Kia Nurse poised for big year with WNBA season, Olympics on horizon

Kia Nurse, then with the Seattle Storm, drives the ball against the Washington Mystics during the first half of a WNBA basketball game Sunday, June 11, 2023, in Seattle. (Lindsey Wasson/AP)

Kia Nurse has watched with both wonder and a knowing eye as women’s basketball and women’s sports in general enjoy a cultural moment that has been decades in the making, a series of ripples that has coalesced into a flood.

The soon-to-be three-time Canadian Olympian and WNBA veteran about to kick off her seventh season has been both a builder and beneficiary of the growth in women’s basketball in Canada and beyond. She’s excited about how far things have come even in her own experience.

As an example, her sister Tamika Nurse, nine years her senior, chose not to pursue a professional career because the opportunities were relatively limited, while a short time later Nurse is part of a generation of female pros who can carve out a good living between on-court earnings and opportunities her profile has allowed her off the court as well.

There’s still a ways to go, but the pace is picking up. The viewership data for the recently completed women’s NCAA tournament — boosted by the impact of Iowa star Caitlin Clark — as well as the attendance records set multiple times during the PWHL’s inaugural season are proof-of-concept.

“I think, as a female athlete, [there] … is the understanding that change happens at whatever rate it wants to happen, but ultimately, it happens usually a lot slower than we would hope for,” Nurse said on a conference call on Tuesday. “[But] … I think we are on the cusp of kind of really pushing forward [and] getting rid of some of those narratives about women’s sports, or that no one watches women’s sports. I think it’s pretty blatantly obvious now … and the buzz is there for everybody, and our leagues are only continuing to grow, and women’s sports are only continuing to grow.”

A tangible example will come May 4 in Edmonton, where Nurse and her new team, the Los Angeles Sparks, will host the Seattle Storm at Rogers Place for an exhibition game. It is just the second WNBA game to played north of the border, a followup to the hugely successful WNBA debut in Canada at a sold-out Scotiabank Arena in Toronto this time a year ago.

The hope is it’s a precursor to a WNBA franchise landing in Toronto or elsewhere.

“I have no inside scoop,” she said. “But if feels like a matter of time.”

To play a WNBA game on home soil isn’t a dream come true because it wasn’t on the horizon when she was getting into basketball at Transway Basketball Club in Hamilton.

It comes with the bonus of being able to watch her brother, Darnell Nurse, help lead the Edmonton Oilers in their first-round playoff series against the Los Angeles Kings. With Nurse set to start training camp in Los Angeles with the Sparks, it’s created a nearly unprecedented opportunity for a reunion for a typically far-flung family.

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Nurse and her parents will be able to watch the Oilers in Games 3 and 4 in Los Angeles and will all be in attendance in Edmonton if the series happens to go seven games — the WNBA game was shifted from Sunday to Saturday to accommodate the possibility of a deciding game on May 5.

In any event, Nurse will have tickets set aside for her brother and the rest of her immediate family for the Sparks-Storm game.

“I think what I’m really excited about as we have actually kind of missed each other in the last couple of years because I’m always in camp [during the NHL playoffs],” Nurse said, “… so it’s weird now my parents are coming here [to Los Angeles for Games 3 and 4] and I’m like, ‘I also live here,’ so I guess we can all get dinner together and then he’s gonna play his games and we’re gonna go watch them and, you know, then come back to Edmonton. So we’re going to get a full extra week if family time.”

But it’s all a welcome preamble to what promises to be the highlight of her summer, if not her year, as Nurse keeps an eye on the Paris Olympics, where the women’s national team will be making its fourth consecutive appearance, and Nurse’s third, dating back to Rio in 2016.

For Nurse, 28, just being there isn’t quite enough. Canada hasn’t advanced past the quarterfinals at the Olympics in its last four tries. While the buzz around women’s sports and the enthusiasm for women’s basketball is at a peak, Nurse wants to have her own moment to share with the national team, and Canada as a whole.

“For me, personally, it’s great, this will be my third Olympics,” she said. “But I don’t just want to go to an Olympics. I want to come home with some hardware, and I think that’s the mindset for a lot of us who are going back there for multiple times.”

She’s also itching to suit up for Canada while at full strength and in peak form.

An ankle injury kept Nurse out of the lineup during the Olympic Qualifying Tournament in February where Canada had to rely on a 22-point comeback by Spain to eliminate host Hungary. That allowed Canada — having missed its chance to punch its own ticket earlier with a loss to Japan — to earn an Olympic berth while watching Spain-Hungary game at the hotel.

Even going back to Canada’s impressive fourth-place showing at the FIBA Basketball World Cup in Australia in 2022, Nurse was playing for the first time since suffering a torn ACL in the WNBA playoffs 11 months prior. It was an aggressive return-to-play timeline. Nurse struggled to find her best form last season with the Seattle Storm as she averaged a career-low 5.9 points a game while shooting just 34.3 per cent from the floor — the second-lowest mark of her career — for a rebuilding team that finished 11-29.

Nurse is hoping the 2024 season will be a turning point for the 2019 All-Star. While holding down her broadcasting duties at TSN, Nurse worked diligently with Matt Nichol, her strength and conditioning coach, dug in on an enhanced on-court program with her trainer, Justin Alliman, as well as adding pilates to her routine and a nutritionist to her team.

She declares her knee concerns behind her and feels poised for a big season.

“[Last season, I was] fighting between feeling like yourself and the self that you want to be right away and then you know what your body physically is able to do,” she said. “And so I’m excited for this new opportunity and this new, you know, team and organization. I think there’s more to the role here [with Los Angeles] than I had in Seattle. And so I think that’s something that’s also exciting for me, but physically I feel great. …

“Ultimately, I’m more hard on myself than anybody else could be possibly, so I’m giving myself a little bit of grace for last year but wanting to be a lot better [this year] than I was.”

She wants to return to attacking the point more and drawing fouls after being cast into more of a catch-and-shoot role with the Storm last season.

The national team should benefit. The WNBA season goes on hiatus for a month to accommodate the Olympic schedule. It makes for a hectic season, but it ensures Canada will be getting the best version of Nurse possible in Paris.

“The WNBA is different than international play, but at the same time it gives me an opportunity to get 20-some-odd games under my belt prior to heading into the Olympics,” she said. “And, for me, I think that’s the big piece, is it gets my mind in the right place … being able to get consistent reps at that against the best players in the world every single night for me is a huge piece of it. And I think that [being in mid-season form] is where I would want to go into the Olympics.”

It’s exactly what Canada is hoping for, and leaves Nurse and the national team best positioned to create a women’s sports moment of their own this summer in Paris.

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