JEFFERSON, Iowa — Toronto coach Nick Nurse’s improbable path to the NBA title began as a guard for Carroll Kuemper High in the middle of Iowa way back in the 1980s.
Nurse returned to his home state this weekend for a celebration of a career — a weekend that included a family reunion on a farm outside of tiny Churdan, Iowa, where his recently deceased mother was raised.
Nurse was feted by local celebrities and scores of folks he grew up with in Carroll on Sunday night at the Wild Rose Casino in Jefferson. And though the start of free agency was all the buzz in the NBA, Nurse was celebrating at an Iowa party decades in the making.
"It’s always good to be back and see family," Nurse said. "If I could say what my biggest thrill of this whole thing has been, it’s been to share it with everybody."
Nurse’s well-chronicled coaching career, which began 30 years ago, included stops in England, Belgium and South Dakota. But many of the experiences that shaped a run capped with a win over the Golden State Warriors in the NBA Finals two weeks ago happened in the Hawkeye state.
Nurse started his coaching career at Northern Iowa after he ended his playing career in Cedar Falls, and he spent two seasons at Grand View University in Des Moines as an assistant coach. After a decade in Britain coaching five different teams, Nurse returned to his home state to lead the Iowa Energy, an NBA G-League team based in the capital city of Des Moines.
Nurse even left the Energy for three days to be an assistant coach under Greg McDermott at Iowa State.
Like seemingly everything else about Nurse’s career, that stint was incredibly hectic.
Nurse started working for the Cyclones on a Thursday, planning a trip overseas to sign a few European players to boost what was then a sagging program. Nurse spent Friday and Saturday in England before preparing to leave for Athens. But while Nurse was waiting for his train to Greece, McDermott called to tell him he was leaving for Creighton.
Because Nurse hadn’t even been gone a week, the Energy gave him his job back. They soon won the G-League title, and Nurse’s rise through the NBA ranks had begun.
"I was like, ‘OK, I’m coming home to see what’s going on,"’ Nurse joked. "I know that there was a day or two in there where there was some speculation that I might get bumped up to that job. But they found Freddy Hoiberg ready to come home. He was fantastic in that job obviously."
Nurse’s return to Iowa was a bit bittersweet because his 94-year-old mother, Marcella Nurse, died in Carroll in December. But Nurse said one of the most memorable moments of Toronto’s title run was when Kyle Lowry told Nurse upon his return in the locker-room in Los Angeles that they’d win a championship for his mom.
Seven months later, Lowry proved to be prophetic.
"I was little bit taken aback by it when he said it," Nurse said. "I’m not sure at that point in the year — it was really early in the year (and) everybody kind of goes in saying, ‘Hey, we’ve got a chance to win it.’ I’m not so sure that was in our heartbeat at that time. For him to say that, I thought it was a pretty big statement. But it was certainly, when the thing got done, it was the first thing I thought of."