Musings from the sports desk: Welcome home, Nick
As a new season approaches, the Raptors head coach returns to his roots
By Brandon Hurley
It’s almost as if he never left.
The NBA’s newest head coach was in top form Friday afternoon. The thing is, he was a long way from the hardwood in Canada.
Kawhi Leonard wasn’t sending back a vicious block, nor was Kyle Lowry nailing a step back three at the buzzer, heck, he wasn’t even harping at Jonas Valanciunas for missing a rebound.
In fact, I challenge you to find a moment this season when Carroll native and Toronto Raptors first-year head coach Nick Nurse matches the pure excitement and jubilation he released as he watched childhood friend Mitch McDermott drain a 30-foot birdie putt.
Nurse spent a muggy and warm Friday afternoon navigating the soft greens of his childhood course, the Carroll Country Club, reminiscing about the simple days gone by while consistently bombing drives down the fairway.
The impromptu golf outing was his way to bring supporters and friends together, an event he organized, a hot shot NBA coach, with his entire Raptors staff in tow.
It’s been a journey, to say the least. A steady climb to the top of the coaching mountain, with death-defying obstacles along the way. OK, that may be overstating it a bit, but the path Nurse has taken to Toronto is nothing short of remarkable.
Nurse was ready for the call back in June, just who exactly it came from was a little different than he expected. It’s how unlikely the Toronto job really was that’s most captivating to Nurse.
With the Raptors humming along at a 59-win season, a number one seed and the franchise’s winningest coach at the helm, Nurse wasn’t expecting his next step to be in Canada. But Dwane Casey was let go in May, which set in motion Nurse’s pinnacle moment.
“It’s the last place I thought I was going to be. I had no idea I’d be the Toronto head coach,” Nurse said. “There were four of five other jobs that looked like they had my name on them. It was kind of weird how everything broke out and I ended up there.”
Nurse, a 1985 graduate of Kuemper Catholic, has quickly ascended the ranks of Carroll’s most famous natives, but it’s difficult to pry any arrogance out of him. There are still small moments of ‘awe’ that escape Nurse in conversation, away from the pressures of the court and the national media.
Of course, his life has changed drastically since I last saw him, but his personality certainly hasn’t.
“Obviously it’s a big moment, but it’s not like it came completely out of nowhere,” Nurse said of his promotion. “It was kind of building the last couple of years and I had a lot of teams talking to me. You’re obviously preparing for those interviews and all those kinds of things.
Looking back now that it’s happened, it’s good, because if I hadn’t got the Toronto job, who knows when this kind of momentum would come around again.
I’m really fortunate to be chosen.”
Last week’s golf outing was as cool as it was relaxing, providing this sportswriter some unbelievable access to a soon-to-be household name.
Three days later and I’m still kicking myself for not throwing my clubs in the trunk. I could’ve hit the links alongside an NBA head coach, and instead, I got a puny golf ball in return. (OK, it’s actually pretty cool, with “Raptors Alumni” printed on it accompanied by the 1990s logo).
Friday’s golf outing dropped into Troy Auen’s lap a few weeks ago, a Carroll High grad and former golf buddy and longtime friend of Nurse’s. He was sitting on his lake house porch when a spontaneous email dropped into his inbox.
It was Nurse, wanting to get the crew together for a golf outing prior to his camp on Sunday. The catch was, he’d be bringing his entire NBA staff, all 11 of them. Not too bad of a twist, huh?
Auen jumped at the chance, and when Nurse arrived in his hometown Aug. 24, there were 12 groups ready to tee it up, featuring one of the more diverse staffs in the entire NBA.
When you’ve got a staff with a Spanish National team coach (Sergio Scariolo), an assistant who’s worked out both LeBron James and Kobe Bryant (Phil Handy), as well as a Storm Lake, Iowa native (Nate Bjorkgren) and a resident of the Congo (Patrick Mutumbo), it’s hard to overlook. Sprinkle in an Iowa Hawkeye legend (Kevin Gamble) and you’ve got one of the most intriguing and diverse staffs in the league.
That’s due in large part to Nurse’s extensive network. Frankly, he’s made stops at all four corners of the globe, and everywhere in between. From Europe, to Iowa, to southern Texas and back, his relationships go deep, which paved the way for him to assemble quite the supporting cast for a rookie head coach.
“I’ve been all over the world, so you can see why the staff ends up being diverse,” Nurse said. “International experience. Guys from just about every stop (I’ve made). We wanted a diverse staff, I think it brings a lot. We want different viewpoints. We can kind of pool all that mixture of things together and see which one I like best.”
Familiarity was a common theme Friday afternoon. Auen, McDermott and Nurse recalled the long summer days spent in the country club pool, tossing around the Nerf ball in between 18-hole sessions. Life was a little slower back then, Nurse said as he uncorked another drive down the middle of the fairway.
“Where were our responsibilities?” he playfully asked.
Nurse should fit in nicely as Toronto’s top dog after having spent the last five years with the franchise. He’s more than ready to take the next step as the lead man once again. The former Knight was a head coach several times over from NAIA to the British Basketball League and the G League. Being at the top is all he ever aspires to achieve.
“We’ve got a really good team. I know what the players strengths and weaknesses are,” Nurse said. “The players know me pretty well, but they obviously don’t know me as a head coach. But it’s not like I’m totally foreign to them where I’m coming in with everything I’m saying and they are like ‘who’s this guy?’
So it ends up being a really good situation.”
Of course, there’s been a bit of an adjustment period as we sit a few months out from Toronto’s home and season-opener Oct. 17 against Cleveland.
He’s no longer an assistant with a few random interview requests from small town guys (ahem, me), he’s the head honcho expected to have all the answers.
“Before, my job was to just get us buckets and get the players better. That was kind of it, pretty narrow lane of stuff,” Nurse said. “Now, I’m overlooking all of that. (There’s) a lot of stuff to do, but it’s enjoyable and pretty fast paced it’s great to get back to the basketball, it’s where the comfort zone is for me.”
He walked into the Las Vegas Summer League last month expecting a low-key scouting trip, but that quickly evaporated as he was swarmed by the press. Being the athlete that he is (Nurse was the 1985 Des Moines Register athlete of the year), he dodged the initial round of rapid fire questions before popping back out to invite them to his hotel later that night.
Little did Nurse know, they’d all show up digging for exclusives.
Unfazed, the former UNI Panther snagged a few tables and allowed the reporters to conduct their business.
“It actually turned out pretty well and helped me get to know them,” Nurse said.
The reality of where being on the brink of stardom can take him began to set in as Nurse excitedly shared with several friends and eager eavesdroppers (like myself) of the pick up games he witnessed earlier in the week in LA.
Four MVPs shared a court on UCLA’s campus.
Those MVPs? James, Kevin Durant, James Harden and Russell Westbrook, the last four MVPs of the league. Add Kawhi Leonard to the mix (the 2014 NBA Finals MVP), and you’e got one hell of a pick up game.
You betcha Nick was still juiced last week about the Kawhi deal, which sent All-star DeMar DeRozan to the Spurs for Leonard, one of the top players in the entire NBA.
“Any big trade, any trade really, is surprising,” Nurse said. “There’s maybe a thousand trades that get talked about for every one that gets done. So when one happens, especially one of this magnitude happens, it surprises you. Even when they were calling me saying it might happen, as long as the word ‘might’ was in there, I still didn’t think that much about it.”
It was back to basketball a few days later, as Nurse hosted a shooting camp at the Kuemper Catholic High School Sunday afternoon, once again alongside his NBA staff.
That’s what really brought Nurse to town, his generosity and his love for family. A father of two (a teenage son, Noah, and a toddler, Leo), Nurse was readying for the sixth edition of his shooting camp in Ames Saturday when he decided to bring one to Kuemper. It was also a good excuse for Nurse to introduce his staff the beauty of Iowa.
“It’s been great, (we) got some good weather and some good golf. It’s been fun,” the coach said. “It worked out. With the workouts in LA finished, I had a lot of coaches with me.
So, let’s make it a little bit of a coaches retreat. We might as well go to Carroll and make it a weekend out of it.”
Nurse held a few film sessions at the Carrollton, but mostly shared the comforts of rural Iowa with his staff.
“It was all mixed around some good ole’ Iowa food, barbecue, golf and a couple basketball camps,” Nurse said. “It doesn’t get much better than that, does it?”
While it’s tough to envision his entire staff returning every year, Nurse still plans to keep the Carroll camp alive. In a sports hungry town, the former state champion doesn’t see too much of a hassle bringing his camp back.
“I can see doing the camp in Carroll quite a bit,” Nurse said. “It’s a good fundraiser for (Kuemper). I have family here, so why not throw in a camp while I’m here.”
If that’s the case, I’m bringing my golf clubs next year. Heck, I better put them in the car now.