Nick Nurse: Journeyman to Champion

Nick Nurse worked his way up the NBA ladder
Head coach of the Toronto Raptors Nick Nurse looks on during the Toronto Raptors vs Portland Trail Blazers NBA regular season game at Scotiabank Arena on March 1, 2019, in Toronto, Canada (Toronto Raptors win 119-117) (Photo by Anatoliy Cherkasov/NurPhoto via Getty Images)

Nick Nurse has not always been the head coach of the Toronto Raptors as NBA fans now know him as. His journey to the NBA was and is unique; a motivational story wrapped in the lesson that passion, determination, and hard work can fulfill a lifelong dream.

Nick Nurse and his Road to NBA Champion Head Coach

Early Success

Three years ago, Nurse was unknown to most NBA fans. It may have been known that he was an assistant to Dwane Casey during his tenure in Toronto. Nurse then replaced Casey as his successor, and in his first season was able to do what Casey couldn’t and coached Toronto to its first championship in franchise history, defeating the Golden State Warriors in six games. Before this season’s suspension, Toronto had the same record through sixty-four games (46-18) than they had through sixty-four games in 2019-20. This is also after losing Kawhi Leonard and Danny Green to free agency in the off-season. Nurse is also expected to be named Coach of the Year.

Nurse’s path to the NBA was and is unique; it involves a brief college playing career, coaching overseas, and joining the Hamilton-based rock band Arkells on stage in Toronto. His career has been filled with determination, patience, and an ever-lasting passion for the game of basketball. It’s the same passion that created the drive to fulfill Nurse’s dream of coaching in the NBA. Raptors assistant coach Phil Handy said of Nurse, “Nick, he coached wherever he had to coach. He just laid it on the line, and that naturally takes you from one step to the next.”

Early Career

Nurse got his first coaching opportunity with the Grand View Vikings, coaching them for two seasons from 1991-92 to 92-93. He then went on to coach in the British Basketball League (BBL) after a stint as an assistant for the South Dakota Coyotes for two seasons. During his time with the Birmingham Bullets from 1995-97, the Chicago Bulls were dominating the NBA with head coach Phil Jackson.

Nurse signed up for a subscription service that would deliver week-old VHS tapes of Bulls games. Nurse would watch every game religiously, rewinding, pausing, and playing. “I studied his substitutions, his timeouts, his late-game stuff, his demeanour, his belief in having a system, his ability to give players freedom, his belief in pressure defense. There’s a lot of things there,” Nurse said of studying Jackson. “I mean really, he was a guy I certainly looked up to and learned a lot from, even though he didn’t know it.” In fact, one of the first things Nurse did after landing the Raptor’s head coaching job was to reach out to Jackson.

Nurse would go on to spend eleven seasons coaching in the BBL, winning two championships, one with Birmingham in 1996 and the other with the Manchester Giants in 2000. He also won the BBL Coach of the Year Award in the 1999-00 and 2003-04 seasons. Nurse’s experience overseas helped him gain attention when he returned to the United States. He went on to work his way into the D-League (now the G-League) in 2007 and eventually into the NBA under Casey’s staff with the Raptors in 2013.

Nick Nurse: NBA Head Coach

Nurse took over as head coach for Casey after the Raptor’s playoff run was once again halted at the hands of a four-game sweep by the Cleveland Cavaliers (or, rather, by LeBron James). In the Toronto media and around the NBA there was uncertainty and frustration of whether hiring from within the organization made sense. That was certainly valid: how would a member of Dwane Casey’s staff, who played a part in the Raptor’s repeated playoff failures, be any different than before?

Raptors’ President of Basketball Operations Masai Ujiri decided the head coach wouldn’t be the only thing to change. In June of 2018, Kawhi Leonard was added to the roster in exchange for DeMar DeRozan. Like the Nurse hiring, there was uncertainty about Leonard’s health and his willingness to play for Toronto. Both the coaching change and trade would pay off as Toronto captured its first championship in franchise history.

This season has been more of the same, more of what Raptors’ fans are accustomed to seeing with Nurse leading. A disciplined team on both sides of the ball with tight and strict defensive rotations and crisp offensive sets. The same hard work and determination that represents Nurse’s journey has had a resonating effect on his roster.

The Raptors will have to use hard work to overcome the adversity that finishing this season presents.

Knowing Nurse and the Raptors, they’ll be ready for the challenge.

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