The golden ball takes centre stage in Nick Nurse’s study.

The Red Auerbach trophy’s up there too. NBA Coach of the Year. For the former BBL champion.

“It’s a signed ball from the London Olympic team,” he confirms. There’s a crate full more of the golden trinkets somewhere, from all those British Basketball League monthly and annual awards he used to pick up as routine.

“I don’t even know where they are actually,” he admits. “I might have to make a trip back to Iowa. That’s probably where they are. My mom’s probably tucked them all away somewhere.”

The Toronto Raptors head coach took more than just prizes away from his decade of service on the UK’s shores.

There were the two league titles with Birmingham Bullets and Manchester Giants. A National Cup in Brighton with his very own Bears. Souvenirs from trips in the Euroleague with London Towers.

But it was the philosophies and the ebbs and flows in the road that stuck with in on a path that took him all the way from a first unexpected player-coaching gig at Derby Rams to the top of the world and an NBA Championship in 2019.

The BBL was where Nurse, now 53, cut his teeth at the very sharp end with trials and errors that stood him in good stead later on. The lab in which the boffin concocted his spells that have been unleashed since he took over in Toronto two years ago.

“Almost all of it, right?” he says. “I think I think you’re talking about reaching into a play. You know, that’s in your bag of tricks or your toolkit or whatever that suddenly appears out of nowhere and you’re finding your brain and you’re drawing it up 10 years later and you haven’t used it.

“That’s one thing. But the other thing is about man management, the psychology of the team, the feel the pulse, the chemistry, the roles, all the things that I say really comprise coaching or managing a team.

That was being honed in all those jobs, you know. And little did I know it then. I think coaches and even fans tend to put a lot of emphasis on the X’s and O’s or the tactics of the game. And those are definitely important. No doubt about it.

“But the things you learn when you’re up in front of the team, as a head coach is, you know, just kind of your pull to your team in that and that’s really, really important.”

Listen to the full Nick Nurse interview in the latest edition of the MVP Cast

Nurse has documented his strange but exhilarating trip in his new book, ‘Rapture: Fifteen Teams, Four Countries, One NBA Championship, and How to Find a Way to Win — Damn Near Anywhere.’

It’s a love story to the game and a reminder of his path less well travelled. From trips in a mal-functioning mini bus driven by then colleague and now-BBL officiating supremo Martin Ford to coaching players like Tony Dorsey and Nigel Lloyd who join the likes of Kawhi Leonard among his past favourites today.

An accountant by education, he arrived in Birmingham in 1995 seeking a significant break. A properly paid gig for the first time was his. But he remained fully unproven – to others, and to himself.

And he recounts: “The year didn’t start out very good. We were .500. I think we were 8-8, or 6-6 or something like that. And I hadn’t made much improvement.

“The team the year before was exactly 500, I think 18-18. So I hadn’t made a whole hell of a lot of an impression, really.

“I was living in Bromsgrove at the hotel and wrote down four other things I thought I might want to do with my life. And I looked at them on a piece of paper, and they all look like absolute shit to me.

“So I figured I I better get to work and study on coaching and get in gear.

“And then I don’t know, it seemed like I felt much more at ease.

“And I kind of quit squeezing so hard and kind of let the team play a little bit. And we started playing well and obviously went on that tremendous run.”

To a first championship. Subsequently a multitude of titles in the BBL. In between, two Cups in Belgium in an abortive stint with Oostende where the harsh reality of club politics came home.

Back across the Channel. Almost, he reveals, to becoming the first-ever coach of the then-Edinburgh but now Glasgow Rocks ahead of their debut campaign in 1998.

“I was pretty close. Yeah, pretty close,” he said. “I did go up and interview and did get offered the job. And that was that was almost a turn we took.”

Manchester swooped in at the last. To become perhaps his greatest ever team in his second year, an extraordinary cluster of talent that swept to victory in the 2000 Playoff final at Wembley against Birmingham before its then-owners, the Cook Group, pooped the party by revealing they were selling up and moving on.

London came calling. Then Brighton, where he arrived with the purchase of a share of the Bears and then quickly found himself the owner of a club as well as its coach.
An immense weight, he recalls. Five years in which more trophies were corralled but the travails of keeping Brighton away from the precipice as the BBL began to sink meant Nurse had far too much on his plate.

“Well, it was certainly very little coaching,” he recalls. “That was put on the backburner. But you did it anyway. You kind of got into practice, one minute before it started. And we’re out the door that minute it was done.

“Because you had so many things going on. But it was difficult. And to make those things work, like with a lot of things, you need some breaks, and you need the ball to bounce your way a little bit.

“And, as hard as we pushed in the hours we logged, and all the great things that we did do there, we just never really got the break we needed. And it wasn’t the first or last sporting club that that had big ambitions and didn’t and failed.”

He returned to the USA without a dime to his name. With a new enlarged contract with the Raptors worth a reported £5 million per season, those days of toil and struggle seem a long time removed.

A father of three now with a growing musical accomplishment, he could probably buy the BBL lock stock if those fingers had not been already burned.

There is an old ally who might yet follow his lead.

Chris Finch battled with Nurse over and over in the BBL, including in an epic title decider in 1999 that remains, unquestionably, the league’s greatest-ever game.

Finch – and his Sheffield Sharks – beat Nurse’s Giants to the finishing line. Their paths both went through Belgium, and the NBA G-League, and assistant coaching roles in the NBA.

Initially ahead in the ascent, Finch – currently lead assistant at the New Orleans Pelicans – is still awaiting his head coaching shot despite coming close with the Indiana Pacers last month (losing out, ironically, to Nurse’s other long-time cohort Nate Bjorkgren) and despite his name appearing among the contenders in Houston and in New Orleans itself.

“He is a world class coach,” says Nurse who was Finch’s assistant for Great Britain for several years and who previously tried to prise him away from New Orleans to join a Toronto staff that also now includes former Newcastle Eagles head coach Fab Flournoy and his Scottish scientific totem. Alex McKechnie.

Finch and Nurse remain close chums.

“Ironically, we didn’t like each other that much,” he smiles. “We were competing against each other.

“But I think there was a there was some get together in Manchester. When I was coaching Manchester, he was coaching Sheffield.

“We ended up in kind of in a non basketball setting for the first time and hit it off from there, sharing ideas and obviously spent all that time remarkable time coaching with him at the Great Britain team.

“I think the things we were doing there, he was light years ahead of his time. One more result at that Olympics that would have went our way would have probably brought a lot of that great coaching to light.

“We were really, really coaching when I would consider an undermanned team. And all we needed was one more win to get through and we would have probably shook up the basketball world pretty good there.

“But now a very good friend, a very, very respected friend. I wish him well. And I’m hoping one of these days to get out of bed and see that headline scrolling across that he’s become head coach somewhere.”

Rapture: Fifteen Teams, Four Countries, One NBA Championship, and How to Find a Way to Win — Damn Near Anywhere is on sale now

If you enjoy our work, please consider making a small payment to help us produce more original basketball content – donate here.

Share and Enjoy:
  • Facebook
  • Twitter
  • MySpace
  • Print

You must be logged in to post a comment Login