Skip to main content

Toronto Raptors assistant coach Nick Nurse gestures during a game against the Detroit Pistons on Feb. 29, 2016.Carlos Osorio/The Associated Press

A dozen years ago, Nick Nurse walked into Jerry Crawford’s law office and pitched his longtime friend an idea.

“He said ‘Have you heard about this D League?“’ Crawford recalled of that momentous meeting. “I said ‘Yes.’ He said ‘I think we should do it here in Des Moines.’ and I said ‘I think you’re right.“’

The 50-year-old Nurse has agreed to become the next coach of the Toronto Raptors, the culmination of a circuitous coaching journey that enjoyed a pivotal moment in Des Moines. Crawford founded the Iowa Energy (now the Iowa Wolves) in 2007. He, of course, named Nurse his first head coach.

Read more: Former Raptors coach Dwane Casey reaches five-year deal with Pistons

“When people say that folks paid their dues to become head coaches in the NBA, rarely do they pay their dues to the extent that they had to start a team to be able to coach in order to get started on that pathway,” Crawford said. “That’s what Nick did.”

Nurse coached the Energy until 2011, when they won the D League (now G League) title, and the Iowan was named coach of the year.

Crawford first met Nurse when he was the head coach at Grand View College at just 23. The two kept in touch for almost a decade while Nurse coached in Britain before they collaborated on the Energy franchise. The lawyer was thrilled for his friend Tuesday.

“A lot of us who care about Nick have been on pins and needles for awhile, hoping that today would come,” Crawford said.

Nurse’s hiring comes a month after the Raptors fired Dwane Casey after Toronto was swept out of the second round of this year’s playoffs by Cleveland. Raptors president Masai Ujiri had reportedly narrowed his search down to Nurse and San Antonio assistant coach Ettore Messina. Mike Budenholzer, former head coach of the Atlanta Hawks, was also seen as an early front-runner before being hired by Milwaukee.

Nurse’s promotion suggests some continuity in style coming off a franchise-best 59-win season and the team’s first No. 1 seed. Nurse has been credited with the Raptors’ major offensive makeover that saw them jump to third in the league offensively overall, and from 22nd to third in three-pointers.

But Raptors fans know little about the team’s new head coach beyond the short interviews Nurse did during television broadcasts.

Nurse plays piano and loves movies. And while his Iowa Energy bio from the day he was named head coach mentioned his prowess as marathoner and triathlete — he won his age category in the 1996 Chicago Triathlon, according to the bio — nobody could corroborate that story. One person laughingly suggested it might be an inside joke.

But basketball has been Nurse’s constant. As a 20-something player/coach for the Derby Storm of the British Basketball League, he once gave orders to players more than a decade his senior.

Now he will be directing some of the finest players on the planet in Toronto.

Nurse played for the University of Northern Iowa, and then was an assistant coach at UNI where his brother Steve is still the equipment manager. After his stint at Grand View, where he was the youngest college basketball coach in the U.S., he headed overseas where he coached six teams in the British League, and was an assistant on Great Britain’s squad at the 2012 London Olympics.

Nurse left the Energy for Rio Grande Valley, Houston’s G-League affiliate, where he led the Vipers to a G-League title. He coached there two seasons before the Raptors hired him as an assistant in 2013.

Gersson Rosas, the Rockets’ executive vice-president of basketball operations, said Nurse is a creative thinker who “sees where the NBA is going.”

“And his diverse experience having coached in Europe, having coached in the G League, and in the NBA as an assistant prepares him well for that,” said Rosas, who oversaw the Vipers when Nurse coached there. “His approach and creativity is very balanced both defensively and offensively. I think he’s a critical thinker who looks at problems and looks at creative ways to solve them in a very non-traditional way, which is good for the league and will be good for the Raptors.

“Philosophically he’s where the modern NBA is at.”

Crawford said Nurse is a coach who relates well to players, crediting him with an ability to never let a couple of losses turn into a skid.

“He could go into the locker room, the players could relate to him, they respected him, and he could get their attention in a way that allowed him to make sure bad things didn’t happen,” Crawford said. “That’s one thing that’s unique about him. He’s incredibly calm, he doesn’t panic, he makes good decisions under pressure.”

The Raptors decision comes one day after Casey was hired by the Detroit Pistons as their new coach.