 2003, where he went head-to-head against Nurse. “And not only did you have to do everything, you had to prioritize what was important to you, your system and what you felt was most relevant to players.”

The lack of auxiliary personnel forced coaches to pull double and triple duty as GM and scouting staff. Unable to throw money at established European pros, recruiting required sifting through college talent for guys with the skill and disposition to succeed playing and living overseas. And the sheer volume of competitions — two league cups, a regular-season title and separate playoff tournament — meant “there were all kinds of things you were always playing for,” Finch explains. “You were always having to reinvent and refocus your team.”

“Nick, he coached wherever he had to coach. He just laid it on the line, and that naturally takes you from one step to the next.”

Nurse would ultimately coach five clubs across 11 seasons in the BBL — only leaving for brief stretches with Grand View College, the University of South Dakota and a pro team based in Ostend, Belgium — and he thrived in the do-it-your-own-damn-self environment Finch describes. “I think we went 45-7 on the season,” says Phil Handy, a current Raptors assistant who played for Nurse on the ’99–00 Manchester Giants. “We won a championship there.”

Nurse was named Coach of the Year that season, and would earn the award again with the Brighton Bears in ’03–04, but he’d already started to work towards a return to North America. “I kept getting what I thought were steps up, or experiences up, and higher levels,” Nurse says of his life in England. “But there was a time there when I was thinking, ‘OK, how am I gonna get back? Because no matter how much I’m winning here, it seems like nobody’s really noticing.’”

He started making off-season trips to the Long Beach Summer Pro League, a precursor to the Vegas Summer League, showing up an hour before games tipped off and trying to make himself useful, building relationships with stats guys and trainers and assistants. He hit all the big events in Europe as well, travelling for the EuroLeague Final Four and coaching a team at a free-agent summer league in Treviso, Italy. “Nick, he coached wherever he had to coach,” Handy says. “He just laid it on the line, and that naturally takes you from one step to the next.”

“He’s very locked-in in the moment, but he also knows where he wants to be big picture,” says Nurse’s nephew, David, a skills and life coach who works with a number of NBA players. “He knew big picture he was going to be an NBA head coach. He’d tell people that.

“Even if people wouldn’t believe in him, he never lost any belief in himself.”

This time Nurse was expecting the call. It was June 2018 and he was in his condo in Toronto’s Liberty Village. Team president Masai Ujiri and general manager Bobby Webster had him on speakerphone and, as Nurse remembers it, they didn’t waste any breath getting to the point: “They said, ‘Hey, we’re talking to the new head coach of the Raptors,’” he recalls. “I called my wife and told her, and I didn’t tell anybody else. I got to the office 15 minutes later — probably rode my bike over — and I had 259 text messages.”

The search for outgoing coach Dwane Casey’s replacement had taken the better part of a month and reportedly involved at least seven serious candidates. Nurse’s name was in the mix right from the beginning, but both publicly and privately he’s said he wasn’t bothered by the wait; he had the patience of a man who knew his time was gonna come sooner or later. “I don’t really know how to tell you this, right, but in the last five years, I had 1,000 people, at least, tell me I was going to be a head coach in this league,” he says, pausing for a beat before delivering the punchline. “And then those same thousand people were surprised when I got the job.”

It took Nurse 11 years to go from a near-completely unknown rookie head coach in the NBA D-League to a relatively unknown rookie head coach in the NBA proper, and judging by the amount he accomplished in that time, he didn’t take a whole lot of days off. In four seasons with the Iowa Energy (2007–11) and another two with the Rio Grande Valley Vipers, he racked up the second-most regular-season wins in league history (183) and the most playoff victories (15), took home the Dennis Johnson Coach of the Year Award in 2011, and became the first and only person to lead two different teams to the D-League title. When all of that success earned him his first NBA job with the Raptors in 2013, he lived in the film room and on the practice courts for years and eventually led an overhaul of the team’s attack that saw Toronto rank second in the NBA in the 2017–18 season by offensive rating, behind only the Houston Rockets.

The effectiveness of the Raptors offence under Nurse didn’t surprise Curtis Stinson, who played for the coach all four seasons in Iowa and was named D-League MVP in 2011. “I’ve been in game situations with him where we were down five points with like 15 seconds left and won the game. Because he’s calm, and he knows he’s got his timeouts, he knows he can draw up a play and he can get us a quick shot,” Stinson says. “It’s the best feeling in the world ’cuz you don’t feel rattled, you know? You’re like, ‘Ah, man, we’re gonna lose.’ And then he draws up a play and you’re like, ‘Whoa!’

“After a while it got to the point where it was like — ‘Timeout! Timeout!’ We’re running to the huddle: ‘What we got coach?’ You know what I mean? He earned our respect.”

Connecting with players is a constant challenge for G-League coaches (the NBA changed the name of its developmental league in 2017). Many G-Leaguers, as Chris Finch points out, are “at the most vulnerable point in their career,” and the roster shuffling as guys are called up to and sent down from NBA clubs leads to both a lack of consistency in terms of who’s in the locker room and a regular source of potential conflict within it. Twenty-seven players saw the court for Nurse’s first Iowa Energy team — nearly double an average NBA roster. Over the course of his six-year stint in the league, his teams averaged 23 players per season.

As Stinson describes, Nurse was able to win trust and respect with his basketball knowledge alone, but he had other traits his players appreciated as well. “He was always honest — that’s a great quality in a coach. He was hard on you when he needed to be, but at the end of the day you knew he always had your back,” says Adam Haluska, a fellow Carroll native who played for the Energy at the tail end of their inaugural season. “He wanted to win. He wanted to see us succeed, not only as a team, but he wanted to see everybody get that next contract or opportunity. These are the kind of things that I always thought shined with him.”

Jeff Horner, who logged almost 40 minutes a night as a guard on that same Energy team and is now head coach at Truman State University, agrees. “He’s a guy who is very genuine; a great guy who loves the game of basketball,” Horner says. “But he’s also fiery and he wants to win and he’s a confident guy. He’s going to give it his all — night in and night out — and he’s going to do whatever it takes to win. And if things aren’t going great, he’s going to do whatever it takes to change it, too.”

The buy-in Nurse has been able to get out of players is more impressive when you consider how often he’s pushed them to play outside their comfort zones. It’s a lot harder to appreciate a guy for being genuine when he’s asking you to change the style of play that’s taken you to the cusp of the NBA, or all the way onto a big-league roster. In addition to coaching against Nurse in the BBL, Finch preceded him as head coach in Rio Grande Valley, the developmental affiliate of the Houston Rockets. “When I was hired, [GM Daryl Morey’s front office] wanted me to come up with an offensive philosophy that reflected where they felt the game was going, which was position-less players, efficient shot selection, player development, and these types of things,” he explains.

Finch says that Nurse was asked to put his own stamp on that free-flowing, three-point-heavy offence when he took over in 2011, while also developing a defensive system to match, and offers a sense of the marching orders: “Let’s look at some efficient defensive systems that limit the high-value shots. Let’s look at some interesting schemes, like does zone really work? Can you press? How do you communicate defensive changes? What about contesting shots, running people off the line — lots of things.”

For a certain kind of coach, the situation in Rio Grande Valley was a dream — a laboratory for a particular brand of mad scientist. The Rockets’ front office didn’t micromanage, so Nurse was free to experiment. Just one example: Steve Nash used to mime an imaginary free throw at the line before taking a real one, so Nurse tested whether it helped by having every player on his team take 150 imaginary free throws a day over a four-week period.

According to Nurse, keeping players on board with the experimentation took a blend of transparency and energy: “You had to sell some of it enthusiastically, and maybe with a little bit of a smile on your face because, I mean, I don’t know if it’s going to work either, right? But we’re going to do it for a while and see what happens,” he says. “And I used to tell them all the time, if it doesn’t [work], we’re just going to crumple it up and throw it away. But, man, what if we do find something that really works and helps your game? What if we scratch something that nobody else has tried and all of a sudden we got a little, I don’t know,” he wraps his knuckles on his desktop twice as if to summon the right words, “a little something goin’ here, right?”

Nurse spent five seasons as Casey’s assistant before being named Raptors head coach.

The changes Nurse wanted to make to the Raptors’ offence ahead of the 2017–18 season didn’t come flying in out of left field with the imaginary free throws, but he was still asking established pros to alter the way they played. “He came at it from a logical standpoint,” says Fred VanVleet, a guard in his third season with the team. “He brought the evidence and the numbers, and as a player you gotta respect that.

“And as a young player, you don’t have a choice,” VanVleet adds laughing.

Many consider this the most talented roster ever assembled in Toronto — and all that talent brings with it intense pressure to win, particularly in the playoffs. But like most things in basketball, Nurse has seen some version of this before. “When you’re sitting in the head seat, yeah it probably feels more pressure-packed in the NBA than other places,” says Finch, “but if you lose three in a row in Europe and they fire your ass, that’s a lot of pressure, too.”

Despite the reputation he now has as a cutting-edge, outside-the-box thinker, Nurse knows the NBA “is not an experimental playground,” and warns not to “tune in and think there are going to be 17 different defences played.” He knows “winning the games is serious business” and won’t risk the team’s success searching for insights or chasing hunches.

But the road that got him to this office at the Toronto Raptors Training Centre reinforced again and again that you can’t achieve anything big if you aren’t willing to embrace change. “Man, you’ve gotta be able to handle it. I think that’s part of the problem — not here [in Toronto], but in general. Why are people afraid to try something different? Because of the scrutiny they’re going to receive if it doesn’t work. That stops people from trying things different a lot,” he says. “The game’s evolving quickly, man, and somebody’s gotta be trying some new stuff. It might as well be us.”

This story was originally published in October 2018. It has been lightly edited to reflect the passage of time.

Design by Drew Lesiuczok
Edited by Craig Battle

Photo Credits

Chris Young/CP; Nathan Denette/CP; Tijana Martin/CP; Dick Carlson/NBAE/Getty Images; Mark Blinch/NBAE/Getty Images