'I'm not surprised at all by what's happening': A look at Nick Nurse's rise to stardom
The way Chris Short sees it, Nick Nurse has been coaching for years.
In fact, he first saw "coach Nurse" when the two were playing for the U-17 Carroll Knight Hawks in the AAU team.
As Short remembers it, the team was playing in Des Moines in 1983. Their team, coached by Short’s dad, Jim, was trailing in the fourth quarter when they took a timeout. Nurse gathered his teammates.
There, on the sidelines of the Goodrell Middle School gymnasium, Nurse concocted a play. The kid who had just finished his sophomore season at Carroll Kuemper set up a couple of screens that would hopefully get a player open for a 30-foot look.
“We didn’t have whiteboards,” Short said. “He was just kind of using his fingers.”
There were only about 15 or 20 people in the stands that day, but they all watched as the Carroll team took Nurse’s orders, walked out onto the floor and tried to execute the impromptu play.
“It didn’t quite work to perfection, but anyway, Nick got the ball at the opposite free throw line and pretty much just turned and shot and banked in about a 75-footer and gave us a victory,” Short said.
So began what has turned out to be a remarkable coaching career. After bouncing around the world and waiting for his shot at the NBA, the Iowa native is now getting ready for his biggest moment on the sidelines .
In just his first season as the head coach of the Toronto Raptors, Nurse has his team in the NBA Finals against the Golden State Warriors dynasty. The quest to the franchise's first championship begins Thursday.
“I’m not surprised at all by what’s happening,” said former Northern Iowa coach Eldon Miller, who coached Nurse while he was with the Panthers.
'The guys looked to Nick'
Nurse could do it all when he was a kid. On the baseball field, he was the first of his friends who could hit a homer. The reason: He was a switch hitter when he was 7 and used his left-handed hitting abilities to smack homers over a shorter right field. Nurse was also a quarterback and star pole vaulter, practicing on a pit his family had in the backyard of their home.
Basketball was his passion, though.
Short and Nurse, who lived close to each other growing up, would play basketball against each other in their parent’s basement. They’d use a Nerf hoop in Nurse’s house and a plywood hoop in Short’s. The two would go back and forth at each other, pretending they were NBA players. Whoever had the ball would act as the announcer, broadcasting the play-by-play.
“He was so good,” Short said. “He’d toy with me. He’d let me in the game, get me a lead and then come back and beat me all the time. He was incredible from a small age like that.”
Nurse stood out on the basketball court. He guided Carroll Kuemper to its first and only boys’ state basketball championship in 1985. He earned a scholarship to play for UNI, where he still holds the school record for career 3-point field goal percentage (.468).
His playing career opened up his first door to coaching. After college, Miller brought Nurse on as a graduate assistant. When Miller took over the program before the 1986 season, he had a meeting with his players. Nurse was one of five players at the meeting in the classroom in Cedar Falls.
Miller knew from Day 1 that Nurse had what it took to be a coach.
“I could see it in the meeting how the other four guys looked to Nick and kind of represented them,” Miller said. “You could pick up right away in a situation like that who the players thought was running the show.”
But Nurse wasn't just a leader off the court. He was a leader on it as well. And Miller was impressed with how well Nurse knew the game.
“Everybody who has basketball I.Q. could learn plays and probably understand their options,” Miller said. “But, very few people know why you do what you do. Nick’s one of those rare people that is a big-picture guy. And it’s not just about a play. It’s about a flow of the game. A lot of people understand a play, but they don’t understand a flow of a game.
"Nick understands the flow of a game.”
Miller believed Nurse understood it so much that when he left Northern Iowa in 1998, he recommended Nurse and another former Panthers player for the job.
"I wanted to see him running the Northern Iowa program," Miller said. "I told a guy, 'You can hire Nick Nurse or Greg McDermott. Either way, you're going to keep getting better.'"
'I was kind of hooked on the professional thing'
Nurse's coaching career began with a grassroots effort. After one season as a graduate assistant at Northern Iowa, Nurse went looking for other work. Carroll High School coach Bill Baddeley gave him the email address for the Derby Storm, a team in the British Basketball League. Nurse emailed a letter, resume and press clippings. He was hired as a player/coach in 1990.
After one season, Nurse learned that Grand View was looking for a men's coach. So, Nurse cold called Grand View athletic director Lou Yacinich and asked if the two could meet. Nurse came to Des Moines and spoke with Yacinich, who was blown away by Nurse's experience and enthusiasm despite being just 23. He was also impressed with Nurse's aspirations.
"He was honest with us, just saying he wanted to build up Grand View University into a strong basketball program because he said that would build his resume and he'd get the opportunity to move up the next level."
Yacinich hoped that wasn't the case. In fact, he used to joke with Nurse that he'd fall in love with Grand View and wouldn't want to coach anywhere else.
"I told him he'd probably be here at Grand View to coach his own kids and probably his grandkids and so forth, because he'd like it that much," Yacinich said.
Nurse was right, though — the job was a stepping stone. He left Grand View following the 1993 season, moving on to South Dakota as an assistant until 1995. Looking to get more head coaching experience, Nurse went back to the BBL, this time to the Birmingham Bullets.
He didn't anticipate being overseas for more than a year or two. But for much of the next decade, he ended up coaching professional teams: the Birmingham Bullets, Telindus Oostende, Manchester Giants, London Towers and Brighton Bears. He also returned to the United States twice, first in 2001 and then in 2005, to coach the Oklahoma Storm of the United States Basketball League.
"I was kind of hooked on the professional thing and the international thing," Nurse said.
Nurse wanted to keep moving up the coaching ladder, with the NBA as a goal. He knew he had to return home for good to do it.
'I couldn't get anybody to talk to me'
Nurse always wanted to come back to the United States. The problem was, he couldn't find work. When the NBA Development League began in 2001, he thought that could be a good landing spot. For three or four years, he tried getting on a staff as an assistant in what was then the D-League. No one was willing to give Nurse a shot,.
"I couldn't get anybody to talk to me," Nurse said while he was coaching overseas. "I just wasn't the profile they were looking for. They were looking for former (NBA) players."
So, Nurse went a different route. He began plotting to start a team in Iowa that he could coach. Nurse spoke with Wells Fargo Arena representatives and D-League president Phil Evans about possibly adding a team in Des Moines. Then, one of Nurse's old assistants, Orv Salmon, recommended he get in touch with prominent Des Moines attorney Jerry Crawford, who was also interested in bringing a team to town. Crawford, who had met Nurse during his Grand View days, got really interested when he heard Nurse was on board.
"I was very impressed with him then," Crawford said.
Together, the two formed the Iowa Energy. Nurse became the team's first head coach. The goal was to not only bring professional basketball to Des Moines but help Nurse rise in the coaching ranks. Nurse, who had a hand in coming up with the team name, logo and even uniforms, helped sell tickets. He even worked as a fitness trainer in Des Moines to help pay the bills. More importantly, the Energy job got him the experience and exposure he was looking for.
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During the the 2010–11 season, Nurse won the Dennis Johnson Coach of the Year Award after helping Iowa achieve the best record in the league (37–13) and eventually the 2011 D-League championship. Nurse had a brief stop at Iowa State as a member of McDermott's staff, but when McDermott left for Creighton, Nurse returned to the Energy.
In four seasons with the Energy, he compiled a 132-85 record. He also won a D-League championship with the Rio Grande Valley Vipers in 2012-13.
Wayne Chandlee, Nurse's high school coach at Kuemper who would often visit Nurse in Des Moines or in Texas while he was coaching, could see how intent his former player was on getting to the next level. Nurse would get up most mornings at 5:30 a.m. and watch film, come up with practice plans and make calls on players. He'd then stay up late at night, continuing to work even after the day was done.
The goal was the NBA. And the NBA was taking notice of him, thanks to his D-League success.
One of the times Chandlee was staying with Nurse, then-Chicago Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau called. Thibodeau needed a player who could guard Derrick Rose in practice. That same day, the Miami Heat called looking for a player to guard Dwayne Wade. Nurse recommended Terrel Harris, who ended up wining a championship with the Heat in 2012.
"They had that respect for him," Chandlee said.
It showed. In July of 2013, Nurse was hired as an assistant for the Raptors, working under Dwane Casey. Without the Energy job, Nurse isn't sure he would have ever landed in the D-League.
"I don't think so," Nurse said.
His offensive wizardry led the Raptors to promote Nurse off the bench and replace Casey when he was fired after last season. What a year's it been: a 58-24 record in his first season and a trip to the NBA Finals.
Quite the journey.
"I"m not really in looking-back mode, but I really loved all the jobs I had. I really did," Nurse said. "They all meant the world to me at that moment in time."
The success and the added attention hasn't changed him, though. Before the season started, Nurse returned to Carroll to conduct a basketball camp. During the preseason, he brought Chandlee to Toronto to sit in on workouts and meetings. Throughout the season, he's helped get friends such as Short tickets to games.
Everyone who has been around Nurse is happy to see his patience and persistence pay off.
"It doesn't surprise me at all," Chandlee said. "He's paid his dues."
Nick Nurse's coaching career
1989–1990: Northern Iowa (assistant)
1990–1991: Derby Storm (player-coach)
1991–1993: Grand View
1993–1995: South Dakota (assistant)
1995–1997: Birmingham Bullets
1998: Telindus Oostende
1998–2000: Manchester Giants
2000–2001: London Towers
2001: Oklahoma Storm (assistant)
2001–04, 2006: Brighton Bears
2005: Oklahoma Storm (assistant)
2007–2011: Iowa Energy
2011–2013: Rio Grande Valley Vipers
2013–2018: Toronto Raptors (assistant)
2018–present: Toronto Raptors