Nick Nurse is a 1985 Kuemper Catholic graduate and he’s a top assistant for the Toronto Raptors, the Eastern Conference's No. 1 seeded team in the National Basketball Association. Nurse was trusted with revamping the offense, which has a franchise record number of wins this year.
BRANDON HURLEY | DAILY TIMES HERALD Nick Nurse is a 1985 Kuemper Catholic graduate and he’s a top assistant for the Toronto Raptors, the Eastern Conference's No. 1 seeded team in the National Basketball Association. Nurse was trusted with revamping the offense, which has a franchise record number of wins this year.

Nick Nurse spends most of his time in a basketball laboratory, conjuring up ways to operate at maximum efficiency.

An analytic guru before it became a thing, the former Kuemper Catholic Knight never lets an advantageous moment slip by. It’s how he initiated the new wave of NBA offenses, through his meticulous preparation and mind for innovative ideas.

The NBA assistant was tasked with saving the Toronto Raptors this past offseason – and he’s thrived.

The Raptors clinched the Eastern Conference No. 1 seed with room to spare, set a franchise record in wins and finished in the top-5 in a number of offensive categories, thanks to an innovative system, co-piloted by the Carroll native.

So how did the former Kuemper Catholic basketball legend get here?

How did the 1985 graduate go from capturing the Knights’ first – and to date only – boys basketball championship to the near pinnacle of the coaching profession some 30 years later?

A grueling journey, with varying degrees of twists and turns that included a lengthy sideline stint overseas, a pair of championships in the NBA minor leagues, capped by a dream-come-true spot on the 2018 All-Star coaching staff, can be credited to his willingness to shift career plans. He’s been rewarded for his passion, sitting on an NBA bench, every night, chopping it up with some of the most famous athletes in the world, a mere handful of seats away from one of the most popular musicians on this earth.

At times, it’s hard for Nurse to fathom. He’s been on the Toronto coaching staff since 2013, but it didn’t take long for him to fall in love with the profession.

“It’s been really awesome. There’s nothing like the pace,” Nurse said of the NBA lifestyle. “The grind is like nothing else. Once it starts it just comes at you and at you.

“The thrill of watching players like this, up close every night, you have to thank your lucky stars. I love basketball.”

The top-seeded Raptors are in the midst of one of the most important playoff runs in their brief history in a wide open Eastern Conference, holding a 2-0 lead over their first-round foe, Washington. The second-seeded Celtics are wounded, the LeBron James-led Cavs are reeling and the 76ers are green. The throne is for the taking. The fans sense it, and the coaching staff certainly can, too. The Raptors are the team in Canada. It’s even more intensified for someone who lives and breathes it, from a courtside seat. The clamps tighten as crunch time begins.

“The most challenging part (of coaching in the NBA) is the playoffs. We are under a lot of pressure,” Nurse said. “It’s highly visible. Everyone is watching and you have to survive. We have high expectations.

“It’s big time in Canada. The whole country is zeroed in. We have the stage to ourselves.”

As the 2018 playoffs began, there were five coaching vacancies in the NBA – Phoenix Suns, Memphis Grizzlies, Orlando Magic and the New York Knicks. And while Nurse isn’t on the top of any national media candidate lists, he certainly has the pedigree and the proof to warrant a position as a head honcho. Both Yahoo Sports and CBS Sports have mentioned Nurse as a potential dark horse candidate, and for good reason. He’s an offensive genius waiting in the wings, ready to lead an NBA franchise. His nearly 30-year coaching career has prepared him for this moment, for a run at an NBA title.

A bit of perseverance and fortunate timing has played a role in his rise through the coaching ranks, which has allowed him to stay close to his Iowa roots.

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The adventure is the real journey, at least that’s what they tell us. And Nurse sure has enjoyed a strange and unusual trip so far.

He’s not a former NBA superstar; his dad wasn’t a legendary coach, either, so how’d he do it? How’d he become Dwane Casey’s right hand man? He really had to put in the work.

Nurse was on the path toward a desk job when a change of heart in his final year at UNI stopped him. He wasn’t ready to abandon his true passion.

“I thought I’d be an accountant, but as my (playing) career was coming to a close, I didn’t want to get out just yet,” Nurse said. So he took on a job as a student assistant for his alma matter. “I knew it was what I wanted to do.”

Perhaps it was his former high school coach who crept into his head and kept him from a life of number-crunching.

Wayne Chandlee coached at Kuemper for 12 years, compiling a 199-76 record (72.3 winning percentage), including four state tournament appearances and a title. The legend sparked Nurse’s interest in coaching, a notion that has never been far from his mind. Nurse recalls the attention to detail Chandlee maintained.

“One of the best fundamental coaches I’ve ever been around,” a reminiscent Nurse said. “That’s really important to have that base. Screens, rebounding. He gave me a good base and he still mentors me today.”

Nurse was on the UNI staff for the first NCAA tournament trip in school history in 1990, when the Panthers upset third-seeded Missouri as a 14-seed, on one of the more iconic buzzer-beaters in tournament history.

After a brief stint as head coach at NAIA’s Grand View in Des Moines, he spent 12 years in the British Basketball League where he was a two-time coach of the year.

During those formative years in 

Europe, his most trustworthy training equipment was ironically the now defunct VCR. Meshing old with new, his offense began to blossom while the VCR all but vanished. His laboratory received an upgrade when he made his return to the States.

— • —

Nurse is a man of many tweaks, alterations and innovation.

His Toronto Raptors playbook is a mixture of the infamous “Seven seconds or less” Phoenix Suns offense led by Steve Nash in the early 2000s and Phil Jackson’s triangle offense.

Splice in a bevy of three-pointers and layups while discouraging mid-range jumpers and you’ve got the recipe for Nurse’s bread and butter, one that has the Raptors poised for a deep playoff run. Nurse trimmed the amount of mid-range jumpers in half when he first arrived in Toronto in 2013. He demanded better – and more valuable – shots.

Nurse’s unique system was born in the late 1990s when he ushered the small ball, free-flowing era into Europe. Never one to settle, Nurse took advantage of the physical style with wider lanes and a slightly closer three-point line. He created a beautiful concoction of spacing, unselfishness and three-point shooting. It was as innovative as it was perplexing to defenses. Nurse knew he had something special on his hands and was ready to release his invention to the world.

“I don’t want to say we were ahead of the game with stretch fives and stretch fours, but one of the things we figured out in Europe was we played a lot of small ball,” he said.

“It’s a huge transition. It’s just a different game,” Nurse added, comparing the European game with the NBA. “Different rules and the spacing is so different. The biggest thing is hand-checking. Freedom of movement is what they call it (in the NBA). Europe was more physical. The rules favor defense.”

Nurse’s offense thrived, earning him a job with the NBA D-League’s Iowa Energy in Des Moines. He spent four highly successful years back in his home state, where his teams regularly led the league in various offensive categories, earning them the 2011 title.

“We did a lot of good things with the Energy,” Nurse said. “Analytics was still in its infancy then.”

Nurse rode his offensive genius to one of the greatest coaching careers in G-League history (formerly known as the D-League, essentially the NBA’s minor league or developmental league). He is the only coach in league history to lead two different teams to a championship, the Iowa Energy and the Rio Grande Valley Vipers.

His move to Texas in 2011 was deemed more an experiment than anything. The great analytical mind of Rockets general manager Daryl Morey enlisted Nurse to be his makeshift lab rat, testing the new fad of NBA offenses, before they became en vogue.

“I went to Houston to learn,” Nurse said. “They made it into a laboratory for me. It honestly was like a research project.”

The long-time coach created his offense from a cocktail of his coaching idols.

The triangle offense made famous by Phil Jackson still has its place in today’s game, even if it is difficult to spot. Though he never coached under the all-time legend, who piloted Michael Jordan’s Bulls and Kobe and Shaq’s Lakers to 11 championships, Nurse gathered an immense amount of knowledge studying the Zen Master’s game film in the 1990s. From the destitute location of Europe, of course.

Nurse found a company that could mail him copies of Bulls game on VHS tapes. He’d open them every Friday, pop the tapes in the VCR and analyze them.

What he really gained from the tapes was a version of the infamous triangle offense, but tailored to a more up-tempo, high volume system. Nurse read, critiqued, studied, analyzed and read some more, scouring over the numbers while taking note of the NBA’s substitution and timeout patterns.

“There’s still a lot of principles from the triangle, huge pieces,” he said. “You take what the defense gives you.”

Today’s Raptors accomplish this by making the extra pass, swinging the ball around the arc, in search of an open three instead of a one-on-one layup or a contested jump shot.

It’s not read and react, it’s more polished than that – read the defense and then attack. It’s a philosophy Nurse has honed over the last three decades. At the heart of it all, is a willingness to be flexible.

“More ball movement, more unpredictability,” he said. “Everybody touches the ball. I’m always intrigued. I like to learn. I read a lot of books. I learned a lot by experimentation.”

Nurse was assigned to create more offense and three-pointers for Toronto. And it worked, using Nurse’s shot spectrum, maybe even better than most expected.

He gives a bulk of the credit to head coach Dwane Casey for putting his trust in the former Knight. Casey, the all-time wins leader in Raptors history, is well documented for his southern up-bringing and his unusual sense of humor. He’s quiet in post-game conferences, fairly reserved in the public eye. But he shines in practice and behind the scenes.

“He is a great guy. He’s a real southern guy,” Nurse said. “Super professional and a really hard worker. He’s a stickler for work and loves to keep teaching. He gives me a lot of freedom.”

That freedom has taken Nurse to heights he never even dreamed of as a teenager in Carroll.

— • —

Nurse’s career path coincidentally mirrors his most cherished book, “The Old Man and the Sea.” Humble beginnings to the catch of a lifetime, glory and new doorways.  Staying along for the ride – the journey – to catch the big one.

And in this case, Nurse’s catch is a potential head coaching position in the National Basketball Association.

Coaching for an NBA franchise has its fair share of perks, though Nurse still finds time to make a return to his roots.

He’s rubbed elbows with celebrities, visited the home country of a star center and taken a liking to his Canadian home base.

Living in Toronto for the past five years has really opened Nurse’s eyes. Always one for history and culture, the assistant coach has developed a deep appreciation for exploration. The Canadian city is big, but also has a tight-knit feel to it. With more than 2.7 million residents, Toronto is Canada’s largest city and the fourth biggest in North America. The “six,” which Toronto’s most well-known native, Drake, has coined it, is a booming place.

“It’s a super cool city. It’s like a mini New York City. It’s so culturally diverse,” Nurse said. “The fans are great.”

Drake, the child actor turned rapper, entertainer, turned die-hard Raptors fan, is a mainstay at many of Toronto’s home games. He’s even built a strong relationship with the NBA franchise, which has allowed Nurse to sneak in some quality time with the star. “He’s such a nice guy. He’s like a kid in a candy store in the locker room. He likes to play (basketball),” Nurse said. “I’ve shot with him, he’s got a good shot, but he’s a little slow on the release.”

Summer fishing trips take Nurse to the countryside of Lithuania, where he builds his relationship with Raptors center Jonas Valanciunas.

“I wish he’d rebound with as much excitement as he does reeling in a fish,” Nurse cracked.

The highlight of the 2017-18 season came as a member of the 2018 All-Star coaching staff. Nurse was head coach of the World squad in the Rookie-Sophomore game and was on the bench under Casey for Team LeBron.

“It was really incredible. They were really into it,” Nurse said. “We had an incredible team. LeBron said to me ‘we are going to play to win.’

It was a cool and (I had) a good conversation with LeBron.”

The various science experiments had paid off.The fruits of his labor were starting to materialize.

This particular bunch of Raptors have really struck a chord with the former Des Moines Register player of the year. Perhaps his personality has worn off on them.

“We have a really good group of guys. They less fit the stereotype (of NBA players),” Nurse said. “They really work hard and they want to win. They understand what is at stake and they want you to put them in a position to win.”

From Carroll to Toronto and everywhere in between, it’s still difficult for Nurse to process how he’s mingled with some of the world’s greatest athletes– and they listen to his orders, for the most part.

“I don’t think I ever imagined (this),” Nurse said. “I really liked the feel of coaching professional basketball. I am pretty privileged and pretty lucky.”