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Raptors Profiles: Nick Nurse’s Unlikely Path to the Top Tier of NBA Coaching

Photo Credit: Frank Gunn/Canadian Press

It’s taken a while, but Nick Nurse, the head coach of the Toronto Raptors, is recognized today as one of the league’s best coaches. The reigning NBA Coach of the Year is heralded by his peers and many around the league as one of the game’s most brilliand minds, and known to many as one of the game’s coolest characters.

As fans and followers of the team, we’ve seen his accomplishments on the court – like winning the 2019 NBA Championship – and his unforgettable moments – like when he was left frozen with his mouth open after a poor call from the officials.

But who is Nick Nurse? What was he doing before he made Canadian sports history by bringing Toronto its first ‘ship?

It’s story time.

Humble Beginnings

Nicholas David Nurse was born in Carroll, Iowa in 1967. Nurse was one of nine siblings – three girls and six boys – raised by mom, Marcella, and dad, Maury. Young Nick took to sports early in his childhood, following his dad’s passion, who was involved in youth basketball and baseball in the small town of about 10,000.

At Kuemper Catholic High School, he competed in pole vaulting, was the quarterback on the football team, a starting pitcher on the baseball team and starting point guard for the basketball team.

Photo Credit: CBC

Nurse starred in an Iowa state high school All-Star game, after which he was offered a scholarship to the University of Northern Iowa by head coach Jim Berry.

Nick the Sharpshooter

Nurse may not have been the most athletic player, but he stood out for his shooting and his understanding of the game. After finishing his senior year and graduating with a B.A. in accounting, Nurse would set the UNI records for career three-point percentage (46.8 per cent) and single season three-point percentage (49.7 per cent).

While he had no realistic shot of making it to the NBA, it was clear that Nurse had a stunning grasp of the game and had a future in the sports as a coach.

Coach Nurse

In 1990, Nick Nurse, fresh out of college, moved to England to be a player-coach for the Derby Rams of the British Basketball League. A year later, he moved back across the pond to take over as head coach of Grand View University at just 23 years old. He then worked as an assistant coach at the University of South Dakota for two seasons before heading back to Europe for the next 11 years.

Between 1995 and 2006, Nurse coached the Birmingham Bullets, Telindus Oostende, the Manchester Giants, the London Towers and the Brighton Bears, winning two BBL titles, one Belgian cup title and was twice named BBL Coach of the Year.

Graphic Credit: Sportsnet

Nurse returned to the United States in 2007 when he took over head coaching duties for the D-League’s Iowa Energy in their inaugural season. In the 2010-2011 season, Nurse won Coach of the Year and led the Energy to the D-League championship. Following the title win, he left his home state for the Rio Grande Valley Vipers, where he won a second title in the 2012-2013 season.

Finally in the big leagues

After an impressive stint in the NBA’s developmental league, Nurse finally got his break in the big league, joining Dwane Casey’s coaching staff with the Toronto Raptors in 2013. In his time as an assistant to Casey, he was in charge of the offence, implementing greater passing and better looks from beyond the arc, ahead of the league’s trends.

As an assistant, Nurse was apart of the 2017-2018 team that set a franchise record with 59 wins in one season. The dissapointing second round sweep to Lebron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers in the ensuing playoffs marked the end of Dwane Casey’s tenure as head coach of the Raptors, opening the door for the then 49 year-old Nurse.

A dream come true

On June 14, 2018, the Toronto Raptors promoted Nick Nurse to head coach – 28 years after his coaching debut in England. Toronto followed up the appoitment with a franchise-altering trade for superstar Kawhi Leonard, marking the beginning of a historic 2018-2019 season that was capped off by the franchise’s first NBA Championship.

Photo Credit: Vaughn Ridley/Getty Images

Despite losing Leonard in free agency in the following offseason, Nurse led the Raptors to a 53-19 record in the pandemic-shortened 2019-2020 season, earning him the NBA Coach of the Year honour.

This past offseason, the Raptors signed Nurse to a multi-year contract extension, keeping him in Toronto for the foreseeable future.

On the international stage

Nurse also worked as an assistant coach for the Great Britain national basketball team between 2009 and 2012, under former Raptors’ assistant and current T-Wolves head coach Chris Finch. The pair coached the team in the 2012 London Summer Olympics, finishing fifth in Group B.

In the summer of 2019, Nurse was announced as the head coach of the Canadian national basketball team. His first tournament as head coach was the 2019 FIBA World Cup, where the team failed to qualify out of their group in the opening round.

NN off the court

Nick Nurse is widely recognized as an elite tactician and brilliant basketball mind, but Raptors fans and media also know him as a down-to-earth, polite and genuine guy. Watch any of his press conferences and the first thing that stands out – apart from his midwestern twang – is how he addresses each media member by their names when answering their questions.

He is currently working towards getting an online Ph.D. in philosophy with an emphasis on sports leadership from Concordia University Chicago.

When he’s not coaching or studying basketball, you can catch him watching his beloved Chicago Cubs.

He’s also recently taken up learning to play guitar, even appearing on-stage with Hamilton rock band Arkells at a sold-out show in Toronto in 2019.

Nurse and his wife Roberta have two sons, named Leo and Rocky Levi.

Photo Credit: Wink News

Nick Nurse has made a home for himself in Toronto. Not only has his stellar leadership and success on the court at every level made him a valuable coach, but his modesty, humility and cultivated personality have made him a joy to follow and cheer for.

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