In Nick Nurse’s just-released autobiography, Rapture, the Toronto Raptors head coach – and reigning NBA coach of the year – describes the players and mentors who helped him find a way to win across the 15 teams and four countries of his circuitous basketball journey.
Written with Michael Sokolove, the memoir details his journey from high school state-championship point guard in Carroll, Iowa, to head coach of an NBA champion with the Raptors. It covers the days when he handed out flyers for his youth basketball clinics, to his time coaching in Britain and experimenting in the NBA’s development league before he landed in Toronto.
Basketball fans will find his revelations intriguing. Nurse explains the sentimental reason he wears clear glasses on game days despite having had corrective laser eye surgery. He writes about the specially painted basketball he invented to teach shooting, which he named the “Nurse’s Pill.” He talks about playing his keyboard on the road, meeting Kawhi Leonard for the first time, and how he celebrated the night the Raptors won the title.
Nurse describes the basement whiteboard sessions in Iowa with long-time friend and assistant Nate Bjorkgren (who has joined the Indiana Pacers as head coach) that sharpened their strategic creativity. He writes about his experimental freedom coaching the Houston Rockets' D-League team, tinkering with how fast a team could play and how many three-point shots it could fire – innovation that helped change modern NBA playing style.
We caught up with Nurse earlier this month to talk about his book, his team’s second-round exit from the NBA playoffs, and how he’s filling the time before the Raptors play again.
When did you have time to write a book?
It’s been done for quite a while, because it was originally going to come out in June . We started in on it right when I got the Raptors head-coaching job. Brandon Hurley, assistant sports editor [and the book’s lead researcher] at my hometown paper, the Carroll Times Herald, this was his idea. He came to Indiana and met me when we played the Pacers and we started in on it. After what happened last season, we picked up the pace. Then we recently added some new stuff at the end. You start out writing all the things you want to say but you have to trim off the excess without losing the points you want to get across. Mike Sokolove was amazing. It was great to see somebody like him at the top of his game operate, and he was really fun to work with.
You visited legendary coach Phil Jackson in Montana right after you became the Raptors head coach. What did you take away from that visit?
I studied Phil Jackson when I was a young coach in the 1990s. If you were trying to learn how to coach basketball you were definitely enamored with the Bulls and Michael Jordan and Phil. I was watching game tape of the Bulls a lot back then. I was just studying the offence and ended up studying timeouts and substitutions and pressure defence and end-of-game plays and all the stuff that Phil was doing as coach of the Bulls. When I went out there he left me with a lot of leadership and visionary ideas. He touches on spirituality, talks about the basketball gods and says ‘Don’t defy the basketball gods.’ Showing compassion was one of his big messages. You’ve got to meet guys, but don’t forget to show compassion and remember where they’ve come from and what they could be going through.
You are actively pursuing your PhD?
It’s a PhD in philosophy with an emphasis in sports leadership. Luckily I had most of it done before I became the head coach. I thought it would be a nice little project on the road as an assistant to fill time and stay with continuous lifelong learning, and it got harder after I got the head-coaching job. I have all the course work done, and I’m in the middle of the dissertation, so hopefully I can do that during this off-season.
There’s a lot of learning and connections you make with other students, sharing ideas and research, which I like. My dissertation is certainly not rocket science. One of my major priorities with the job I have is to make sure our players have an impact in their local communities, through foundations, charitable giving and giving of their time, so my dissertation is a study of how NBA players impact their local communities. It was a lot of good research for me as I started my own foundation this year. I hope it’s useful information we can pass on to players for years to come.
You talk about that feeling of being at the whiteboard in front of a whole team with players measuring you up and having to prove what you know. How do you get over that and does that feeling ever go away?
Even when I was coaching in the D-League, most of the times when I got up in front of the team for the first time the consensus around the room is, ‘Who the hell is this guy?’ When I came to the Raptors I could kind of feel this ‘Who is this minor-league guy?’ It’s a little bit that way every season, and every time you get a new player. The team gets to know you. I don’t think it would be any different in a lot of other professions; there’s always a getting-to-know-you uncomfortableness that you have to go through and get over.
What has it been like for you and the team since you exited the NBA playoffs in the second round and left the bubble in Orlando, without repeating as champions?
It was difficult. I think it was such a weird scenario, because you were getting to leave the bubble – which was getting kind of old, right? But that meant your season was over, and you didn’t want that to happen either. I think that we were fortunate and happy to be back to work in a safe environment. We were really close to playing really well, but we just didn’t quite get over the hump. It hurt to be done, so much that I didn’t watch any of the playoffs until about Game 3 of the NBA Finals because I was still trying to recover from being knocked out, even though I think our guys gave everything they could give. Another bounce of the ball and we might have advanced.
How do you guys keep from feeling isolated from one another during the pandemic? The NBA says the season could start in January but it’s still hard to know what that will look like.
I think you take your normal time to decompress after the season, right? Mentally and physically, you take your month or whatever. You’ve got to let a little time pass so you can get a fresh start back into it. Then I think you go like this – you can use the uncertainty of it all to be hesitant about movement forward, or you can say ‘Listen, at some point we’re going to play, so let’s get to work.’ That’s kind of my message.
This interview has been edited and condensed.