Raptors, Canada men’s basketball coach Nick Nurse savours sweet summer

Toronto Raptors head coach Nick Nurse. (Morry Gash/AP)

SHANGHAI — The day after the Toronto Raptors captured their first NBA championship in June, Nick Nurse received a video via text from the Chicago Cubs.

The message was from Gary Pressy, the Cubs’ organist for more than three decades.

"Nick, great job on the great run to the championship, bud. That was super," Pressy said in the video. "Now make sure I see you in the summer here at Wrigley Field. Make sure you bring the hardware and make sure you bring your singing voice because we’d love to have you do the stretch.

"And there’s a song here that fits the moment," Pressy said — then turned in his seat at his organ and proceeded to play "Take Me Out to the Ball Game."

Of the countless pinch-yourself moments during the Raptors’ wild ride, that one hit home for Nurse, a lifelong Cubs fan.

"I just kind of always wondered how I could get myself up (in the box) to do the seventh inning stretch to just sing the song," Nurse laughed. "I never really had any ideas how to get there and now I have one. Winning an NBA title is a pretty good way of doing it."

The 52-year-old coach saved the video on his phone. Sitting in a meeting room of the Canadian team’s posh Shanghai hotel on Monday morning, he played it with a proud smile.

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Nurse has barely had time to pause and soak it all in. There was the sun-drenched and champagne-soaked championship parade. Jamming on stage with Arkells in black jeans and bomber jacket. "Nick Nurse Day" in his home state of Iowa.

Then, days after bringing the Larry O’Brien Trophy north to Toronto, the coach was handed the reins of Canada’s national team. It presented more boxes to tick on his life achievements list. A lifelong Olympics fans, he’d love to be guiding Canada’s team next summer in Tokyo.

He was an assistant on the Great Britain squad at the 2012 London Games. A couple of highlights included meeting the Queen and living among some of the world’s greatest sports stars in the athletes’ village.

"I think from that moment I said ‘I wonder how I could ever be involved again,"’ said Nurse.

These past six weeks with the national team have him confident he can get Canada to Tokyo. He’s already formulating a plan.

"Hundred per cent," said Nurse, dressed in his grey Canada sweatshirt after a team video session. "I feel really good about it. There’s a lot of things, answers that got filled in for me here."

The story in China has been about Canada’s NBA players who didn’t show up. The cliffhanger? Who exactly will suit up when Canada battles for one of the four remaining berths at a second-chance Olympic qualifying tournament next June.

Nurse intends to play a big role in the planning.

"From a logistics or tactical thing, (this trip) has been a really good learning experience for me to figure out where we’re going. I’ve learned a lot about the setup, the team, the structure of FIBA, just everything. I’m ready now," he said. "I see where we need to go and I’m really ready."

Is he confident he can procure a commitment from a player like Jamal Murray?

"I don’t think we’re a million miles away from those (NBA) guys. It’s not like I’m looking up this huge Jamal Murray mountain to climb, and figuring out how I’m going to get there — with a number of guys," Nurse said. "I don’t think it’s going to be as big a mountain to climb as everybody thinks."

Canada played Germany in its final FIBA World Cup game in China on Monday, and when the camera panned the team, Nurse was singing along to "O Canada."

Hours earlier, Nurse wasn’t keen to delve too much into future personnel.

Besides, the players he has here have grown on him.

There’s savvy point guard Kevin Pangos, who arrived in camp on the heels of his FC Barcelona season ending. Canadian team cornerstone and Sacramento Kings guard Cory Joseph hasn’t missed a summer playing for Canada since he was 15. Melvin Ejim is a versatile veteran well-versed in the international game.

"A big chunk of this group has earned their way forward, right? So, I think that there’s not going to be that many spots available next spring," Nurse said.

A half a dozen NBA bodies, he said, would make "a real big difference."


Nurse met Joe Maddon in the summer of 2018 after he was named head coach of the Raptors. Nurse spent some time with the Cubs manager to soak up ideas on leadership.

So the invitation to sing during the seventh-inning stretch was a full-circle moment For Nurse. To rehearse, he sang the song with his son Leo, who’s two-and-a-half. (Son Rocky was born in late May, during the Eastern Conference final).

The Raptors’ team staff was with him for the celebratory moment in Chicago. Nurse carried the Larry O’Brien Trophy onto Wrigley Field, posing for pictures with Maddon. Afterward, Nurse & Co., rented out the top floor of his restaurant Maddon’s Post.

"All my friends and family from Iowa came and all the coaches were there, all the Raptors staff," Nurse said. "(Maddon) hung in there the whole time and took pictures with everyone. It was really cool for my family and friends — because a lot of them are Cubs fans too — to have him there. He’s an icon for Cubs fans. Really, really nice guy."


Nurse has occupied his own starry spotlight since his Raptors captured the championship. It’s the pinnacle of a coaching career that took him to 13 teams over two decades, in numerous different leagues across several different countries.

A year removed from being an assistant on Dwane Casey’s staff, Nurse was arguably Canada’s biggest star in China. He got the loudest applause before every World Cup game.

Nurse, who grew up in Carroll, Iowa, a town of 10,000, doesn’t wear it well. It’s still an uncomfortable fit.

"I’ll tell you one thing that felt a little uncomfortable to me was Winnipeg with this team," Nurse said. "When we went to Winnipeg it felt like all of a sudden I was more of the focus than the team was. I didn’t really like that very much."

He gets recognized everywhere in Toronto. In restaurants. Getting on flights. Someone even spotted him walking down the street in Australia.

"That’s the biggest lifestyle difference, I’m not sure how I feel about it. I try to be as gracious as I can," Nurse said. "It’s just wild to me I guess. It’s just so different. Five months ago, my life was pretty normal."

Nurse had played the moment over and over so many times in his head, imagining the final buzzer sounding on the NBA championship win.

"I can honestly say I was working really hard at visualizing winning the title and holding up the trophy and standing up there on the podium and hugging all the people on court and stuff like that," he said. "But after that you don’t really understand … I forgot to visualize how the parade would be and what life would be like afterwards."

Fellow coaches have had kind words for Nurse. Before each World Cup game, when the Canadians walked to centre court to shake hands and exchange pins, Nurse received kudos.

"A lot of them are like ‘Man, we were watching every game and we were really pulling for you,"’ Nurse said. "It’s nice of them."

Nurse has done his own cheering in China. Raptors assistant Sergio Scariolo is head coach of the Spanish team that upset Serbia on Sunday night. To Nurse’s delight, Scariolo dug into Toronto’s defensive bag of tricks in the victory.

"He boxed-and-one’d (Serbia), did you see it? He boxed-and-one’d ’em man," Nurse said with a loud laugh. "It’s great. Sergio was great."

Nurse broke out the unconventional — or "janky" as Steph Curry called it — box-and-one to stop the Golden State Warriors star in the Finals.


While it perhaps wasn’t easy giving up his head coach for a good chunk of the off-season, Raptors president Masai Ujiri admires Nurse’s passion. He was confident Nurse would pick up something from the international game he could repurpose with the Raptors.

He was right.

"There’s a bunch tactically, things that I experimented with here that are definitely coming back with the Raptors," Nurse said.

He won’t have to wait long to implement it. The Raptors open camp at the end of September in Quebec City. They tip off the 2019-20 regular season on Oct. 22 versus New Orleans.

By Lori Ewing

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