On Monday, November 4, the Toronto Varsity Blues Basketball Excellence Program hosted a talk featuring the Toronto Raptors Head Coach Nick Nurse which touched on topics including managing underdog teams and working under pressure. The talk was moderated by Sportsnet’s NHL reporter Elliotte Friedman. The event was held at the Toronto Region Board of Trade and touched on topics including winning the championship and staying calm in high pressure situations.
Nurse started the discussion by holding up his NBA championship ring, and later passing it around the room for everyone to hold. “Somebody asked me, ‘When do you wear it?’ I said ‘when I come to things like this.’ We just got them so I think I’m going to give it to people, share it with them. That was the… best experience for me about the whole title… sharing it with everybody from Toronto and Canada.”
Nurse spent his formative coaching years in the British Basketball League (BBL), with his first stop being the Birmingham Bullets. Before Nurse took over, the Bullets, much like the Raptors, had a rather underwhelming history.
He recalled one game where his player grabbed a rebound in a tie game at the end of the fourth quarter, forgot the score, and dribbled out to the half court line to let time expire — much like JR Smith’s infamous mistake in Game 1 of the 2018 NBA finals. “Two stats guys [were] sitting next to me that have been keeping stats for 20 years for the team. One of them looked at me and said ‘typical Birmingham Bullet basketball,’” Nurse recalled.
“This guy motivated me, that I needed to change everybody’s mindset in the whole organization. So I went back and I titled this little letter. I wrote at the top ‘expect to win.’” Nurse’s motivation seemed to work, as the Bullets would go on to win the BBL title in 1996.
Nurse went on to discuss his experience coaching in the NBA Development League, now known as the NBA G League. He said that in his countryside house, just outside of Des Moines, Iowa, he had several large whiteboards where he would draw up plays for late-game situations. “I mean just literally hundreds of scenarios end-of-game. But we sat there and thought of everyone we could think of.”
Friedman asked Nurse if coaching in high-pressure situations like NBA Finals brought him back to his basement just outside of Des Moines. Nurse said, “I don’t know about that, but what I do believe is this: you’re totally there. That’s the one thing you don’t even notice: the 20,000 [fans]… the 800 media, you don’t notice the pressure of the situation. You’re not really thinking about ‘oh my God, this is the NBA Finals.’”
Nurse continued by saying that he wanted his players to mirror his calm. “I wanted to be confident so our guys would be confident… I don’t always pick the best play, I don’t always pick the guy to shoot it, but when we do leave that huddle, we’re going to walk out there together, knowing what we’ll do.”
The summer after the NBA Finals, Nurse met with Phil Jackson, who won 11 NBA Championships as the head coach of the Chicago Bulls and Los Angeles Lakers. When coaching in England, Nurse would watch tapes of Jackson’s Bulls, keeping an eye out for his famous ‘triangle offense.’ He finally got to meet Jackson this August in Montana and recounted a story of driving in Phil Jackson’s truck. “We drive around for like three hours eating cherries and spitting the seeds out the window. And I’m sitting there thinking, ‘I’m sitting here eating cherries with 11 time NBA Champion, Phil Jackson.’”
Nurse recalled the two best pieces of advice he got from the coaching legend on their last day together. “He said, ‘number one, don’t underestimate the power of the basketball gods… you’ve been hired by your owners to make, at all times, the best decision for the team. And you have to keep that in mind. That’s not going to be easy.’”
The next piece of advice was the most memorable, and one that Friedman included in his weekly 31 Thoughts column. “I want you to imagine you got this sword. He said that one end, the sharp end, you’re going to have to push those guys. You [have] got to prod them. You have to get on their asses. But every now and then I want you to turn around and look at the handle. And I want you to have that symbolize compassion because you have to understand where they come from and what they’re going through,” Nurse recalled.
“And then poof — he disappeared,” Nurse joked.