Nick Nurse says the Toronto Raptors are having many long conversations lately, and even with the NBA’s restart nearing, those talks are rarely about basketball.
As demonstrators take to the streets across the globe as a reckoning against racial injustice, the Raptors head coach says the players and staff are entrenched in the issue. They have gathered several times virtually to share emotions and personal stories – some of which Nurse had never heard before.
“These guys talk about being pulled over by police, and how they were treated – lots of stories that for whatever reason they didn’t talk about really before,” he said on a video call Tuesday. “So, I think there’s been certainly a deeper understanding, maybe even a closeness amongst our staff and players. You get to learn more about a person and what they’ve been through. It always helps you in your empathy toward what they’re going through. And then you can always be there to listen again in the future.”
Nurse was also part of a call with all 30 NBA head coaches, who gathered virtually to discuss the issue and how they can help. They formed a subcommittee on the issue, led by Atlanta Hawks head coach Lloyd Pierce.
“There is a historic opportunity to make some lasting change and I think we all have to take part in that,” Nurse said. “As important as statements are, or wearing something signifying attention to it, etc., we want to dig in there and start formulating some action now.”
On Saturday, Raptors point guard Kyle Lowry was among those who marched in one of the largest protests in the United States – in his hometown of Philadelphia. Wearing a mask and a black T-shirt that read “I can’t breathe,” the all-star marched alongside 76ers players Matisse Thybulle and Tobias Harris.
“He’s certainly one of the stars of the league and our team, so his profile and platform are huge. I certainly know that it’s something really close to his heart,” Nurse said of Lowry. “I certainly commend him, I think he’s a tremendous leader. I think he sets a great example for players in the league, I think he sets a great example for his own children; he sets a great example for our team.”
The head coach of the NBA’s defending champs said he’s confident his players have been keeping in good shape. He hasn’t felt the need to talk much shop with them at this time, reasoning “we’re going to have plenty of time to get to the basketball.”
Nurse says he really likes the format of the NBA’s 22-team restart plan in Orlando’s Walt Disney World Resort, scheduled to tip off on July 31 and last into October. He likes that it begins with eight regular-season games and then sticks with the usual playoff format – four best-of-seven playoff rounds that finish with an East-West final.
“I think they did it right,” Nurse said. “I think we’re going to need the eight games to iron some things out, smooth some things out. And they’re going to be meaningful, they count, so that’ll help, too. And then we get into the playoffs where teams should be finding their feet and they should have some time to get ready to go into a playoff situation.”
While many teams will reunite in their home markets in early July before starting training camps at Disney later in the month, Nurse said the Raptors are still considering options of where to hold their camp. About half of the team headed to the U.S. during the shutdown, while the other half stayed in Toronto (that includes Italian assistant coach Sergio Scariolo, who is in charge of the Raptors’ defence).
When the NBA resumes after a nearly five-month pause in play, the Raptors will reclaim their 46-18 record. That’s the second-best mark in the Eastern Conference, 6.5 games behind the Milwaukee Bucks, and three games ahead of the Boston Celtics.
The Raptors earned home-court advantage, but it won’t mean much with everyone playing in the same city, with no fans. There has been much debate about whether the NBA should find a creative way to give the higher seeds some sort of advantage.
Nurse laughed, and said he’s no stranger to quirky rules and formats. The coach with the eclectic résumé shared a story about coaching in the Belgian league, where the rules of Belgian Cup play stated his first-division team had to spot a fourth-division opponent a 30-point lead to start the game (10 points for every tier between them). The NBA could add that rule, he joked.
So what does the Raptors coach foresee as the biggest challenge of everyone being together in one city for upward of three months, while being regularly tested for COVID-19 and adhering to physical-distancing measures while trying to defend their title?
“Your attitude day to day is going to get challenged in a different way, so how are you going to be able to – for lack of a better word – keep people from just complaining?” Nurse said. “You’re going to have to try to keep an extra positive attitude for starters, and you’re going to have to go with the flow a little bit, and understand going in that this is going to be different.”
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