When you think of your favorite sports team, your mind probably jumps to the star players. For the Toronto Raptors, that currently means Pascal Siakam or some guys from the past like Vince Carter. Head coach Nick Nurse, however, deserves some recognition for his team’s success.
While Nurse recently claimed the 2020 Coach of the Year crown, his career almost took a much different path. Long before taking charge of the Toronto Raptors, he even considered completely abandoning basketball and taking a civilian job.
Nick Nurse’s unconventional road to the NBA
Whether you’re a player or coach, most Americans cut their teeth in the NCAA ranks before heading to the pros. While Nick Nurse did spend some time at the college level, his road to the NBA was a bit unconventional.
Nurse played his college ball at the University of Northern Iowa but didn’t have what it took to play in the NBA. He joined the Derby Rams of the British Basketball League (BBL) as a player-coach but, after one season, returned to the United States to try and make it as a fulltime coach.
He got his chance at Grand View University and spent two seasons as the school’s head coach; his next move took the young coach to the University of South Dakota, where he joined the staff as an assistant. In 1995, however, Nurse returned to Europe. Barring brief stints in Belgium and the United States Basketball League, he plied his trade in the BBL, making a name for himself as a promising young coach.
Eventually, though, Nurse landed another North American job, taking charge of the Iowa Energy in what was then called the NBA D-League. After winning a title there and another with the Rio Grande Valley Vipers, he earned a place on the Toronto Raptors coaching staff. When Dwane Casey lost his job in 2018, Nurse took over the top job.
Almost giving up on the game of basketball
Based on his current success, it’s easy to say that Nick Nurse’s time abroad paid off. At the time, however, the coach considered quitting basketball for good.
“At 28, with Nick Nurse’s Birmingham Bullets off to a mediocre start, he started to seriously ask himself those questions [about whether everything he was doing would be worth it],” Eric Koreen wrote explained for The Athletic. “He wrote down a few things that might be options for him aside from coaching. He could fall back on his accounting degree, with an emphasis on ‘fall back.’ He could try to run a recreation centre back in the United States. Maybe he could get into real estate.”
“I went back to my hotel thinking maybe I should pack up and go home,” the coach explained. “I wrote down four other things I thought I might like doing, and they all looked like absolute s–t to me. So I figured I better get working on coaching and figure it out.”
It’s safe to say that he did just that. His Bullets won the BBL title that year and Nurse, of course, eventually made it to the big-time.
Nick Nurse didn’t quit and won the 2020 NBA Coach of the Year title
While the Toronto Raptors won the 2019 NBA title, they suffered a significant blow when Kawhi Leonard left town in free agency. That challenge, however, gave the likes of Pascal Siakam and Nick Nurse a chance to shine.
The Raptors, of course, didn’t miss a beat during the regular season. Siakam, in his first chance to be the club’s main man, took another step forward and averaged 22.9 points, 7.3 rebounds, and 3.5 assists per outing. Nurse, for his part, guided his team through plenty of injury woes to a 53-19 record, clinching the second spot in the Eastern Conference. That success helped him cruise to the 2020 NBA Coach of the Year title, claiming 90 of the 100 available first-place votes.
Even in his big moment, though, Nurse shared the spotlight.
“Let’s start with Kyle [Lowery] and Fred [VanVleet] and the rest of the players and staff and all that kind of stuff,” he said, according to Tim Bontemps of ESPN. “It just doesn’t happen [without them]. It’s a real organizational-type award. I said that when we went to coach the All-Star Game, too, but it’s true. You’re not given that award without guys like Kyle and Fred, Serge [Ibaka] and Marc [Gasol], Pascal [Siakam] and OG [Anunoby], all the way down that are going out there and performing on the court every night. [And] you’re not getting an award without a great staff.”
At the end of the day, though, Nick Nurse has now won an NBA title and the NBA Coach of the Year award. He’s certainly come a long way from struggling through a BBL season and considering quitting basketball forever.