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Turning back the clock

Nurse returns to his roots for bobblehead, throwback night in Des Moines

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The bling was hard to miss.

But the humble personality of a defending champion was what stood out the most.

Championships sure haven’t hardened Carroll’s Nick Nurse.

The NBA title-winning head coach was in a giving mood during his limited appearance Nov. 15 in Des Moines. As the Toronto Raptors neared the end of a whirlwind road trip, one that led Nurse and his athletes to L.A. and the Pacific Northwest before they landed in Dallas, the head coach had some midwestern business to attend to.

Nurse certainly hasn’t shied away from his home state since winning the world championship in June, making at least three trips to Iowa in the ensuing months.

His most recent visit was one draped in nostalgia and celebration.

Though Nurse has become one of the top coaches in the entire world, he still glides through most crowded rooms nearly unnoticed, even within his homeland (one fan even tweeted he unknowingly sold Nurse his own bobblehead while another fan, while holding said bobblehead, had no idea who Nurse was).

That’s usually how Nurse likes it, but even the 1985 Kuemper Catholic graduate took a few moments to revel in his victories last week.

Nurse, head coach of the NBA’s Toronto Raptors and one of the many stars of Kuemper’s only state basketball championship in 1985, was forever memorialized with his own bobblehead following a ceremony hosted by the Iowa Wolves Nov. 15 in Des Moines.

The Wolves — the Minnesota Timberwolves G League franchise — held an Iowa Energy throwback night, honoring Nurse for his distinction as the first and only coach to win both an NBA title and a G League championship. Nurse led the former Iowa Energy franchise (which became the Iowa Wolves in 2017) to the 2011 championship when the minor league organization was known as the Developmental League. He was the driving force behind the team’s creation and quickly built it into a powerhouse, at the same time vaulting his coaching career into the stratosphere.

With a trophy in each hand, donning a light grey suit, Nurse’s likeness and magnificent accomplishments perch perfectly upon a round base, making Nurse the latest and greatest Iowa native to receive the bobblehead treatment. Nurse, whose late mother Marcella Nurse hails from Churdan, was in a reflective mood inside the depths of Wells Fargo Arena, appreciating yet again all the support he’s received over the years. He looked into the crowd and saw many familiar faces. The riveting ceremony conjured up a number of memories.

“I don’t do this very often, think back on the journey, but when you’re here, you’re almost forced to a little bit, which is good,” the coach said Friday following a halftime ceremony. “It seems like a long way away, now that I’m back. Looking out there and watching those players and coaches working so hard — you’re just trying to do the best you can each day to move up and get better. It seems like a long journey.”

Nurse left the Iowa Energy for the Rio Grande Valley Vipers (a Houston Rockets affiliate) in 2011, but the pride he felt Friday being back home where his NBA journey began was palpable.

A little more than 12 years ago, the former UNI Panther had returned to the United States after a decade-long stint overseas in the British Basketball League. Though he won nearly 400 games and captured several prestigious trophies in Great Britain, he felt his success was rather unnoticed stateside. He was ready to make a push toward the pinnacle of basketball — the NBA. Nurse was aimed at making his mark in the world’s premier basketball league. The next step led him to the biggest gamble of his career, kick-starting an NBA D League franchise in his home state. From day one back in 2007, Nurse had his hands in everything — from the naming of the team and its unusual color scheme of purple and orange (The Iowa Energy were meant to provoke thoughts of Iowa’s importance to the economy and the country’s overall well-being), to the initial draft class and what plays were drawn up. The Iowa Energy was Nurse’s passion project, and he made the team thrive.

It was in Des Moines where the now-Toronto Raptors head coach learned how to deal with roster turnover while committing his athletes to the winning process. The Energy job allowed Nurse to hone his craft, in which he dedicated himself to innovation — all this while transforming troubled players into stars.

It took Nurse just four years to help the Iowa Energy evolve into a champion, capturing the 2011 title while simultaneously captivating an entire city (the Energy broke several attendance records throughout the 2010–11 season).

Nurse has often said those Iowa Energy years were some of his most instrumental throughout his coaching journey. He really perfected his skillset. Merely six years after he was the Energy’s first coach, he was on the bench of the Toronto Raptors as an assistant foach. Even as a D League head honcho in Des Moines, Nurse knew if he motivated his guys enough, taught them the fundamentals, the Energy could reach some tremendous heights.

“It doesn’t matter really what level you’re playing, you’re in the same battles of trying to get guys to play team basketball,” Nurse said. “Defined roles, play hard and try to become even more than they think they can become as a team — a championship-caliber team.”

It all started to come together for Nurse and the Energy in year three, as they surged out to a 23-6 start during the 2009–10 season, with seven guys averaging in double figures. Nurse had the guys locked in, playing to their strengths even with a guard-heavy lineup. But 2011 was when they broke through and captured the title. Former Iowa State point guard Curtis Stinson secured MVP honors, while back-up Stefhon Hannah came up huge in the title-clinching game three. The 2011 championship was the NBA’s first real glimpse into Nurse’s spectacular coaching mind. He believed in team cohesiveness, and the success reaffirmed those values, catching the eye of many league execs.

“I’ve coached for a lot of years, coached a lot of teams, and I was trying a lot of things out to get to those places,” Nurse said. “The D league certainly gave me a lot of opportunities to test some of the theories I had on chemistry, teamwork and on defense and offense.”

The first 1,000 fans at last week’s game between the Iowa Wolves and Aqua Caliente Clippers each received Nurse’s special-edition bobblehead. Nurse was presented with a framed Iowa Energy during halftime ceremonies. In turn, he also spoke to the crowd, sharing words of thanks to his many supporters. The Iowa Wolves, in honor of the throwback night, donned custom-made, purple Iowa Energy jerseys.

As Nurse turned his attention back to his day job, he touched on how he’s managed to lead the depleted NBA champion Raptors to a solid 9-4 start as of Tuesday, Nov. 19. The Canadian franchise is firmly in the top tier of the Eastern Conference despite injuries to some of its key players, including veteran point guard Kyle Lowry and two other starters. Nurse’s time in Des Moines prepared him for moments like these. Though the Raptors lost Finals MVP Kawhi Leonard in free agency as well, the team has continued to hum along, proving Nurse’s talent.

“We lose players all the time to call-ups and things like that (in the D League), and we always approached it as a new opportunity for somebody else,” Nurse said.

The Energy once lost players on nine different occasions for 10 contracts, yet they still made a run deep into the playoffs.

“We went on this road trip (last week to the West Coast) with a couple guys down, and we lost a third and we lost a fourth,” Nurse said. “So we’re missing four of our top eight, but it’s an opportunity for four more guys to play, and boy, did they step in and take advantage of their opportunity.”

True to his form, Nurse was in a teaching mood last week, sharing several tidbits with the small group of reporters throwing questions his way. In the NBA, he said, players and coaches must have a short memory while adjusting on the fly. That notion right there is a big reason why the Raptors were able to capture the 2019 championship against the vaunted Golden State Warriors dynasty.

We don’t really have much time (in the NBA or the D League) to sit around and cry about anything, because the games are coming,” Nurse said. “You have to attack them and go play with what you got and play the best you can. Our guys have (done that). They do a lot of sound things. They play defense, they share the ball and they give themselves a chance to win.”

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