You are using an older browser version. Please use a supported version for the best MSN experience.

'People gravitate toward him': How first-year coach Nick Nurse has Raptors in NBA Finals

USA TODAY SPORTS logo USA TODAY SPORTS 5/30/2019 Jeff Zillgitt
UP NEXT
UP NEXT

TORONTO – It’s a long way from coaching in England’s unremarkable pro basketball league to Game 1 of the NBA Finals. And it's a great distance from coaching small college ball and sleeping on dorm-room floors while coaching at summer camps to trying to dethrone the Golden State Warriors.

The metaphorical miles can’t be measured, even from G League head coach to NBA head coach.

But here Nick Nurse is, leading the Toronto Raptors against the Warriors with an NBA championship on the line.

“In the mid-’90s, I had just become the head coach at Barton County Community College, and I offered Nick the assistant’s job,” East Tennessee State coach Steve Forbes said.

“He said, ‘I want to pursue this professional dream. I want to be an NBA coach someday.’ And that’s what he did. He was focused on that being his career path. It was probably a road less traveled but it was a road that worked for him.”


Nurse, 51, has guided the Raptors to the franchise’s first appearance in the Finals in his first season as an NBA head coach. He spent the previous five seasons with the Raptors as an assistant coach for Dwane Casey. When Casey was dismissed, Toronto president Masai Ujiri turned to Nurse.

“Being a first-year head coach there's going to be an adjustment period, and I think he's done remarkably well, even using some of his past experiences,” Ujiri said. “He talks about the G League, he talks about Europe.”

The four coaches in the Finals the past five seasons reached the Finals in their first season: Steve Kerr with Golden State, David Blatt and Tyronn Lue with Cleveland and Nurse with Toronto.

Nurse grew up in Iowa, played at Northern Iowa and after college, he began his coaching career, first as a player-coach for the Derby Storm in England and then as head coach for NAIA Grand View University (Des Moines, Iowa).

a man standing in front of a crowd: Toronto Raptors head coach Nick Nurse. © Tom Szczerbowski, USA TODAY Sports Toronto Raptors head coach Nick Nurse.

There is no such thing as a normal path to a head-coaching job in the NBA, but Nurse took a path he felt could get him where he wanted even if it meant coaching in low-level, far-flung locales: Birmingham, Manchester and Brighton, England; Ostend, Belgium; Vermillion, South Dakota.

“My goal early in becoming a head coach so young was to find out if I could do it,” Nurse said. “I just wanted to see if I could be a good head coach and then start learning from head coaching.

“So, all those stops – I don't know how many years it was, 18, 20 years – of being a head coach, and in some pretty remote places, was still a valuable learning experience for me from just running and managing the team and being up in front of a team and preparing scouting reports and trying to figure out chemistry and lineups and schemes.”

Ujiri, who played pro basketball in England in the mid-’90s, remembers Nurse being the talk of the league because he was such a young head coach.

“We're a hardworking team, and Nick has that persona and that ethic that really translates to everybody and the whole organization,” Ujiri said.

Though Nurse had talent to work with, especially when the Raptors traded for Kawhi Leonard, he still had to navigate difficult situations this season, specifically management of Leonard’s playing time (he played in just 60 games).

“Nick has just been one to never complain," Ujiri said. “It's always ‘How does he adjust? How does he use what he has with the players?’ And to me that's one thing that has really stood out with him, and he's done a remarkable job.”

Story continues below gallery

The Raptors have been impressed with Nurse’s ability to find solutions. Early this season, he began splitting the minutes for big men Serge Ibaka and Jonas Valanciunas so they weren’t on the court together.

In the conference finals against Milwaukee at the end of Game 2, Nurse realized Norman Powell needed more minutes in the series and Leonard needed to spend more time guarding Giannis Antetokounmpo. Down 2-0 in the series, those changes helped propel Toronto to a 4-2 victory.

“He provides a lot of confidence and encouragement and poise,” Raptors guard Danny Green said. “For a first-year guy, he’s been great. He has to manage so many egos we have on this team. He keeps us motivated. He gives everyone a shot and a chance to rise and shine.”

Green and Fred VanVleet were on the receiving end of that confidence and encouragement in the conference finals. Green was struggling with his shot and was 0-for-8 in Game 3. Early in the first overtime, Nurse ran a play for Green, who made a three, giving Toronto a 99-96 lead.

“We put him back in and I said to him, ‘You've got to hit one for us here, man,' ” Nurse said. “And he goes, ‘I will.’ And I said, ‘OK.’ So we drew it up for him, and he knocked it down.”

VanVleet was 3-for-25 on 3-pointers in the 10 previous playoff games before Game 4 against Milwaukee. In the next three games, VanVleet made 14 of 17 threes.

Nick Nurse standing in front of a crowd: Fred VanVleet of the Toronto Raptors talks to head coach Nick Nurse. © Gregory Shamus, Getty Images Fred VanVleet of the Toronto Raptors talks to head coach Nick Nurse.

“It means the world,” VanVleet said of Nurse’s faith in him. “You always want your coach’s confidence. He stuck with me when it wasn’t so pretty. He understood I was doing the other things that he demands of me. Man, that guy kept going to me. His overall presence can soothe things. This game can be really stressful, and he eases it for everyone.”

Forbes said it’s Nurse’s ability to relate to all people that makes him a successful coach.

“He’s innovative with personnel more than the X's and O's – who to play with whom,” Forbes said. “That comes down to having great relationships with your players. Just as important as X's and O's is getting your guys to believe. Everybody has talent. His personality is such that people gravitate toward him. I’m not surprised that he’s doing what he’s doing.”

And he does it with a little flair. He wears a Nick Nurse branded 'NN' Nike hat to press conferences and arrived in Milwaukee with a guitar strapped to his back. He says he can play a few three-chord songs.

And he does it with a singular purpose.

"I certainly enjoy coaching this team, and it's a really good team and a really good group of guys, and they're fighting like heck, and that's really all you can ask for, right?” Nurse said. “But I don't really care if I'm enjoying it or not. I'm here to try and win a basketball game and put everything I have into that and focus myself on that. Sometimes, I don't enjoy the wins, and I don't enjoy the losses, but I'm here just to get the result and get moving.”

Follow USA TODAY Sports' Jeff Zillgitt on Twitter @JeffZillgitt

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: 'People gravitate toward him': How first-year coach Nick Nurse has Raptors in NBA Finals

Related slideshow: Best of 2019 NBA playoffs (Provided by imagn) 

AdChoices
AdChoices

More from USA Today Sports

USA TODAY SPORTS
USA TODAY SPORTS
image beaconimage beaconimage beacon