TORONTO – Just over a month removed from landing his dream job, Nick Nurse – the Iowa-born rookie head coach of the Toronto Raptors – sat in the lobby bar of the Encore hotel in Las Vegas sipping on carbonated water and snacking on a bowl of peanuts.
It was late July and one of the final stops on his country-wide summer tour visiting each of his players ahead of training camp. Nurse isn’t a big Vegas person. He had hoped to catch up with Kyle Lowry, who was there participating in a USA Basketball minicamp.
A basketball lifer, Nurse, 51, has coached around the world and at just about every level you can think of, but this would be his greatest challenge yet. What had he gotten himself into? Even he wasn’t quite sure yet.
What would Lowry’s mindset be coming into his first Raptors camp without DeMar DeRozan by his side? Nurse wasn’t sure. Lowry – still salty over the trade of his best friend a few weeks earlier – wasn’t speaking with him or any of the team’s brass at the time.
What kind of shape was the incoming Kawhi Leonard in after missing most of the previous season with a mysterious leg injury? Would he even be ready for camp? Nurse wasn’t sure. Their initial meeting in Toronto went well, but he hadn’t seen Leonard on the court.
He had just come from Miami, where he met with Serge Ibaka and first pitched the idea of bringing the veteran big man off the bench. He wasn’t sure what the rotation would look like.
Nurse didn’t have many answers, but he didn’t seem especially bothered. Even then he exuded calmness – atypical of a first-year head coach, let alone one that was inheriting a team with enormous expectations.
“Am I worried about any of it? No,” he told TSN in an exclusive sit-down interview. “Am I concerned about it? That’s probably not the right word either. But they’re things I always think about.”
After a brief stop in Vegas with his team following their championship win in Oakland on Thursday, Nurse arrived back in Toronto Saturday evening. He returned to a hero’s welcome.
Exactly 12 months after his promotion from an assistant on Dwane Casey’s staff to the lead chair, Nurse did something that only eight other coaches have ever done: win a title in their first year at the helm, joining – most recently – Tyronn Lue and the man he just beat, Steve Kerr.
The characteristic his team has been lauded for most is their poise. They never panicked. Down 1-0 to Orlando in the opening round, down 2-1 to Philadelphia in Round 2, or 2-0 to Milwaukee in the Conference Finals – they always kept their composure.
Leonard tends to get credit for that, as he should. He’s their best player and teams often adopt the personality of their best player. Kawhi is famously even-keeled and business-like, so it would make sense that the Raptors would be even-keeled and business-like. However, that approach starts at the top.
On the first day of camp back in the fall, Nurse spoke to his team about the importance of staying emotionally balanced – not getting too high and never sinking too low. That’s something every coach stresses to some degree, but it’s easier said than done.
The difference here is that Nurse practised what he preached.
Under Nurse, Toronto held fewer formal practice sessions than any other Raptors team in recent memory, especially late in the season. By March, he had done away with game-day shootarounds at home. He had his pulse on the team but he never pushed too hard.
“He literally has yelled at us like twice this whole season,” Lowry said a couple weeks ago. “His demeanour is kind of just keep going and keep going and figure it out and, all right, this is what we're going to do, this is what's happening.”
In a high-pressure, high-stress business, his approach seemed unique, like a breath of fresh air for a lot of players who were used to a tense day-to-day atmosphere. Nurse would often compare his improvisational nature to his biggest passion outside of basketball: music. He’d regale his players with stories from his time coaching in England, Belgium and the D-League. And it worked, because he didn’t just have their ear, he also had their respect.
“He got a lot of championships in England and in the G League,” Lowry said. “I mean, Nick, he looks young, but he's pretty old. He's been doing this a long time, man.
“His mind for the game has been special and the growth throughout the year has been pretty good for him. He's not a first-time head coach. He's a first-time NBA head coach, but the experience that he's had in his many leagues and teams, he's kind of just stepped up and continued to grow with that.”
Soon after the Raptors claimed their first ever NBA championship, after Nurse stood on the podium with his young son and lifted the trophy, he got a text from a friend in Iowa.
“Do you realize you were getting interviewed by Kevin McHale, Grant Hill and Isiah Thomas after the game?” it said.
Nurse grew up watching McHale win championships with the Celtics. He was in college when Thomas was winning titles with the Pistons. It should have been a cool, surreal moment for him. But it didn’t really sink in until later.
“I said, ‘No, I didn’t realize it,’” Nurse said. “It didn’t even hit me when I was getting interviewed by them.”
Much like his team, Nurse was living moment-to-moment in the playoffs. When his wife, Roberta, gave birth to their son, Rocky, during the Milwaukee series – the same day Fred VanVleet’s son, Fred Jr., was born – he asked that it not be made public. A private person by nature, he didn’t want it to become a storyline, like it ended up becoming for VanVleet.
The stage never seemed too big, though. Nurse was coaching in the NBA playoffs, then in the Conference Finals, then in the NBA Finals, and – as strange as it sounds – in his mind it was no different than when he was coaching big games in the minor leagues or overseas.
“Going through it all felt very similar,” he said on Sunday. “I’m not kidding you. In fact, a lot of my players texted me congratulations and I told them it felt just like the run we had at Iowa or this felt like the run we had in Rio Grande as far as the toughness of the games, and the length of the run and just the players that we had.”
He never felt like a rookie on the sideline and he rarely looked like one. That’s not to say he didn’t make mistakes. After almost every game he would be the first to admit he’d like to have a few decisions back or take another crack at a play call. But the biggest thing was he didn’t show any fear.
“I really wasn’t that nervous much,” Nurse admitted. “I remember being a hell of a lot more nervous than this coaching early in my career. A little more emotional, a little more, I don’t know, charged up.
“That’s probably the main thing. I just never felt like, even before games, I never felt like that. The guys helped with that. Kawhi and those guys and Marc [Gasol] and Danny [Green] and Fred are pretty steady influences. I just didn’t see them getting rattled much. I think we were kind of bouncing that back and forth. Maybe I was taking more from them than I was giving them, to be honest.”
Nurse wasn’t afraid to make bold decisions, and if they didn’t work he’d adjust from there. One of the most notable examples is the sparingly used box-and-one defence that Nurse deployed spontaneously against Steph Curry and the Warriors early in the Finals, the coverage Curry referred to as “janky”.
“It wasn't as crazy an idea as it probably seems, even though nobody's probably done it much,” Nurse said. “I don't know, I can't remember seeing one in an NBA game and I've watched a lot of the Finals over the last 30 years. But it just felt to me like we needed exactly that at that moment. And I've run them before several times. It didn't seem like that big a roll of the dice to me.”
Going into Game 3 of the series, he had planned to start the second half with VanVleet in Green’s spot, hoping to give the Warriors a different look and get another ball handler on the floor. Green was shooting the ball well that night, it may have been his best game of the postseason, but Nurse made the change anyway. The idea being, don’t wait until something’s broken to fix it. Be proactive, not reactive.
That’s a philosophy Nurse feels strongly about and something he instilled in his team’s culture from day one: address the elephant in the room before it crushes everybody.
If there’s something festering, whether it’s a bad loss or an off-court squabble, the goal is to talk about it and clear the air before moving on so it doesn’t linger. Nurse has a small elephant figurine in his office to symbolize how he wants his team to deal with conflict: head on.
It reared its head on a few occasions in the playoffs. If Nurse only screamed at his team twice, as Lowry noted, one of those instances came after their Game 1 loss to Orlando in an infamous film session that they credited for sparking them. They also had to come to terms with missed opportunities after Game 3 of the Philadelphia series, Game 1 against Milwaukee, and then Game 2 versus Golden State.
More than the x’s and o’s or on-court adjustments, Nurse deserves recognition for keeping this team together throughout what could have been a trying season.
From Leonard’s uncertain health and the initial reports he didn’t want to be in Toronto, to his looming free agency and his load management – an unprecedented approach that could have been hard to sell to other players (Why is this guy getting treated differently?). From Lowry’s less-than-enthusiastic reaction to the trade, to getting the centres – Ibaka and Jonas Valanciunas, then Gasol – to buy into reduced roles.
In many other cases, teams have been divided and locker rooms have been broken over less. And those are just the things we know about.
Speaking to ESPN after last week’s Game 6 win, Leonard and Lowry made vague reference to some secret, behind-the-scenes adversity they faced.
“People don’t even know,” Leonard said. “Our season was so up and down behind the scenes. That’s how you know this is a great group of teammates. Nothing got out. You guys didn’t know what was going on.”
“I think when you look back on the adversity, that kind of boosted [our] character or the strength of [our] character,” Nurse said. “I think getting over any of those things along the way and how you handle them – they are necessary parts of it. They really are. The game ones were obvious. You know which ones those were. I said this a lot, we bounced back almost immediately from all those. Just like the next day almost and that was a really good sign I thought.
“Some of the behind the scenes ones, I can only remember a couple to be honest. They were needed, expected. I expected them to happen and they were needed to happen and I thought the outcome would be what it was. I’m not saying we [knew we] were going to win it, but I thought the team would become better at the end of those couple of tussles we had.”
There was some outcry amongst the Toronto fan base and even throughout the league when team president Masai Ujiri made the decision to fire Casey, the NBA’s Coach of the Year, and hire his assistant last summer. Would Nurse’s voice be different enough? Did he have enough experience to inherit a veteran, win-now type of team?
Admittedly, it was a bit of a dice roll for Ujiri, but there was something that felt right to him about Nurse. The demeanour, the quiet confidence, the creativity – those were all qualities Ujiri coveted in his next coach and, perhaps more than anything else, those were qualities he hoped his team would adopt.
Nurse and his laid-back, easygoing but all-business personality has proven to be the perfect complement to Leonard, Lowry and the rest of Toronto’s championship-winning personnel.