Even as his team embarks on yet another unusual chapter in what has been a deeply unusual year, Toronto Raptors head coach Nick Nurse has an experience he can draw on from a coaching path that has led him here, there, everywhere and now to Tampa Bay, Fla., where his team has been relocated for at least the first half of the 2020-21 season.
The year was 1990 and Nurse was just 12 months removed from his senior season at Northern Iowa University. Having spent the year following graduation as a student assistant while finishing up his studies, he was looking for new challenges. He wrote to a number of teams and organizations and eventually got himself hired as a 23-year-old player/coach with the Derby Rams in the fledgling British Basketball League.
It was a long way from the NBA. They practiced at the Moorways Centre, a multi-sport facility open to the public with a hard-tiled floor that was both indestructible and uncomfortable.
Nurse would have loved to have run his new team through daily practices to get up to speed, except there was one hitch:
“The club could only afford to hire the practice hall twice a week, so we practiced on Tuesday and Friday nights at seven,” he recalled. “Badminton was running right up to seven -- like literally it would click to seven and they were taking their last few [swings]. And then they would take the nets down and we’d come out onto the floor … I always say just get me to a practice floor and to the games and I’ll be happy, and we could only get to the practice floor twice a week there, so…”
In that context, the latest challenge lying ahead for Nurse and his staff isn’t quite so daunting.
It’s not nothing, however. Due to border restrictions imposed by the Canadian government, the Raptors have had to set up for training camp at St. Leo University — north of the city — and then will do so for the regular season where they will play at the Amalie Centre – home to the Tampa Bay Lightning – while training in a reconfigured hotel ballroom across the street.
Hardship is relative, of course. Nurse allowed that he was a little disappointed that on his first morning in Florida the temperature was barely above the freezing mark. He was quickly advised that Toronto was in the midst of the first blast of winter, so sympathy was in short supply.
But Nurses’ – and the Raptors' -- level of comfort isn’t relative to the past or what they would normally have available to them in Toronto. Their issue with the need to relocate on such short notice – they only got the final word that they wouldn’t be able to play in Toronto on Nov. 20 – is whether or not it places them at a competitive disadvantage compared to the other 29 NBA teams who are getting ready for what will be a rapid-fire, 72-game regular season in their home markets.
On this point Nurse is determined to remain optimistic, drawing on the Raptors' largely successful transition to a post-hiatus training camp in Naples, Fla. last July and then into the NBA’s bubble on campus at Walt Disney World for the re-start and the playoffs.
“When people are worried about that kind of stuff or show some anxiety I always say: The Raptors always do things first class and we always do things well,” said Nurse. “I would imagine they're going to give us a good place to stay, a good place to practice, a good place to lift weights, a good place to meet, and all the things that we need to be successful. I think it'll all be just fine.”
There are wrinkles though -- some bigger than others -- but they can add up for a team trying to make themselves at home in a short period of time. Raptors guard Norman Powell would normally be hanging out with his dogs – a pair of pomskies, Apollo and Odin – in his three-bedroom Toronto condo, but he had to leave them with his mother back in San Diego while he gets himself settled in Tampa.
“It’s been tough being away from them,” said Powell. “I was happy to be able to go home and hang out with them, but I plan on taking them to Tampa once I get a house situated and understand my area. I’m excited about that, bring some familiarity back to me.”
While being in the bubble for July, August and September offers the Raptors some recent experience to draw from when it comes to dealing with unusual circumstances, setting up in Tampa is also different because they are no longer cut off from the world around them and will have to govern themselves accordingly in order to avoid the virus that is running at record levels throughout most of the United States.
“It's gonna be a different look,” said Powell. “Obviously when you have a bubble [it] is more controlled … Who's coming in, who's coming out — what's coming in, what's coming out in terms of what the teams need, supplies and stuff … When you have 30 teams in different cities like you said, it's tough … I think those things [teams having positive COVID-19 tests] are gonna happen throughout the season. You've just got to handle them as they come.”
Whether the Raptors will get a chance to handle them from Toronto at any point this season is a question that won’t likely be answered until well into the schedule. There is a break planned in mid-March that could provide an opportunity to play out of Scotiabank Arena and train at the OVO Centre, depending on the progress of the virus at that point, presumably.
But until then there is little choice but to find a way to make things work, regardless of the inconveniences.
Nurse led the Raptors to a record-setting regular season, within an eyelash of the Eastern Conference Finals a season after losing Kawhi Leonard and Danny Green from a championship team, and did so in the midst of a pandemic. He’s not about to make excuses for not aiming high because they have to set up shop in Tampa.
“You guys know I’m not shy about telling you guys how much I love being in Toronto — it's our city and it's our team and our organization. There's a lot of unsettling feelings about having to leave, to be honest. It's not easy. Right?” he said. “It's not easy to pick up and leave that behind. Everything new and different seems strange for a moment.
“[But] I'm not making any excuses and I'm going to get to work and we're going to expect to play at a super-high level, and that's it … We're going to do our best to focus in on just becoming the best basketball team we can become. And we do that by starting with accepting here's where we are. Put a smile on our face, get out on the right side of the bed, positive attitude and go to work.”
The bright side is he’ll be in Florida in winter and his team will have access to a practice court any day they choose — and they won’t have to wait for badminton to finish.
From that perspective, things aren’t that bad.