Kia Nurse: She’s way more than all that

Eric Smith and Michael Grange recap the Canadian women winning gold in basketball at the Pan Am Games.

Kia Nurse knows what it’s like to be a celebrity athlete — she gets stopped in the mall for pictures. She understands what it means to be the subject of intense media coverage and knows that when she goes out in public, she has to conduct herself as if all eyes are on her.

That’s what comes with being a starter for the powerhouse University of Connecticut Huskies, the pre-eminent women’s basketball program in the U.S. and arguably the best NCAA program in any sport for either gender.

This past April, with Nurse starting at guard as a freshman, the Huskies won their third consecutive national championship — it was also their fifth in seven years and their 10th under hall of fame head coach Geno Auriemma.

All of which makes Connecticut one of the few places where female athletic accomplishments are valued equally to male ones.

“It’s been a crazy experience. It’s not something I expected, having a role like that on the team and everything that came along with it,” says Nurse, who was raised in Hamilton, Ont. “But it’s been really fun to be in a place where women’s sports is just as important as men’s.

“At UConn, it doesn’t matter if it’s the men’s basketball team or the women’s basketball team — the fan base is amazing. The teams get along really well and attention is there for both sides. The building is sold out. [When you’re out], you can’t really hide. But people want pictures taken with them or [for you] to talk with them — it’s pretty awesome.”

And it’s rare. Nurse knows first-hand how differently high-level male and female athletes are generally treated, regardless of their respective resumés.

Her older brother is Darnell Nurse, who was drafted seventh overall in 2013 by the Edmonton Oilers. With some luck, he might play in the NHL this coming season, but chances are he’ll be serving an apprenticeship with the Oilers’ American Hockey League affiliate in Bakersfield, Calif. Will he ever be one of the best defencemen in Canada? An Olympian? A hall of famer who could become an icon for his sport?

Possible, but unlikely.

Even so, big brother has 27,000 Twitter followers to his sister’s 2,700. And if he can carve out a 10-year career as a top-pair defenceman in the NHL, he can expect around $50 million in career earnings. Regardless of the heights his sister reaches, chances are that at some point, she’ll need to fall back on the degree she’s earning while starring at UConn.

All that said, Nurse isn’t one to get caught up in the differences between her situation and her brother’s, or hers and fellow Canadian basketball phenom Andrew Wiggins’s, even though they’re separated by just a single year and the latter will be well on his way to becoming one of the wealthiest Canadian athletes ever by the time Nurse is finishing university.

“Sometimes, that’s just how the wind blows, you know? I think women’s sports have come a long way, and we’re doing some really great things,” she says. “Look at Becky Hammon [who became the first woman on an NBA bench when she took an assistant coaching position with the San Antonio Spurs in 2014]. Women’s sports are on the rise at the same time men’s sports are doing really well.

“I couldn’t be prouder of anyone in this world than my brother, and he’d say the same thing about me.”

Though the days of men and women sharing equally in the riches and rewards of our obsession with sports may still seem like a far-off dream, there have certainly been some encouraging signs. The Women’s World Cup did big business across Canada, setting attendance and ratings records. Our women’s soccer team was given the kind of coverage and focus that’s rare for athletes outside the NHL, the NBA or MLB, and Christine Sinclair commercials were on heavy rotation.

Perhaps most tellingly, when the women ended up losing in desultory fashion in the quarterfinals to England, they were criticized, a departure from the tendency to treat our best female athletes as inspirational tales first and performers a distant second.

The challenge female athletes face has played out in the way our women’s basketball team has been viewed. The rise of Canadian hoops has become a well-worn theme, but it’s almost always the story of how Wiggins, Tristan Thompson, Cory Joseph and a long line of first-round NBA draft picks will pick up the torch left by Steve Nash.

But the men remain ranked 25th in the world. They haven’t appeared in the Olympics since 2000.

Meanwhile, without any fanfare, the women have gotten the job done. They finished eighth at the London Olympics in 2012, their best result at the Games since 1984. And at the 2014 World Championship, with an 18-year-old Nurse running the point, they finished fifth. They won gold at the Pan Am Games in Toronto and will be gunning to qualify for the 2016 Olympics when they host the FIBA Americas Women’s Championship in Edmonton, beginning Aug. 9.

In Brazil a year from now, their goal is to become the first Canadian basketball team — of either gender — to stand on an Olympic podium since the men won silver in 1936.

It’s a trajectory that could make stars out of the likes of cornerstones Kim Gaucher or emerging WNBA force Natalie Achonwa. But as the youngest player on the roster, and playing one of the most important roles, it’s Nurse who’s most likely to break through. She’ll be just 20 at her first Olympic Games and 22 at her second World Championship. During her next three seasons at UConn, the expectation is that she’ll help lead the storied program to the Women’s Final Four every year.

“Sometimes I sit there and think, ‘Wow, I could be here a while,’ but I think it’s really cool,” she says. “And if I’m an icon for young girls coming up in sports — not just in basketball but the sports industry as a whole — that would be really great.”

If things continue the way they seem to be headed, Nurse could end up being recognized at home and abroad, and not just by Huskies hoops fanatics in Connecticut.

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