How Nick Nurse went from driving vans and washing uniforms in small-town Oklahoma to winning an NBA title
ENID — Folks around town sometimes ask Tom Nelson what he remembers about the man who just coached the Toronto Raptors to the NBA title.
Nelson always thinks of one particular summer day in 2005.
Then the basketball operations manager for the Oklahoma Storm, he had traveled with the United States Basketball League team from Enid to Kearney, Nebraska. They were on a multi-game road trip, so uniforms had to be washed. Nelson went in search of a laundromat in the small town in the south-central part of the Cornhusker State.
One of the assistant coaches went along — Nick Nurse.
“It’s me and him sitting in a laundromat in Kearney … waiting for the uniforms to get done,” Nelson said.
Now, Nurse sits atop the NBA.
As the dust settles on this NBA season — last week’s draft and this week’s free agency signal the turning of the page — we finally have time to take stock of all that happened in the Finals. Few thought it likely Toronto would be the one to fell the Golden State giant. Kawhi becoming a Canadian legend? Serge Ibaka winning a title before Thunder buddies Russell Westbrook and James Harden? Pascal Siakam and Fred VanVleet going from unknowns to unbelievable?
- Related to this story
- Video: Writer's Block - June 21, 2019
But even with all that, no part of the Raptors’ run is more improbable than Nurse’s road to NBA glory, a path that included two stops in Enid.
Nurse first came to the northern Oklahoma town in 2001. The Storm had started in the USBL the year before, and when second-year head coach Bryan Gates needed an assistant, he hired Nurse.
Nurse had been coaching for the better part of a decade in the British Basketball League, but during the summers, he returned to the United States. Looking to expand his coaching experience and earn a few extra dollars, he joined Gates and Storm for a season.
Four years later, when Gates returned for a second stint with the Storm, he brought back Nurse, too.
Nelson, who’d been the Storm’s general manager during the years Nurse was gone, had taken a full-time job at the radio station in Enid doing sports and sales. He had a wife and kids and needed a more consistent revenue stream than low-level pro sports afforded. But he offered to help Bates, who was coach and general manager, with game operations.
That’s when Nelson met Nurse. Neither had a glamorous job. Then again, no one does in minor-league sports.
“We had two 15-passenger vans,” Nelson said, “and he drove one and I drove one. He did the laundry.”
To Nelson’s memory, Nurse lived in a small apartment and ate a lot of meals from food coupons provided by the team. It allowed him to save most of the money he made in salary. What there was of it, anyway.
Nelson saw a tweet after the NBA Finals indicating Nurse made $43 a day in Enid.
“I did the math,” Nelson said. “That’s probably a bit high.”
But Nelson never heard Nurse complain.
“He was a great guy,” Nelson said. “It’s funny, I see him talk now on TV in interviews, and he hasn’t changed much. He’s still Nick Nurse, the same guy he was here in Oklahoma.”
He was never flashy. Working with Gates, who has been an NBA assistant since 2009 and recently took a job with the Timberwolves, Nurse was the perfect compliment.
“Bryan Gates as a head coach was very fiery, always ripping off his jacket and throwing it down,” Nelson said. “Nick was the guy that caught the jacket, said ‘Coach, calm down, calm down.’ He was pretty laid back and pretty quiet.”
But Nurse was a grinder. If a player ever wanted to work out or get up a few shots, Nurse was always willing to meet at the gym. He’d rebound. He’d drill. Whatever needed to be done.
He took that same approach as he climbed the ladder and rose the ranks. Didn’t matter whether he was an assistant in the USBL, a head coach in the G League, an assistant for the Raptors or even the head coach. He has never shied away from the labors of his love.
That, Nurse believes, is one of the reasons he’s where he is today.
The night the Raptors won the title, a reporter asked what Nurse would say to coaches who might be trying to reach similar heights, who might be wondering if their big break would ever come.
“I would hope it might inspire some of those people who are in those situations to keep workin’,” he said of his journey. “I always say, all those jobs meant the world to me at the time. I loved all those jobs. You can’t do very good work if you don’t love what you’re doing.”
“I never really got discouraged. I didn’t really care the level I was coaching. I was just trying to learn and get better.”
Even if it meant he had to wash a few jerseys along the way.
Jenni Carlson: Jenni can be reached at 405-475-4125 or email@example.com. Like her at facebook.com/JenniCarlsonOK or follow her at twitter.com/jennicarlson_ok.
After Nick Nurse graduated from Northern Iowa in 1989, he began a 30-year coaching odyssey that ended earlier this month with an NBA championship. He's a look at stops that came at various levels and often far-flung locales:
1989-90: Northern Iowa assistant
1990-91: Derby (England) Rams player-coach
1991-93: Grand View (Iowa) College
1993-95: South Dakota assistant
1995-97: Birmingham (England) Bullets
1998: Telindus (Belgium) Oostende
1998-2000: Manchester (England) Giants
2000-2001: London Towers
2001: Oklahoma Storm assistant
2001-06: Brighton (England) Bears
2005: Oklahoma Storm assistant
2007-11: Iowa Energy
2011-13: Rio Grand Valley Vipers
2013-18: Toronto Raptors assistant
2018-present: Toronto Raptors