LONG JOUR­NEY CUL­MI­NATES IN NBA WIN FOR COACH NURSE

Rap­tors serve up open­ing-night vic­tory to well-trav­elled, well-rested new bench boss

Calgary Herald - - SPORTS - STEVE SIM­MONS ssim­[email protected]­media.com twit­ter.com/sim­mon­ssteve

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.

NATHAN DENETTE/THE CANA­DIAN PRESS

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.

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