Sidelined for 11 months, Kia Nurse is ready for a comeback at FIBA World Cup

Phoenix Mercury's Kia Nurse passes the ball during the first half of a WNBA basketball game Sunday, July 11, 2021 in Everett, Wash. (Olivia Vanni/The Herald via AP)

Kia Nurse doesn’t know what to expect either.

The two-time Canadian Olympian and five-year WNBA veteran will be playing her first competitive basketball game in 11 months when she steps on the floor against Serbia in Australia for Canada’s opening game of the FIBA Basketball World Cup.

It was nearly a year ago that Nurse tore the ACL in her right leg in the midst of the WNBA semifinals while playing for the Phoenix Mercury.

Her season was over, and she immediately knew she was entering a new stage of her athletic career. What followed, she says, was the most difficult year of her career.

“For the last 11 months almost now, my world has looked a little bit different,” Nurse said on a conference call Monday morning – Monday night for her in Australia. “ And so, there was a lot of great days, a lot of bad days, a lot of tears, a lot of anger, but a lot of little wins along the way as well.

“… but just, mentally, it’s been hard. It’s been up and down and a roller coaster.

“So, it’s nice to finally be able to get back on the court. And you get through one thing, you come back to playing again, and you just hit another mental roller coaster. So, that’ll be an entirely new thing for the whole tournament itself.”

Nurse has helped build the Women’s team program to the level it’s been at for several years – Canada enters the tournament ranked fourth in the world. In spite of that, for almost the first time since joining the national team as a 17-year-old in 2013, she won’t automatically be a focal point of almost everything that happens on the floor.

Physically, she can’t be, at least not yet. She’ll be on a minutes restriction for the early stages of the tournament – she wouldn’t say what it would be, other than it’s “low” – and in any case is still trying to get up to speed after so long away from game action.

Still. Nurse is part of a new core of veterans leading a younger version of the national team.  In the wake of the retirements of three-time Olympians Kim Gaucher and Miranda Ayim, Canada is bringing five players to Australia that weren’t on the Olympic roster in Tokyo.

Even if Nurse isn’t immediately at the level that earned her a starting spot in the 2019 WNBA all-star game, her teammates are thrilled to have her back.

“I think I look at it a different lens because I didn’t expect Kia to be, like old Kia. Kia is a new Kia,” says Natalie Achonwa, a national team teammate for nearly a decade now and who has previously recovered from an ACL tear. “… The idea is that you’re gonna be the same person (after a major injury) and you’re not. You’ll always be new, and I like new Kia.

“She’s still just as spicy, just as aggressive, but she’ll bring something different … there’s no weight on her shoulders. We need what she can provide, and that’s beyond scoring buckets, that’s beyond defensive stops. Having an elite athlete, elite person, like Kia on our team, regardless of how many minutes she puts in, is (what’s important)”.

There is optimism that Nurse will be able contribute on the floor too. She says that because she did so much weight training during the rehab process she’s stronger than she’s ever been, and she’s added to and sharpened her considerable skills with all her drill work. It’s a matter of transferring her fitness and technique from practice to competition with very little time to ramp up.

“I’ve  played two [exhibition] games in 11 months, and so being able to kind of decipher and see what works really well for me, and what doesn’t, is still something that I think I’m going through right now,”  she said. “ I haven’t forgotten how to pass, dribble or shoot, it’s just a matter of being able to kind of do that at a high clip and at a high rate. And so that’s a lot of what I’m going to work through.”

The entire year has been a test of her patience and resiliency. She says she’s been fortunate to be able to turn to the elite athletes in her family for encouragement and advice.

Former NFL quarterback Donovan McNabb is her uncle and had to manage his own recovery from a torn ACL in his career, while her brother, Edmonton Oilers defenseman Darnell Nurse, soldiered through the Stanley Cup playoffs last Spring with a torn hip flexor. Her boyfriend, former UCONN football player John Robinson IV, has been a help too, even if he had to be there for her during some of the low points.

“Poor guy,” she says.

But some lessons you can only learn by going through them. Nurse has always prided herself on her toughness on the floor, but for once was dealing with something that – for all her efforts – needed to time to fully resolve.

WNBA season without Griner: ‘Hell on earth’

That left her helpless during a Mercury season that fell well short of expectations. It was made more difficult still as it played out while her Phoenix teammate, Brittney Griner, who was being detained and then sentenced to 10 years in jail in Russia for being found at the border with residue of marijuana in a vape. The mere mention of Griner’s name in the interview brought Nurse to tears, as she recalled a “hell on earth” season.

“BG is the best of the best when it comes to human beings. And so, it was a lot this season to not have her on the court, to not have her spirit, just not to have her energy around,” Nurse said. “… You go to practice, and you wonder what she’s doing … It was really hard to play an entire season without her …”

Not being able to help her Mercury teammates on the floor made things even worse and tested her patience to new limits.

But as her knee heals and Nurse is on the verge of closing out one of the most difficult chapters of her career, Nurse is eagerly waiting to see how she responds to her first competitive test.

The outcome remains unknown.

But there are some things she’s surer of now that before her knee gave way and ushered in a year of uncertainty.

What has she learned?

“I’m a hell of a fighter. That’s what I’ve learned.”

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