Route to NBA glory via the M1 and M6

The Daily Telegraph - Business - - Sport - Daniel Schofield

Nick Nurse’s in­tro­duc­tion to pro­fes­sional bas­ket­ball coach­ing came 30 years ago in the most in­aus­pi­cious of sur­round­ings in a run­down venue in the Lon­don Dock­lands. The an­nouncer be­gan in­tro­duc­ing the teams, but the mi­cro­phone stopped work­ing. So he dropped the mike and just bel­lowed out the play­ers’ names.

A few years later in 1995, Nurse was mulling over whether to con­tinue coach­ing as head of an un­der­per­form­ing Birm­ing­ham Bul­lets team who were com­pet­ing in the Bri­tish Bas­ket­ball League. As he told re­porters this week, he de­cided to draw up a short­list of al­ter­na­tive pro­fes­sions.

“One was go back to the States and run a recre­ation cen­tre,” Nurse said. “One was real es­tate; I had an ac­count­ing de­gree and that one looked re­ally bad to me… and I don’t even re­mem­ber what the fourth one was. I re­mem­ber go­ing back to my ho­tel and think­ing should I pack up and go home? But I wrote down those four other jobs and they all looked like s--- to me, so I thought I’d bet­ter get work­ing on coach­ing and fig­ure it out.”

Last week­end, Nurse, now in charge of Toronto Rap­tors, was crowned the NBA’s Coach of the Year. Among a panel of 100 sports­writers and broad­cast­ers he was the near unan­i­mous choice, re­ceiv­ing 90 first-place votes. Af­ter guid­ing the Toronto Rap­tors to their first NBA Cham­pi­onship last sea­son, ev­ery­one was pre­dict­ing the fran­chise would fall apart fol­low­ing su­per­star Kawhi Leonard’s move to the LA Clip­pers last sum­mer. In­stead, Nurse guided to them their best reg­u­lar sea­son, win­ning 53 of 72 games, and they sub­se­quently swept the Brook­lyn Nets, 4-0, in the first round of the play­offs last week in Or­lando. They are due to play Bos­ton Celtics in the quar­ter-fi­nals tonight al­though the match might be called off as part of a play­ers’ protest at events in Kenosha, where a black man, Ja­cob Blake, was shot by po­lice.

Nurse is now con­sid­ered NBA roy­alty, reg­u­larly rub­bing

‘I spent a lot of time try­ing to fig­ure the game out, learn­ing how to win in all kinds of funky sce­nar­ios’

shoul­ders with Rap­tors su­per­fan and global mu­sic star Drake. Yet far from try­ing to air­brush his decade in the dis­tinctly less glam­orous Bri­tish Bas­ket­ball League, Nurse is proud of his stint.

The sub­ject of coach de­vel­op­ment is pro­vok­ing some in­ter­est­ing dis­cus­sion. In a col­umn in The Daily Tele­graph, Rus­sell Earn­shaw re­called Dean Ryan say­ing a for­mer Eng­land player had “earned the right” to be­come a Premier­ship coach on ac­count of his 50 Test caps. A quick scout of the play­ing CVs of in­ter­na­tional rugby’s finest brains from Ed­die Jones to War­ren Gat­land to Joe Sch­midt and Steve Hansen con­firms that there is lit­tle cor­re­la­tion be­tween play­ing abil­ity and tac­ti­cal nous.

In foot­ball, the hottest coach­ing prop­erty right now is 33-year-old Ju­lian Nagels­mann, who never made a sin­gle ap­pear­ance as a pro­fes­sional foot­baller, but took RB Leipzig to the Cham­pi­ons League semi-fi­nals. Nagels­mann com­mit­ted to coach­ing while still a teenager, when his play­ing ca­reer was ended by a knee in­jury.

Sim­i­larly, Nurse’s play­ing ca­reer fin­ished when he was just 23 while he was rep­re­sent­ing the Derby Rams. Un­like Nagels­mann, Nurse had to take the long and wind­ing road to the bright lights via spells in charge of the Manch­ester Gi­ants, the Lon­don Tow­ers and five years with the Brighton Bears.

It all started with the Bul­lets when he had that de­ci­sion to make. At the time, the Bul­lets were 8-8 for the sea­son. They fin­ished 26-10 and went on to ap­pear in the BBL play-off fi­nals. He would go on to win eight tro­phies in the BBL and even signed ex-Chicago Bulls su­per­star Den­nis Rod­man at Brighton. In 2007, Nurse re­turned to the States af­ter be­ing ap­pointed head coach of Iowa En­ergy in the NBA’s re­serve league. Yet he owed his break in the NBA to a for­mer Derby team-mate, Ma­sai Ujiri, who is now the Rap­tors’ pres­i­dent of bas­ket­ball op­er­a­tions.

Nurse re­turned to be Team GB’s as­sis­tant coach at the Lon­don 2012 Olympics un­der his friend, Chris Finch, and has never for­got­ten the debt he owes to Bri­tish bas­ket­ball.

“It never re­ally dawned on me that maybe some peo­ple saw Bri­tain as a bas­ket­ball back­wa­ter be­cause I loved it there,” Nurse said in a 2018 in­ter­view. “I was a young kid who had lived in Iowa all his life and here I was, mak­ing friends, trav­el­ling around Europe. I just spent a lot of time try­ing to fig­ure the game out, driv­ing up and down the M6 or M1 watch­ing bas­ket­ball and learn­ing how to win in all sorts of funky sce­nar­ios.”

Trav­el­ling man: Nick Nurse, NBA coach of the year, spent years learn­ing his trade with teams in Bri­tain

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