Route to NBA glory via the M1 and M6
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