MEMPHIS – For the average tourist, it looked like business as usual on Nov. 24 in a record store in downtown Memphis. What folks in the shop didn’t know, however, is that Memphis Music was staying open a little later for a special customer who was going to walk through the front door at any moment.
The store sits in the heart of Beale Street and is a popular location for touring musicians including Led Zeppelin frontman Robert Plant, who is just one of dozens of artists featured on the store's Wall of Fame.
On this brisk night, just after 9 p.m. local time, dressed in a dark grey sweatsuit with his signature “NN” logo hat, in walked Toronto Raptors head coach Nick Nurse, who was greeted with a hug and a huge smile by Demetria Ragsdale, who has worked at the store for more than 20 years.
“He is one of my favourite customers. His music tastes are all over the place, though he buys just whatever he is feeling. But he loves B.B. King,” Ragsdale told Sportsnet.
Nurse has been going to the store for almost nine years and often texts Ragsdale about music, including the legendary blues musician King, who called Memphis home for many years. Knowing Nurse's appreciation for the “King of the Blues,” Demetrius had one of King’s relatives meet him at the store during one of his many visits.
“He was talking about B.B. King and he's looking at some of his music, and I asked if he wanted to meet his granddaughter, who I know,” said Ragsdale. “So I called her up and she came in and that was a big deal. She was happy to meet him, and he was happy to meet her.”
On Nurse’s visit to the shop earlier in 2021, he brought his 2019 NBA championship ring for her to see.
“That was awesome! He said, ‘You’ve got to see this,’ and pulled out a big box from behind his back with the ring in it,” said Ragsdale. “I got a chance to put it on my finger, it’s pretty heavy.”
Nurse makes it a priority to stop in the store every time the team is in town. He calls it his favourite record shop on the road.
“This is the original spot that I kind of started looking for records,” Nurse said.
You wouldn’t know the coach was near the end of a gruelling six-game, 12-day road trip if you saw him looking for records in Memphis Music. Back in town as his team was taking on the Memphis Grizzlies last week (and will once again see them Tuesday night at 7:30 p.m. ET on Sportsnet), he was at ease going through the different sections of music, even belting out a little of Tom Petty’s “You Don’t Know How it Feels” while his pile of future purchases grew bigger.
How big is his record collection? It stood just over the number of defensive rebounds former Raptor Kyle Lowry has as of the end of November (3,503).
“Ballpark, it’s probably about 3,500,” said Nurse.
And his collection got a big influx, recently.
“I did buy a rather sizable jazz collection from a well-known Torontonian, and I thought I could give them a good home.”
Not one to name names, Nurse would only say the “well-known Torontonian” was a noted Jazz photographer.
And while on the recent trip, Nurse only added to his massive record collection.
The haul included: Two Thelonious Monk albums, Earth Wind, and Fire, Muddy Waters & Rolling Stones Live at the Checkerboard Lounge in Chicago, John Prine, and a couple of Prince records.
“Pretty good addition to the collection,” Nurse said with a huge smile.
If you think you have seen the 2019-20 NBA Coach of The Year excited before, you should’ve seen his reaction when he saw the re-print of the infamous “The Black Album” by Prince in front of him at the store.
“Why do you have this!? This album was one of his last, or maybe his last, with Warner Brothers. Right before it was getting ready to come out he had them all destroyed! It’s a long story but I didn't know they produced a version of it. I mean, I saw some on eBay and how one of the originals that weren’t destroyed went for $35,000. This is, just, wow!”
Of course, he bought the reprint of the album. One of the original copies of “The Black Album” is the Holy Grail record he is trying to track down.
“Supposedly there's a few that the Warner Brothers execs saved. Like, maybe three of them in existence. I don't even know what I would do. It's kind of weird, I probably wouldn't be able to open it.”
The youngest of nine siblings, Nurse said his family, especially his five older brothers, has greatly impacted his musical taste.
“My brothers had a downstairs stereo in our house and they would have Earth, Wind and Fire, Neil Young, CCR [Creedence Clearwater Revival], and Grand Funk Railroad always playing. I always would sneak down there when I wasn't supposed to and put on Earth, Wind, and Fire.”
The Iowa native’s journey to becoming a head coach in the NBA was unique and he continues to play by the beat of his own drum (or guitar, in his case). He’s laid back, thoughtful, and when on the road, can be seen doing something most coaches in major league sports don’t do: Carry around a guitar or keyboard on road games.
When asked about what songs he’s working on at the moment between drawing up plays for his team?
“A bunch of stuff,” he said. “On guitar, I’m working on ‘Wonderful Tonight’ by Clapton, ‘Wish You Were Here’ by Pink Floyd and also have a couple of Blues songs that I'm working on as well – ‘Sweet Home Chicago,’ John Lee Hooker’s ‘Boom, Boom.’
Pretty impressive songs to tackle considering he only picked up the guitar a few years ago.
And as for his piano skills, when he was younger, his mother forced him to take lessons but he was too busy playing sports and couldn’t be bothered going to them, something the 54-year-old now admits he regrets.
“I play about every day now and I’m learning the new Arkells song ‘A Little More.’”
The coach is a huge Prince fan so, of course, he’s also trying to tackle one of the High Priest of Pop’s songs on the ivories.
“I'm working on my 7,000th version of ‘Purple Rain’ on the piano. I found another little obscure recording of it. It's like a 1983 recording before it was even out of Prince messing around on the piano and singing it. I had somebody at the University of Toronto transcribe the notes for me so I'm working on that.”
Seeing Prince play until 2:30 a.m. in Minneapolis when he was a teenager was just one of the most memorable music moments in Nurse’s life. He also was in London, England, and saw one of Eric Clapton’s 24-night shows in the early 1990s at the Royal Albert Hall.
Nurse, who preaches fundamentals in basketball, understands just how important it is to make sure kids have access to instruments in their youth and it’s why he created the Nick Nurse Foundation in 2020.
“I want to get an instrument in kid's hands, get them some lessons, get them a teacher, get them playing, whether it's a guitar or a piano or the drums or a DJ thing or vocal lessons or whatever it is, so they can be involved and have the joy of music and have fun.”
The foundation has three pillars: Music, sport, and literary. Just shy of celebrating its two-year anniversary, the foundation has held basketball camps, donated meals, and made sizable donations to local music programs.
“I just really strongly believe that music should be a big part of everybody's life. And if we can help them get started, who knows what amazing things can happen?”
“Five years from now, I want some of these kids that we've put musical instruments in their hands, I want them to come back with their band and I want to take them out to Budweiser Stage and I want to let them play in front of a sold-out crowd,” Nurse added. “And I want to give scholarships so they can see a track through education and music through university.
“Hopefully, some of those people will become teachers and give back again and just makes the whole circle go round.”
Maybe one day one of the recipients will get their photo on the Wall of Fame at the Memphis Music store beside Nurse's.
The Nick Nurse Foundation will have several events coming up for youth in the community. To read more about the foundation go to nicknursefoundation.org