UXBRIDGE, Ont. — Shortly after playing five quick warmup holes in advance of the main event to come in just under an hour, Nick Nurse was beaming.
“Birdie, bogey, birdie, bogey,” the story of my life Nurse joked. “I’ve been in that round many times in my life, and it doesn’t end up at 72.”
Hosting a charity golf tournament for his Nick Nurse Foundation (that aims to “improve the lives of children and young adults through music, sports, and literacy”) at Wooden Sticks Golf Course Wednesday, Nurse appeared excited to be out spreading the word and raising money for his foundation.
“I was just talking to a bunch of people about it and they were surprised it was our first one,” Nurse said of Wednesday’s event. “I gave them the story that we started the night that the scroll came across everyone’s phone or TV that Rudy Gobert tested positive. We were literally on stage for the Evening of Music Night that night. So it has been the first kind of live event.”
But while Nurse was out having fun on the links Wednesday, it’s safe to assume that most of the rest of his team was getting some serious work in preparing for the upcoming season.
“I see — I don’t want to go too far here — but I see a little specialness with this group,” Nurse said of the players assembled on the Raptors roster at the moment. “I mean, there is not one of them here today, right? The reason for that is they are all in the gym together working out. Literally, the entire team barring one guy who is doing a basketball event in another country. So, we’ve seen some really good signs for some cohesion and some belief and building.”
As posts on social media have suggested, Raptors players like Pascal Siakam, Dalano Banton and DJ Wilson are in Los Angeles right now taking part in the famed Rico Hines runs.
By Nurse’s account, however, there’s certainly more than just those three working out with the new Raptors assistant coach.
“Part of the reason why we do it is we get a chance to get them out there and do some group work,” Nurse said. “So, the runs go on in the afternoon and that’s just kind of an organized noon-ball YMCA run, but very organized — three courts running at once. And Rico’s kind of running the show and there’s kind of a winners’ court and you know how it formulates.”
Even before he was on the coaching staff, Hines was credited for some of the big off-season leaps seen from Siakam in the past, and there’s an expectation that this summer will be no different.
“He looks absolutely spectacular. He really does,” Nurse said of Siakam. “You just sit there and you watch him work out and his athleticism is electric, he’s focused, his shot is smooth and soft and, I mean, he looks great.”
At this point, word that Siakam is finding ways to improve in the summer is just par for the course. What’s more interesting, and likely more important for the future fortunes of the Raptors, is the further development of some of the team’s young role players.
“I mean there’s a group of guys that we know can all hit the floor and play for us and then they got to level up, carve out a role and do it more consistently each night,” said Nurse. “Whoever wins those battles will be the guy who probably does it most consistently.”
In particular, Nurse is looking for Malachi Flynn, who has been tearing up the pro-am circuit this summer, to take a big leap.
“Malachi looked great the other day in L.A.,” Nurse said. “This is a big year for him to step up. And I really believe there was a window there last year where he was starting to before an injury sidetracked him. And I think a lot of the stuff does get determined by injury.”
On Wednesday, the Raptors announced their training camp schedule, beginning with Media Day on Sept. 26 and going cross-country with stops in Victoria, B.C., for formal camp and pre-season games in Edmonton and Montreal. Though he didn’t explicitly say it, Nurse alluded to what could be a spirited, competitive pre-season period and dropped a big hint as far as what he and the coaching staff will be looking for.
“Listen, I think this,” said Nurse. “What are we going to need at the offensive end from those guys? They are going to have to knock down open shots. It’s not like they are going to have to be doing every skillset move in the world, and creating. When it comes around and gets kicked to them in rhythm, they are going to have to make some. Whoever does that stands the best chance of solidifying one of those spots.”
• Also participating in Wednesday’s golf tournament was former Raptors great and current Miami Heat point guard Kyle Lowry, who had nothing but nice things to say about the nine years he spent in Toronto.
“It’s awesome to come back here in the summertime,” he said. “It’s a place I called home for a long time, it always will be special in my heart and I still will call it home. … It’s a beautiful place, beautiful country, beautiful people and there’s a reason that I called this home for a long, long time and I’ll continue to call it home.”
• Additionally, Lowry mentioned that a key reason why he was there Wednesday helping Nurse and his foundation out is because of the bond they forged while they were together in Toronto.
“Nick was the guy I shot with, worked out with,” Lowry said. “He was an assistant when he first got here, so me and him had a great relationship prior to him even being the head coach and we always had this same mantra about winning, understanding, trying to be innovative.
“Nick’s a friend of mine and we got closer and closer and as the years went on we trusted each other more and more. To keep a relationship with a guy like him, obviously I’m here for a reason, he’s such a great man, he’s helped me in my career tremendously and all I can do is try to give back as much to him as he’s given to me.”
• Lowry missed a number of games last seasons for undisclosed personal reasons that could be cited as to why he had as poor — by his standards — a season as he did in his inaugural South Beach campaign. The 36-year-old said he’s still dealing with the disruption, and will publicly disclose what has been happening when the matter is more settled.
“I’m still dealing with it. It’s a situation when it’s better, I’ll talk about it more but it’s definitely something that kind of derailed my whole season and kept me derailed for a long time,” Lowry said. “Still to this day, it’s still something I deal with every single day, I actually got a phone call just now about it.”
• Among the distinguished guests on hand Wednesday, none were bigger than Julius “Dr. J” Erving, who took time to honour the life and legacy of his friend and mentor Bill Russell, the legendary NBA great and civil rights activist who passed away at the age of 88 on Sunday.
“I watched him from afar during my youth and teenage years and then I was fortunate enough to have him come through UMass when I attended and extend the hand of friendship when I was 20 years old,” Erving said. “So that was 52 years ago, and to have that happen it just made it important to me to try to do the same thing to players trying to follow in my footsteps who admired my style of play, with my on- and off-the-court presence and what have you. So, I learned so much from him.”
Lowry and Nurse also weighed in on the indelible mark Russell left.
“I think he meant a lot to the African-American community in general, that’s the most important thing,” said Lowry. “He was one of those guys who stood up and kind of pushed for African-Americans to have more freedom, more say and just to be more of everything.
“Basketball-wise? Just incredible. One of the greatest athletes, one of the greatest players to have ever played this game … player-coach, everything he was able to do, we wish he was still here because we want to show him more love, give him more flowers. And give him more everything.”
Added Nurse: “My high school coach had this iconic picture of him going over the back of one of his own teammates to block a shot and it was a black-and-white thing that was in our locker room and he gave me that photo and we had a lot of discussions about Bill Russell, me and my high school coach. … But what can you say? His legacy speaks for itself.”