Nick Nurse sat in a folding chair mid-court during one of Phil Jackson’s first practices as head coach of the Los Angeles Lakers, a summer-league workout mostly aimed at rookies and youngsters.
Right next to Nurse, entering his fourth year in the NBA, sat Kobe Bryant.
“And we never spoke,” Nurse remembered on Monday in an interview with Tim & Sid. “Because he was just locked in on trying to listen to everything Phil was teaching these young summer-league players. That struck me, that he was sitting there mid-court and he was just totally locked in.”
The Toronto Raptors head coach wasn’t around the late Lakers legend all that often when Bryant was still active, but he remembers the Black Mamba as most in the game do: A fierce competitor with a high intellect.
After Bryant’s tragic death in a helicopter crash that also killed his 13-year-old daughter Gianna and seven others on Sunday, Nurse was also encumbered with the unfortunate task of leading his team to the court for a game against the San Antonio Spurs less than an hour after getting the news.
“There’s a lot of emotion, and every guy was different,” Nurse said about the Raptors locker room before the matchup on Sunday. “There were some tears being shed, there was some shock and disbelief and a lot of sadness. People (were) mostly shocked by a tragedy that is really sad, you know?”
Though reactions varied, one thing was certain. The Raptors and Spurs needed to pay some sort of homage to Bryant during their game. Raptors vice president of player health and performance Alex McKechnie, who worked closely with Bryant on the Lakers from 2000 through 2011, joined Nurse in brainstorming. They decided on running out the 24-second shot clock in their first possession.
“I just felt we had to do something, in 24 seconds, you know, he wore 24, just to… to honour the guy, you know?”
Spurs coach Gregg Popovich was immediately on board.
“(We) asked ‘Pop, what do you think?’ Pop said ‘yep, hold the ball,’ and we just decided to do it.”
There was a point prior to tipoff when no one seemed too sure the game would even take place as scheduled. As players experienced grief and shock, many on the outside argued the possibility of a schedule change.
The league didn’t announce a postponement, so Nurse made a point to embrace and respect his players’ emotions.
“That’s kind of your first instinct, especially when you take a look around the locker room, and it just seemed like it was tough, you know, on a lot of guys,” Nurse told Tim & Sid. “A lot of them had close relationships (with Bryant). I didn’t know if we were going to play or if we could play and how it was going to all unfold, to be honest with you.
“I don’t think that (league officials) just saw, feasibly, how to (postpone) it. But, I don’t know, I think they were discussing it. We were so short-timed, it was right before, 45 minutes or so before. That’s time when we’re zeroing in, there’s film to be shown, all that stuff. So we were just, you know, trying to continue on with our job until someone told us differently.”
The NBA then announced on Monday that the game between the Lakers and Los Angeles Clippers, originally set for this Tuesday, will be rescheduled for a later date, to respect the mourning of people in the organizations.
Nurse is no stranger to playing through grief. He was on the sideline for the Raptors’ game against the Clippers on Dec. 11, 2018, one day after his mother, Marcella Nurse, passed away. The Raptors coach saw some similarities between that moment and what he witnessed from athletes last Sunday.
“I told the team last year, ‘I’m here because my mom would kick my butt if I wasn’t here,'” said Nurse. “It was a little bit of a similar feel. I (told the players,) Kobe was a great worker, he was a great competitor.
“Take something from that if you can, and if you don’t feel like playing, let me know, I get it. We’ll try somebody else, we’ll do the best we can, let’s just stick together, man. Honour him, play the game and let’s get back home to our families.”
Watch Nick Nurse’s full interview on Tim & Sid in the video player embedded above.