LONG JOURNEY CULMINATES IN NBA WIN FOR COACH NURSE
Raptors serve up opening-night victory to well-travelled, well-rested new bench boss
Nick Nurse had it all figured out. He was going to have trouble sleeping the night before the big game. Why wouldn’t he?
So he was drawing up plays at home, the way all coaches draw up plays, not on paper in this case, just in his head. This is the coach’s version of counting sheep. Only he isn’t sure he made it through a single play.
“I fell asleep pretty quick.” A lifetime of preparation for the job of a lifetime and on Day 1 as an NBA head coach, Nurse came off as relaxed, well-rested, prepared, funny, comfortable. This is the basketball dream of many who carry whistles and clipboards: Few ever find their way to opening night in charge of an NBA team.
“I’ve been asked a lot of questions about the journey in the last couple of months, so I’ve been kind of reflecting on it verbally to a lot of people,” said the new Raptors coach. “Again, I don’t want to make it sound like it’s not a big deal to me. But I said it when I got hired: I said for five years I’ve had a thousand people telling me I was going to be a head coach in the NBA. And when I got the job those same thousand people were shocked. And those same thousand people are really nervous tonight, so it’s kind of carried on a little bit.”
Nurse once thought he would become an accountant. That’s what he was studying at Northern Iowa University. Basketball was his sport and his passion. Accounting was his future. Until one day he made that difficult call home. No tax returns for him. He was pursuing a career in basketball.
That decision came more than 30 years ago. He didn’t know if the NBA was in his future, nor did he seem to care. Coaching is what was in his heart. It meant he would move to 13 places, to different leagues, to different continents. His last assignment before being hired by Dwane Casey as an assistant in 2013 was coaching the Rio Grande Valley Vipers, from Edinburg, Texas, wherever that is.
It wasn’t a million miles from the NBA. It only seemed like it before he landed in Toronto.
Now Casey is gone. He and Nurse no longer communicate. And the Raptors have entrusted their deepest team in history to a coach who has never been on the big stage. It’s a lofty jump for Nurse at age 51, and when he got the job he heard from old friends — the way we all do — and old coaches and those he ventured with along the way.
“Long time ago we used to sit around eating popcorn and drawing up plays,” Nurse said. “I did have a guy wish me luck and he said I still have a pizza box we drew a play on at a camp we were doing in Kansas City 30 years ago. He’s now the head coach at Illinois (Brad Underwood) and the other guy is the head coach at East Tennessee (Steve Forbes). I don’t remember drawing on a pizza box, but I guess he did.”
This summer, on his way to opening night, Nurse stopped in to visit his college coach and his first head coach as a student assistant just outside Traverse City, Mich.
Eldon Miller is 79 now, a long way removed from Ohio State and Northern Iowa. Nurse flew in to see one of his mentors and was picked up at the airport by the old coach.
Nurse was in the vehicle for about 20 seconds when Miller turned to him and said: “You want to know what it’s all about?” Nurse wanted to know. “Playing to win without fear.” “That was the end of the conversation as we drove in silence,” Nurse said.
“Pretty good one,” he said, then repeated to himself, “Pretty good one.”
Coaching is about preparation, but nothing quite prepares you for the first game. It is new. It is exciting. It is challenging and loud. lt can be exhilarating. It can be overwhelming. Nurse, from the outside, appears ready.
He got a break with the opening night schedule. Cleveland, without LeBron James, was the Raptors’ opponent. If you’re going to debut as an NBA head coach, you might as well win it.
This one was never really in doubt, with Toronto winning 116104 in what was also the debut game for star forward Kawhi Leonard.
Over the next few weeks, the next few months, we’ll find out more about Nurse; what kind of game coach he happens to be, what kind of practice coach he is. How quickly this new Raptors team finds cohesion will certainly be part of the early coaching evaluation. This isn’t like Nurse’s first head-coaching job. He was 23 years old at the time.
“I really didn’t know what I was doing,” he said.
It was at Grand View University, a rather tiny school in Des Moines, the big city in Iowa.
“I remember getting that job and thinking, ‘Oh my God, they gave me the job.’ I called Eldon up. I called my high school coach. You think you’re ready but you really aren’t.”
He thinks he’s ready now. He has passed all the exams to date, put in the years to build his reputation. He’s undefeated, 1-0, as an NBA coach.
For one night, this night, you can’t do any better than that.
For five years I’ve had a thousand people telling me I was going to be a head coach in the NBA.
Kawhi Leonard moves past Ante Zizic of the Cleveland Cavaliers on Wednesday at the Scotiabank Arena in Toronto. The new Raptors forward notched a double-double in a 116-104 opening-night victory, giving new head coach Nick Nurse his first NBA win.