Nick Nurse is all in and he wants the Canada’s best basketball players to join him on a three-year plan that ends on a medal podium on the greatest stage of all.
Nurse and Canada Basketball announced Monday that he will be coaching the men’s national team through the next Olympic cycle with an eye toward Canada qualifying for the 2024 Games in Paris.
For him it’s a chance to complete a job left undone, but he can’t do it alone. So the guy from Carroll, Iowa, wants the country’s top basketball talent to let their intentions be known now: Are they in, or are they out when it comes to representing Canada internationally?
Nurse laid out his vision in an open letter to Canadian basketball fans that started "Dear Canada," but was clearly aimed at letting those who want to play for the country at the 2024 Olympics know what would be expected of them over the next three summers.
— Canada Basketball (@CanBball) August 16, 2021
He’s already met with what could be the core of the national team at a Canada Basketball summit of sorts that was held in Las Vegas during the NBA Summer League, at which 11 “key” players were in attendance, but felt the need to be transparent about the process, and his expectations.
“I think (my) extension and the three-year commitment we're asking from the players go hand in hand,” said Nurse in an interview with Sportsnet on Monday afternoon. “And I've been in heavy communication with these guys (since) Victoria, about the plan going forward and whether they could give me feedback and digest the plan and see if they wanted to be a part of that plan.
“We laid out the details, the commitment, the timeframes of when the Games were, when training camps would start to coincide with all the key dates in the NBA in the basketball world, and just said, ‘This is it; this is the cycle, it's a three-year cycle if you're committed to this.
“And if you're not sure if you feel like playing then check back in 2025.”
Nurse wants a core group to train next summer and be available for the World Cup qualifying windows in June and August. He is also putting as much emphasis on the 2023 FIBA Basketball World Cup with an eye toward qualifying for the 2024 Olympics there, rather than relying on the uncertainty of another winner-take-all Olympic Qualifying Tournament in the summer of 2024.
It takes a coach with a certain amount of juice to speak so plainly in a Canadian basketball environment where great pains are taken to avoid stepping on anyone’s toes for fear of alienating anyone from the program. But all the tiptoeing hasn’t amounted to much as the commitment Canada has been able to get from its growing pool of NBA players has been spotty.
Nurse started with the national team in the summer of 2019, fresh off winning a title as a first-year NBA head coach with Toronto Raptors.
But even in that brief time he’s witnessed first-hand some of the issues that have kept Canada punching well below its weight internationally.
During preparations for the 2019 World Cup he saw what was projected to be a roster filled with NBA talent get whittled away as training camp approached until only two players – Khem Birch and Cory Joseph – of the nearly 20 Canadians in the league made the trip to China, where Canada finished 21st out of 32 teams and missed a chance to pre-qualify for the Tokyo Olympics.
This past July, Canada’s 12-man roster featured eight NBA players, but there remained a considerable list of its best players that chose not to play, even after initially indicating their commitment.
As it was the only player on the roster that had played for Nurse before was Joseph.
It’s not a problem unique to Canada – NBA players from other countries don’t always play internationally, citing contract concerns, family conflicts, injury or fatigue.
But it’s hard to avoid the reality that the teams with the best track records globally have a core of players willing to temporarily put aside their own interests.
France won the silver medal with two starters – Nic Batum and Evan Fournier – heading into NBA free agency. Australia won bronze in large part because Patty Mills played even as he was without an NBA contract. And while the gold-medal winning Team USA had a vast talent pool to choose from, they were still reliant on three players – Khris Middleton, Jrue Holiday and Devin Booker – flying to Tokyo almost directly from the concluding game of the NBA Finals and playing the Olympic tournament opener just four days later. It was a sacrifice that flies in the face of everything we’ve learned about sports performance in the "load management" era.
Nurse was paying attention.
“That's the kind of commitment we're looking for (and) I would also say that's more of the culture we're trying to build,” he said. “I think the culture or mission of those countries is way ahead of where we are right now, that's why those guys commit to play.
“I think there's also a camaraderie when those guys start playing together and sticking together, that the (national team) almost becomes like a second home to them, and they become kind of brothers … and I think that's what we're trying to build here, and that's the kind of commitment we're talking about.”
Canada's Head Coach Nick Nurse leaves the court following second half FIBA Men's Olympic Qualifying basketball action against Greece, at Memorial Arena in Victoria, Tuesday, June 29, 2021. (Chad Hipolito / CP)
Talent wins – Nurse knows that. The Raptors had very, very good seasons before Kawhi Leonard arrived and after he left, but they only won a title in 2018-19, the one season the two-time Finals MVP played in Toronto.
And in an ideal world, Nurse would love to have the best Canadians also be the most committed to the road to Paris. But if he can only have one, he’s choosing continuity and chemistry over waiting, finger’s crossed, for top talent to parachute in at the last minute.
Canada had more NBA players (eight) than the other five teams at the Olympic Qualifying Tournament had combined, yet a team with no experience playing together struggled to get past an undermanned Greek squad and was sent home by a Czech Republic entry led by journeyman Tomáš Satoranský.
“I think that continuity and playing together over a number of summers would probably outweigh (talent) in some respects,” said Nurse. “And that’s a little bit of a lesson (in Victoria). Czech Republic returned nine or 10 of 12 from that team that finished sixth (at the 2019 World Cup) and it shows … from start to finish, there was a chemistry, a bond between those guys, that's hard to overcome. And that's, again, what we're trying to build some of that chemistry of some of those bonds and connections.”
It starts at the top. Nurse is on board and all in. After a coaching journey that has taken him all over the world, he says he feels almost indebted to Toronto and Canada after nine seasons in one place, by far the longest stretch of his career. Canada is his coaching home. His two younger sons are Canadians, born in Toronto. He jokes that his dream is that they one day they wear the red and white.
But before that, he wants to help Canadian basketball get to where it should be, to help build a tradition that they want to be part of. He’s got a plan to do just that and he’s putting it out there for all to see.