They have often thought well of Nick Nurse in Toronto.

It was exactly two decades ago that, on a visit to Canada, I dropped by the offices of their local NBA team to press flesh and pick up off-season chatter and tattle.

A quick chat with then-head coach Lenny Wilkins was interrupted by then-Raptors supremo Glen Grunwald. “From the UK, huh?” He unexpectedly quizzed: “How’s Nick Nurse doing these days?”

Their paths had crossed. An impression left. A small momentary connection which might have been overlooked if not for where the one-time Derby, Birmingham, Manchester, Brighton and London coach now rests, centre stage for the Raptors’ duel with the Golden State Warriors in the NBA Finals which commence tonight.

Funny how fates unexpectedly turn. They all know who he is now in Toronto. What a journey, what an ascent.

Truth is, when the Iowa-native got his promotion last summer to become the first playcaller to go all the way from a bench in the British Basketball League to a hot seat in the NBA, plenty were still wondering who was this bespectacled beaming boss with a back story like few others.

Assistants are generally left in the shade while head coaches work up tans in the sunlight. That Nurse had gone all the way back, to England in fact, with Raptors’ president Masai Uriji, provided some left of intrigue over his potential as a long-term replacement should Dwane Casey ever be deemed expendable.

Real scrutiny is spartan in the adjoining seats without good reason. Upon his appointment, messages arrived from colleagues seeking some unique insights. What to say? 

Always a decent affable guy. 

The only coach ever to win everything in the British game at a time when budgets and competitiveness were much higher than now. 

Appreciation for a work ethic that had taken him from driving the team bus and scrambling for budget to work some wonders at Derby Storm, through titles at the Bullets, Towers and Giants, and even an ultimately ill-fated ownership stint at Brighton Bears.

No small degree of pride that someone who had pitched up on these shores – not long after gambling on a diversion away from his planned path of becoming an accountant – had reached the apex.

“But can he coach at this level?” one Canadian colleague quizzed. That, the great unknown, I offered. “We don’t know either,” they responded. Now, I guess, we do and beyond doubt. 

You can fluke having the luxurious asset of great talent. Supreme performers make average coaches look good. But narrow vital victories where strategy translates into the small margins between advancement and exit? That takes something formidable. Nurse’s case, now proven.

“Sometimes when you’re dealing with pressure and there’s games coming every other day, where you’re thinking on the fly, thinking during the games, the adjustments to make…. being a first-year head coach there’s going to be an adjustment period,” says Ujiri, British-born and with just as remarkable a pathway that encompassed playing stops in hotspots including Hemel Hempstead, Derby and Solent.

“And I think he’s done remarkably well, even using some of his past experiences – he talks about the D-League, he talks about Europe, he talks about mixing line-ups and different players at different times with what we have gone through this year with trades and load management and injuries and all the different things. 

“And Nick has just been one to never complain, never. He’s always … it’s always how does he adjust, how does he use what he has with the players? And to me that’s one thing that has really stood out with him, and he’s done a remarkable job.”

Rarely, it should be noted, has an NBA team had such a deep British connection. Nurse’s starter when the Giants lifted the BBL Playoff title before imploding 24 hours later, Phil Handy, is his assistant. 

Should he recover from injury, it is believed OG Anunoby will become the first UK-born player in a Finals. While much praise has been lavished in recent days on the Raptors’ sports science supremo Alex McKechnie for the Glaswegian’s stellar work in keeping Kawhi Leonard, and others, fighting fit and raring to go.

Nurse is the one we remember most from here and now watch in amazement over there. If Toronto become the first non-US team to lift the NBA Championship, he will forever be revered in his current homeland. But we witnessed his start, and that is to be treasured and applauded.

And on the eve of his biggest gambit yet, he returned the compliment of the chances he was afforded en route.

“I think my goal early in becoming a head coach so young was to find out if I could do it,” he acknowledged. 

“I just wanted to see if I could be a good head coach and then start learning from head coaching. So all those stops – I don’t know how many years it was, 18, 20 years – of being a head coach, and in some pretty remote places, was still I think a valuable learning experience for me. 

“From just running and managing the team and being up in front of a team and preparing scouting reports and trying to figure out chemistry and line-ups and schemes.”

Moorways in Derby has long been shuttered. Towers, the original Giants, the Bullets, his Bears, faded memories from an era long passed. 

However there is now a surviving legacy in the form of the man who learnt his trade and morphed from small beginnings into a big shot. 

For anyone asking, Nick Nurse is doing just fine indeed.

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