Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Carroll native Nick Nurse didn’t need to win a medal to have a golden experience at the Summer Olympics.

Nurse recently returned to the United States from London, where he served as assistant coach of the Great Britain men’s basketball team.

In a phone interview with the Daily Times Herald, Nurse, a standout player on Kuemper Catholic High School’s 1985 Class 3A state-championship team, recounted the thrill of stepping into the packed arena for Great Britain’s first game in the Olympics, a gut-wrenching loss that sank his team’s opportunity to move into medal contention, the chance to view top world competition in a variety of sports — and even a brush with royalty.

Competing in men’s basketball in the Olympics for the first time since 1948, the last time London hosted the Games, Great Britain posted a 1-4 record in its six-team pool. It needed one more victory to advance to quarterfinals play.

“We played really well,” Nurse said. “We had a really tough group with Russia, which won the bronze; Spain, which won the silver; Brazil, which was very good as well; and also Australia.”

Great Britain lost to Russia 95-75, Brazil 67-62 and Spain 79-78.

The gut-wrenching loss was to Australia 106-75, a game that Great Britain led 46-36 at halftime and by as many as 15 points at one time. Great Britain was aiming for a victory over Australia and then against China to advance from pool play. The top four teams from each pool qualified for the quarterfinals.

“That was probably the biggest disappointment of the whole tournament,” Nurse said. “Australia was very good, but they just weren’t playing very well in the tournament. We earmarked that game and the China game as the two that if we won, we could get through to the next round.”

Australia fell behind Great Britain by 15 points in third period and then called timeout. From then the Aussies began drilling a barrage of 3-point baskets.

“I don’t think I’ve ever been a part of a game that turned so drastically and never stopped,” Nurse said.

“We hoped that at the end of the (third) quarter that the bleeding would stop, but it didn’t. They kept making 3 after 3. We couldn’t score, and the lead really ballooned up there for them.

“It was really disappointing. It was a tough one to take — a big, big moment and going from playing so well to so poorly. That was gut-wrenching.”

Great Britain rebounded in its final game, however, to defeat China 90-88, giving the country its first-ever victory in Olympic men’s basketball.

“That was nice to get that accomplishment and play really well doing it,” Nurse said. “We played fantastically. It was disappointing not to go on, but it was our last game and it was at least a good note to end on, feel a little better and enjoy the last few days of the Olympics.”

A son of retired Carroll postmaster Maury and Marcella Nurse of Carroll, Nick made it from the playgrounds and school gyms in Carroll to the world’s largest sports spectacle.

After graduating from Kuemper in 1985 he enjoyed a solid playing career at the University of Northern Iowa, where he graduated in 1990.

Nurse this spring completed his first year as head coach of the Rio Grande Valley Vipers in the NBA Developmental League. Rio Grande Valley is an affiliate of the Houston Rockets.

His earlier coaching resume features many college and professional positions, including: head coach at Grand View College in Des Moines; 12 years in the British Basketball League where he twice was named coach of the year; the Iowa Energy in the NBA D-League from 2007 through ’11, where his teams won division titles and the D-League playoff championship. Nurse won coach of the year honors in 2010-11. He switched to the head coaching job at Rio Grande Valley, an Iowa Energy rival in the D-League, seeing better opportunity for gaining an NBA position.

 With the Vipers, Nurse succeeded Chris Finch, who moved up to Rockets assistant coach under Kevin McHale.

Nurse and Finch have longtime ties going back to the British Basketball League, where their teams yearly battled each other for championships. That rivalry along with mutual respect turned into a friendship.

So after Finch was tabbed head coach of Great Britain’s Olympics team, he called on Nurse to be his top assistant.

The two worked together to basically start a national team from scratch.

“We spent about eight weeks every summer for the last six years getting ready for the Olympics by playing games all over Europe,” Nurse said.

Since both Nurse and Finch had coached in European league championships, they had extensive experience in international competition.

Nurse said of the style of ball outside the U.S., “It’s a much more physical game. There’s more pounding on people inside, a lot more physical screening and hand-checking. Most of the scores are quite a bit lower — in the 50s and 60s. So they do play a style that’s more grinding, and you have to be used to that.”

For Great Britain, Nurse and Finch put together a team that featured NBA all-star forward Luol Deng from the Chicago Bulls and also included Joel Freeland, who has signed with the Portland Trail Blazers; Pops Mensah-Bonsu, who played at George Washington University and then with Toronto, Houston and New Orleans in the NBA; and Robert Archibald, who played at the University of Illinois and then with Memphis, Phoenix, Orlando and Toronto in the NBA.

The U.S. team rolled to the Olympics championship, defeating Spain for the gold medal.

The U.S. team, featuring LeBron James, Kobe Bryant, Kevin Durant, Carmelo Anthony and a host of other NBA stars, racked up big scores throughout the Olympics.

“That’s what was so impressive about them, being able to impose their style. Nobody could really slow them down,” Nurse said of the U.S. team, which played in a pool with France, Argentina, Lithuania, Nigeria and Tunisia.

“They had an amazing offense, but a lot of that was driven by such aggressive defense,” Nurse commented. “They just attacked on defense until they took the ball from you or stole a pass or forced you into a quick shot and then they’d be rolling back the other way 100 miles an hour. It was a great job by them to be able to do that.”

Great Britain also got scorched by the U.S., 118-78, in a pre-Olympics exhibition game in July played before about 18,000 fans in Manchester, England.

“They were just so fast and long and aggressive,” Nurse said, “and obviously they shot lights-out on the 3-point shots, which is what carried them. They really pushed the pace, hitting a lot of 3s against us and throughout the Olympic tournament. They just had so much speed and length and were really determined.”

Nurse, too, was determined to make the most of his experience and put in an all-out effort.

As head coach Finch’s right-hand man, he said, “I did all the prep work on opponents, all the scouting and film work for each game. Five games in 10 days, we played every other day. You’d get finished with one game, and at 10 or 11 at night you’d crank it up, watch film, get everything ready for practice the next day about 2 or 3 in the afternoon to prepare for a game the next day. The first 10 days of the Olympics was a pretty intense experience.”

In midst of preparing for Great Britain’s first game in the Olympics, some extraordinary luck visited Nurse, leading to his meeting with British royalty.

The day before the Olympics’ July 27 opening ceremony, Nurse was working in his Olympic Village apartment.

“Our team manager came in and said, ‘Hey, do you want to meet the queen (Queen Elizabeth II)?’ I said, ‘What does that entail?’ I envisioned lengthy security check and traveling across town. But he said, ‘No, she’s coming downstairs to the courtyard in about 15 minutes.’

“I said, ‘OK, I’m in.’ So I stopped my work and headed down to the courtyard along with all the British athletes. Interestingly, I rounded the corner and they grabbed eight people and said, ‘We need people to line up to meet the queen.’ I and head coach Chris Finch were in that line of eight people.”

Queen Elizabeth, wearing a bright blue dress and one of her signature matching hats, shook hands and chatted briefly with all eight in the greeting line.

Nurse recalls his visit:

Queen: “Well, what do you do?”

Nurse: “I’m an assistant basketball coach for the men’s team.”

Queen: “Oh, basketball is getting quite popular these days isn’t it?”

Nurse: “”It sure is.”

Queen: “You have to be quite tall to play it, don’t you?”

Nurse: “It does help.”

“She just wished us good luck and on she went to the next person down the line,” Nurse said.

Nurse quipped that he was nervous and forgot to curtsy.

Following the queen and also greeting the eight were her husband, Prince Philip, and the couple’s daughter, Princess Anne.

“There are so many things that went into making it an amazing experience,” Nurse said of the Olympics. “Just being there in the Olympic Village, preparing for super-high level of games. Walking onto the arena floor for the first game against Russia was a big thrill.

“When it (the basketball tournament) was over, I was able to wander around Olympic Park and pop into other events. Things that I may never had thought about sitting down and watching, I’d sit and really enjoy.”

Nurse said venues were sold out for every competition and the atmosphere was electric.

He saw the U.S. women’s volleyball team defeat the Dominican Republic in a quarterfinal match on their way to winning the silver medal and was among the 80,000 spectators in Wembley Stadium when the U.S. women’s soccer team beat Japan in the gold-medal match. He also viewed water-polo and equestrian competition.

Back in the U.S., Nurse, who lives in McAllen, Texas, located in the southern tip of the state in the Rio Grande Valley, last week visited his parents, who celebrated their 60th wedding anniversary on the day he was en route to London.

He now will begin preparation for his second season as head coach of Rio Grande Valley. After a fast start last season, the Vipers missed the NBA D-League playoff by a game, finishing 24-26.

“It was a little disappointing,” Nurse said of the season. “We had a great start, were playing really well. Then we lost a few players to call-ups, never really quite recovered and faded a little down the stretch.

“We had a good year as far as developing players and evaluating players. We just would have liked to win a few more games. I enjoy working with the Rockets. We do things a little differently than we did in Iowa (with the Energy), but it’s been a good learning experience.”

While the Energy is focused more on win-loss record, Nurse said, the Rockets and Vipers are “a little more interested in taking younger players and looking to see if they have an NBA future.”

The Rockets also use the Vipers to experiment with different playing styles.

For instance, the Vipers played super-fast pace last year — averaging 110 points a game to opponents’ 109.8 — and used platoon substitutions — five players in, five out.

Nurse, 45, believes the season helped him grow as a coach.

“I think I got better and learned a lot,” he said.

He looks for the Vipers to show progress this season.

“We began with a clean slate last year,” he said. “This year we have a few guys who have been in the system. We should be much more talented. We think our talent level should be back this year to what it used to be.”