Ed. note: The following is an excerpt from the book We The Champs: The Toronto Raptors’ Historic Run to the 2019 NBA Title by Alex Wong and Sean Woodley.
The Des Moines Register’s 1985 Male Athlete of the Year in high school, Nick Nurse, a native of Carroll, Iowa, attended Northern Iowa and had a standout college career as a point guard of the team, setting a handful of school records for three-point shooting. Despite the accolades and records as a high school and college player, Nurse was never destined for the NBA, at least not as a player. He earned a B.A. in accounting at Northern Iowa and set his sights on joining the coaching ranks at a young age.
After serving as a student assistant coach at Northern Iowa, Nurse, still in his early 20’s at the time, received his first coaching offer: to be a player-coach for the Derby Storm of the British Basketball League. Considering his other options, including a more lucrative offer to play in Germany, he boarded a plane and headed overseas for a unique challenge.
In Derby, Nurse’s age and limited coaching experience made the transition a tad bit overwhelming. He was preparing to be both the team’s starting point guard and head coach. “I remember calling my high school and college coaches right away,” Nurse said. “I also went and got a whole bunch of videos and books and just started making practice plans.”
He didn’t know it at the time, but every experience from this point on was preparing Nurse to become an NBA head coach who would be flexible, adaptable, and willing to adjust on the fly, the exact qualities the Toronto Raptors were looking for heading into the 201819 season after years of playoff disappointment.
The first challenge of Nurse’s coaching career in the British Basketball League: he was giving out orders to players who were all at least 10 years older than him. “It was awkward,” Nurse said. “The one good thing is because I was the point guard, I could control things on the floor.”
It took time, but Nurse eventually found his groove and earned the respect of his teammates with his preparation and work ethic. It also helped that his resume started to grow. In nine seasons in the British Basketball League coaching four different teams, Nurse had a 276-103 record, a .728 winning percentage. He was named Coach of the Year twice and won two championships.
By 2007, his coaching journey had taken him to the NBA Development League, which was still in its early stages. Des Moines had been awarded an expansion franchise. Given a chance to return home and be one step away from being in the NBA coaching ranks, Nurse accepted an offer to coach the Iowa Energy.
Once again, Nurse needed to be malleable coaching in a league where roster turnover was the norm and players weren’t exactly looking to play within a system, but often looking for their own shot in order to fill out the stat sheet for a chance to be somewhere else. “The nice way of putting it is that it was a transitionary league,” Nurse said. “It’s unbelievable training for rebuilding chemistry during a season. In another league, a coach will get a team, and once the chemistry is right, it stays that way. In the D-League, you’re rebuilding that 10 to 15 times within a single season.”
By the summer of 2013, Nurse had accomplished all that he could as a coach outside of the NBA. In his six seasons in the D-League with the Energy and later the Rio Grande Valley Vipers, Nurse finished with a 192-123 record and became the first head coach in D-League history to lead two different teams to the championship. He finally received the call-up he was waiting for in July 2013, when the Raptors hired him to join Dwane Casey’s coaching staff for the 2013-14 season.
After five seasons as an assistant coach in Toronto, Nurse got his chance to step into the head coaching role when president Masai Ujiri decided to fire Coach of the Year Dwane Casey in search of a coach who he could trust to win chess matches and out-manage the opposing team’s head coach over a seven-game series, something Casey had fell short of doing each postseason.
Nurse’s coaching experience overseas and in the D-League served as perfect preparation for what would face Nurse during his first season as an NBA head coach with the Raptors. They needed to integrate Kawhi Leonard into the fold, while shuffling starting lineups on a nightly basis during the regular season. This was thanks to a load management plan agreed upon between Leonard and the team’s medical staff that limited him to 60 games and restricted his minutes in order to keep their star player healthy and ready for the playoffs, where he would lead all postseason players in minutes played.
A midseason trade that brought Marc Gasol to the team would shuffle the deck once again and gave Nurse a limited amount of time to put all the pieces on the roster in the right place before the start of the postseason. Certainly, the experiences in the D-League served as a blueprint for how Nurse would manage to pull the Raptors together into a cohesive unit in the playoffs, where the Raptors found their identity as an elite defensive team and followed Nurse’s evolving game plan, which changed depending on matchups throughout the postseason.
Kyle Lowry admitted during the NBA Finals that Nurse yelled at the team twice all season, a remarkable feat considering the spotlight surrounding the Raptors and the urgency to integrate all the new pieces together to form a championship contending team in six months. Under the greatest pressure he had ever faced, Nurse remained the same head coach he had always been, understanding the pulse of the team and not panicking under the face of pressure.
In the journeyman head coach who spent decades toiling in obscurity, Toronto finally found the right man to lead them to the promised land.
This excerpt of We The Champs: The Toronto Raptors’ Historic Run to the 2019 NBA Title, by Alex Wong and Sean Woodley, is presented with permission from Triumph Books. For more information or to order a copy, please visit www.triumphbooks.com.