When the University of Connecticut women's basketball team tips off at the Final Four on Sunday, vying for its 10th NCAA title, a Canadian freshman will be among its stars. She's a player whose earliest days in the sport began as an infant, tucked into a baby seat in a Hamilton gymnasium, looking up as her parents patrolled the sidelines.
Kia Nurse was born into an exceptional sports family 19 years ago. Her father Richard was once a CFL wide receiver for the Hamilton Tiger-Cats, and her mother Cathy played basketball at McMaster University. Both parents were coaching back then as nine-year-old sister Tamika began a career that would eventually see her play for Oregon and Bowling Green. Brother Darnell was the toddler also hanging out on that bench – one year older than Kia – destined to become a 2013 draft pick of the NHL's Edmonton Oilers. Baby Kia developed dreams to play college basketball and become an Olympian.
More than 20 Canadians were part of teams in the NCAA women's basketball tournament this year, and Nurse's Huskies remain, standing two victories away from a U.S. championship. The athletic, six-foot combo guard for top-ranked UConn grew up playing basketball in Hamilton from age four, and has risen into a signature piece of Canada's national team approaching the 2016 Rio Olympics.
After spending last summer preparing and playing for Canada in the FIBA world championship, she assimilated seamlessly into the most heralded program in women's college hoops. Nurse did something impressive for a freshman: she seized a starting job on a team looking to three-peat as national champs, a squad that has lost just one game in two full seasons.
"The role I have now at UConn has exceeded my expectations times about a million and a half," Nurse said by phone from Storrs, Conn. "I showed them what I had every day in practice – I learned that from a young age from my family – and it paid off. I knew I had a chance to be really good, surrounded by the best coaches and players who can only bring out the best in me. You really learn what it takes to be part of what UConn has built here."
Nurse soaked up every bit of the competitive disposition in the family. Maybe she got it from idolizing a sister nine years her senior, or from her aunt Raquel, who had starred at Syracuse and eventually married former NFL quarterback Donovan McNabb, another source of athletic advice. Maybe it was the road-hockey battles with her brother, the playful boasting at family dinners, or the intense two-on-two games on the family hoop, where, as their dad recalls, "there was no such thing as a foul."
Nurse won at every level: two Ontario high-school championships with St. Thomas More Catholic Secondary School, five provincial titles with her Hamilton AAU team, Transway, and two national championships with Team Ontario. Her dad coached her much of the way.
"You never had to tell them to go run, or go shoot, all three of our kids just always did it," Richard Nurse said. "Tamika went to a Pac-10 school and Kia got a good look at what it was like to play big-time college basketball. She wanted to become an Olympian, so she chose UConn. They create Olympians there."
Basketball Canada identified Nurse long ago. She thrived with the under-16 and under-17 teams. In 2013, she was invited to a senior national team camp to gain experience. She excelled for Canada, averaging 10 points and 2.5 assists over 24.7 minutes a game in the FIBA Americas tournament to help solidify the country's spot in the 2014 FIBA worlds, where she started at point guard and averaged 6.9 points.
"She got great experience in our national team playing against 30-year-old point guards who are very savvy," said Lisa Thomaidis, coach of Canada's women's national team. "She's demonstrated world-class athleticism, speed, quickness and length at her position. She's the kind of special player you can build a team around."
Entering her first season at vaunted UConn, Nurse expected to play limited minutes. The Huskies lost their second game of the season to Stanford, and coach Geno Auriemma promoted Nurse to a starting role, and gave her the toughest defensive assignments.
She delivered big in her first start, hitting six of seven field-goal attempts, including all four three-point attempts, and ended with 22 points against Creighton. She has averaged 10.4 points and 2.9 assists a game through 37 games and was chosen the American Athletic Conference's freshman of the year.
"She is not afraid to make mistakes like some freshmen are. She just plays," Auriemma told The Hartford Courant. "The coaches, her teammates have absolute trust in her, which is not easy for a freshman [to earn]."
A year that began with Nurse's brother earning a gold medal with Canada at the IIHF world junior hockey championship could also bring another championship to the list of Nurse family sporting achievements. The quest begins Sunday, when UConn faces Maryland at the Final Four in Tampa, for the chance to take on either South Carolina or Notre Dame in the title game on Tuesday.
"Yeah, it could be a big championship year for the family," Nurse said. "I could weigh a bit more in dinner table talk with the family."