For University of Northern Iowa graduates, fellow alumnus Nick Nurse offers a case study in maintaining the perseverance often required to reach the pinnacle of a profession.
Nurse recently became the third first-year coach in National Basketball Association history to win a championship as the Toronto Raptors dethroned the two-time defending champion Golden State Warriors.
For Nurse, 51, it capped a three-decade journey that took him to 15 teams in five countries, starting as a graduate assistant at UNI when the “University of Nothing Impossible” upset formerly top-ranked Missouri in the 1990 NCAA tournament.
Nurse became the nation’s youngest head coach at Grand View University in Des Moines at 23, an assistant at South Dakota, and a head coach in Britain and Belgium, and the minor leagues of U.S. professional basketball — winning two British championships and two in the NBA’s D (now G) developmental league.
Along the way, he made contacts that proved critical in realizing his dream of becoming an NBA head coach. But he also took proactive steps that helped determine his destiny.
A standout athlete at Carroll Kuemper High School, Nurse led it to its only state basketball championship in 1985. He also excelled at quarterback in football, in baseball and the pole vault. He was the Des Moines Register’s male Athlete of the Year.
He earned a basketball scholarship at UNI, setting the school record for career 3-point field goal percentage (.468) with 170 made.
Cedar Valley basketball fans may recall the 1989 UNI-Dome matchup between Nurse and Tony Bennett, then a star guard for the University of Wisconsin Green Bay and now the coach of the University of Virginia’s NCAA champions.
No matter the journey, it helps to be smart and perceptive.
Then UNI Coach Eldon Miller told The Athletic, “(Nurse’s) strength when he played for me was how (he would help) everybody fit together. That’s unusual. Most players don’t look at the game that way.”
“A word I use is ‘genius,’” former Iowa State star guard Curtis Stinson, who played for Nurse on the Iowa Energy team that won the 2011 D League title, told the CBC. “He’s one of the guys that understands the game a lot. He understands players and situations. He studies it. Being a genius is knowing how to adapt to players and making the right decision with the style of players he has.”
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Nigerian native Masai Ujuri played for the Derby Storm in the British Basketball League in 1995 against the Birmingham Bullets coached by Nurse. Ujuri, who was impressed by Nurse’s acumen, eventually became president and general manager of the Raptors.
Chris Finch, another American, was named the British Olympic basketball coach for the 2012 London Games. He selected Nurse as his assistant. Because Britain’s entry was based on its role as the host nation, it relied heavily on innovative analytics to boost performance, including player tracking models and workloads that would heavily influence Nurse in the D League and with the Raptors.
But Nurse also made his fate.
Believing that the most likely route to an NBA head coaching job was a stint in the minor leagues, he persuaded Des Moines attorney Jerry Crawford to found the Iowa Energy.
But it was with the Rio Grande Valley Vipers, a team that served as experimental lab for the Houston Rockets, where Nurse burnished his credentials, winning another title.
“They were kind of like the only ones (investing heavily in analytics), it was probably eight or nine years ago where not everybody was talking shot spectrums and shooting the three and no non-paint twos, hardly anybody was talking that way,” Nurse said. “And I wanted to go there and learn from them because I was reading a lot and following a lot of the things they were doing.”
Ujuri hired him as a Raptors assistant in 2013, then promoted him to head coach last year after the controversial firing of Dwayne Casey, the 2018 NBA Coach of the Year. Ujuri made another bold move, trading for All-Pro Kawhi Leonard.
Nurse showed his mettle in the NBA playoffs, coaching Toronto to comeback series victories against Orlando, Philadelphia and Milwaukee, changing defensive schemes and using creative lineups, although a late timeout in the Game Five loss to Golden State was blamed for a loss of momentum.
“He’s been great, he’s been adaptable, he’s been adjustable. We have to utilize all of our weapons and Nurse has been great. You need a great head coach. You need a great voice to lead the weapons you have,” said Toronto guard Fred VanVleet, formerly of Wichita State.
Just as “nothing was impossible” in 1990, Nurse proved that was true again on a far bigger stage, while displaying enviable attributes to make his alma mater proud.