Nick Nurse is not your typical head coach.
Ahead of our chat earlier this week, he put a Toronto Raptors leadership meeting—which sounds like a pretty big deal—on hold in order to call me and ask if it's OK if he's ever-so-slightly late for our interview. ("Can I apologize real quick and can I ask you for just a couple more minutes? We're just wrapping up.") He could've just, you know, taken as long as he needed to finish his super important call without worrying about some inconsequential journalist's lousy two minutes—which is what 99.7 per cent of other coaches would've done—but no. Nick Nurse is different.
He certainly didn't become the reigning NBA Coach of the Year by being conventional. Besides being inordinately polite, he's got one of the most unorthodox minds in pro basketball. His willingness to conduct crazy in-game experiments (run a box-and-one defence in the NBA Finals? Hell, why not) helped lead the Raptors to their first championship in franchise history last year. And his road map getting to the NBA in the first place was just as atypical: dude cut his teeth in Britain's struggling pro circuit—at one point owning a team and signing Dennis Rodman as a publicity stunt—and convinced some folks in Iowa to start a D-League team so he could coach it.
Nurse's unfathomable come-up is the subject of Rapture: Fifteen Teams, Four Countries, One NBA Championship, and How to Find a Way to Win—Damn Near Anywhere, his new memoir co-written with The New York Times Magazine contributing writer Michael Sokolove. It's a fascinating window into the Raptors bench boss' mind, charting his journey from being a hoops-curious kid in Iowa to being flat broke in his late thirties to sitting atop the basketball world. We also get a glimpse of Nurse off the court: he loves Thelonious Monk records, he's somehow on his way to completing a PhD, he apparently never sleeps, and he's genuinely a well-meaning, all-around good guy. But we already knew the latter.
Ahead of the NBA's Dec. 22 start date, we caught up with Nurse to talk about his bona fide love for Canada, his belief in the law of attraction, the potential for a Drake collab, and his upcoming acting debut on Global's comedy-drama series Private Eyes (airing December 14).
Hey Nick. How was your leadership call?
It was OK. We're kind of in the middle of trying to figure if Toronto's kicking us out or not, so we're figuring out where to relocate, and it's not really that easy, you know? I hope Toronto says we can stay because that would certainly be great. We could pivot right back to Toronto really easily. Everybody gets to stay home and we get to practice facility and everybody's kids are in school and all that kind of stuff. It would make it a lot easier, but we'll see.
I mean, yeah, I would love to have basketball in Toronto again, too! Otherwise, which U.S. cities are in the running to be potential hosts?
It's Nashville, Tampa, and Fort Lauderdale. I think that's what it's down to right now.
And what would your preference be?
Well, I tend to not really care. You know, I think I would make the most of wherever we go. What matters to me is where the players feel most comfortable, and most of them are leaning towards either of the Florida locations. They just feel like if they gotta get kicked out of Canada, they might as well get some sunshine to show for it. And I think so, too. But we'll see. I mean, I think most of the cities are making it clear they really want us to come, you know? So they're putting their best foot forward and they're making the decision hard. A lot of those cities don't have NBA teams and all those teams coming to town is quite exciting for them.
Obviously, being eliminated by the Celtics in Game 7 was a tough blow. How do you get the team to bounce back?
One thing that we do know is, our core team here that's been together for a couple of years plays really well together and is able to win a lot of games. And we played very well this season. I think if the ball bounces the other way a couple of times in that Game 7 in Boston, who knows how far we would have gone? I think we got a good team. You know, we've got some free agents, so that's the first job here at the end of the month as free agency starts. And we've got to try to improve the team or keep the team together or whatever [based on] the decisions that end up being made by everybody. And then you're right, just play a little bit better. I think the young guys are still improving. OG, Pascal, Norman, Fred, those guys are still getting better. And if they can make steps forward, our team will make steps forward. I think they're excited to go.
To help the Raptors prep for the season, are you going to give them all the Nurse's Pill?
[Laughs.] Ah, I don't think so. That's a little bit more for younger kids, but you never know.
So tell me about the Nurse's Pill. I noticed you recently started selling it on your website. It's some sort of special ball you invented to help players shoot better?
It was a device we used about 12 or 13 years ago, when we were coaching a lot of kids back in my home state of Iowa on how to shoot. It just seemed like a good thing that began to run its course when I came here. And now that I'm here in Canada and it looks like I'm going to stay a while and I'm coaching the national team, I want to try to get it out around the country and have all the proceeds go to my foundation. That'll help kids in the long run as well. So, it seemed like all those things kind of aligned together and it makes sense to bring it back out.
"We're trying to make this a basketball destination for the greatest players from all over the world. We have a lot of talent within the city, within the country right now that's emerging."
But aren't you worried your opponents are going to buy this ball and start shooting better against the Raptors now?
[Laughs.] No, not really. Not really. The main point is to get young kids shooting well and get them started in the right direction.
In all seriousness, though, it's really cool that you're trying to get kids across Canada to shoot better. You've spent decades bouncing around from country to country, so you're really in a position where you can compare Toronto to other places. What it been like adopting this city, and country, as a second home?
It's funny, when I was coaching in England, I was stopping back through Toronto a lot after the season and doing some work with some of the free agent camps with the Raptors. And I always said, "Man, this city is amazing. If I ever get a chance to be in the NBA, it would be great to work in Toronto." And it just so happened that my first job in the NBA was with the Raptors. I've had a bit of an international coaching career and this is a major international city. So I love that. We're trying to make this a basketball destination for the greatest players from all over the world. We have a lot of talent within the city, within the country right now that's emerging. A lot of young talent. So there's lots of things to love from just a general perspective about the city, but also from a basketball perspective.
Any favourite spots in Toronto you like to hang out at?
Yeah, but I don't really want to give those away. [Laughs.] Most of them are shut down now for COVID, anyway. But I just like the diversity in the city. I like a lot of the culture, you know? I certainly go to the theater and the symphony a lot. I go to a lot of the live music joints as well.
In your book, you write that the night the Raptors won the championship, you had a low-key night in your hotel room with some pizza. No victory party?
[Laughs.] I had some good friends with me from Iowa, my hometown, there. And I was just kind of relieved, you know? You get to that point where you win the trophy, it's a relief of all the exertion and tension and stress and all the stuff that you've been putting into trying to win. When it comes to an end, it's really a great relief. So I was just kind of chilling in the room.
How did winning the Larry O'Brien trophy change things for you? I'm sure it must have.
I mean, listen, it was a great moment for the country of Canada, the city of Toronto. It's been fun to share it with Canada and go out and see people. It's certainly changed my life from that perspective. A lot of people want to talk about what it was like to be there, and everybody's really nice. You know, there's just a lot of people coming up and saying, "Hey, congratulations! I was here when I was watching the game" and "I was at the parade." It's fun to hear everybody's personal stories about where they were when they watched the game.
You've kinda become a mega-celebrity in Canada over the last two years. What's that been like?
It's certainly different than what I was used to before, back when I was just moving around from different countries and things. But it's fine. Everybody's super nice and very respectful and things like that. It takes a little getting used to, but I'm happy. I'm happy to have to get used to it. Let's put it that way. [Laughs.]
"When we start out a season, we've got to put the vision out there of winning a championship. And then we try to manifest that and we put a plan together of how we're going to get there."
I've been reading your book and your journey has been wild. Back in 2006, once your stint with the Brighton Bears was up, you returned to Iowa without a cent to your name. You had to crash at your sister's place. But somehow, you still found a way to get to where you are today. It's a really inspiring story that people need to hear especially now, with the pandemic wrecking so many lives. What's your advice to someone hitting rock bottom?
Well, one of the things that I truly believe in is that, not unlike your body and doing positive things to stay in shape physically, you can pump a lot of positivity into your mind, right? I believe in listening to motivational speakers. I believe in listening to positive messages by people sharing stories of motivation, you know? A lot of times when things have been toughest for me or even now, when the seasons get tough, those are the things I go back to, from Jon Gordon to Tony Robbins to Zig Ziggler to whoever you want to listen to—whatever podcast you can find, Optimal Daily Living or whatever it is. I think that's a good thing to just let soak into your mind. It helps people keep going.
Do you believe in the law of attraction? Manifesting your reality?
Of course! Of course. And I know that certain kinds of personal situations and day-to-day life are different than any sporting event. But, you know, when we start out a season, we've got to put the vision out there of winning a championship. And then we try to manifest that and we put a plan together of how we're going to get there. We work together to do it the best we can.
Another cool thing you say in the book is that you always try finding ways of injecting humour into the game, as a way of easing players' minds. What was the funniest moment from the bubble?
I don't know what the funniest moment was, but it was just a lot of trying to stay positive. I remember many times getting the team together, it felt there was a little bubble anxiety going on. So, you know, I'd just say things like, "Let's make sure we get out of bed on the right side of the bed tomorrow." [Laughs.] And above all, I just wanted us to remind each other to stay positive and have fun and do the best we can with it. And certainly, you know, when OG hit that shot at the buzzer in Game 3, I think a lot of bubble anxiety came out there. Just the sheer elation that we had, to know that our season was going to continue and we were right back in the series. There was a lot of joy on people's faces on that one, for sure.
You sometimes bring your guitar with you on the road. Do you ever play pump-up jams for the players, to get them amped?
Not really. [Laughs.] I mean, I might mess around. Like, there might be a piano in the meal room or something like that once in a while. Then I'll play something. But I mean, I'm just messing around, really. But we do have a DJ at practice and the players can request their playlist for the day. So I involve them in it, you know? I let them choose it. I think getting the beat going really [helps]. I'm always talking about us finding our rhythm and them getting some energy, and music kind of promotes that. It puts a little bounce in people's step and gets us to practice a little harder, move a little quicker. I like to do that.
"The thing is that time keeps on moving and you either do stuff or you don't... I was going to say "do shit"—you either do shit or you don't. [Laughs.]"
What are you listening to right now? What's on your playlist?
You know what? I'm listening to City and Colour right now. I'm listening to a lot of Dallas Green. I'm becoming a big fan. I think he's got some great songs and a great voice. I've been listening to a lot of that over the last few days.
Might we see a Nick Nurse x Dallas Green collab sometime soon?
[Laughs.] I don't know. I don't know. I've never met him, but I hope to meet him soon.
Word is that you've been working on four songs with the Arkells. Is there an EP in the works?
No, not really. We played a couple songs together for this Zoom thing we did to launch my book. Max, their front man, happened to be one of the hosts and Matt Devlin was a host, and he said, "Come on, let's play a song or two." So we knocked a couple songs out for that, but we're not really recording anything. I'm not at that level. [Laughs] .... I'm a good friend of Max, and we're just messing around, you know? He comes over sometimes. He'll come to the office, we'll jam a little bit and we'll sing whatever we're feeling like and maybe we'll sing an Arkells song or two. I'm not the greatest musician in the world. I'm trying to learn both the piano and the guitar and learn about playing within a group and all those kind of things. I really love it. It's really fun for me. It's a great hobby.
How about a Nick Nurse x Drake collab?
[Laughs.] That's a bit of a stretch, man. That's a bit of a stretch.
I'm surprised he hasn't hit you up about that.
No, not yet. [Laughs.]
Drake seems to be very vocal at Raptors games. It looks like he does a lot of courtside coaching. Does he ever drop you any nuggets of wisdom during games?
No, not really. He's just great support, you know? He really is a big fan. He's just always cheering me on and cheering the guys on. He's just positive, positive energy. He's fun to have there, you know? He really is.
He's also always on hand in case you need a masseuse.
Yup, I've had a shoulder rub or two from him. A famous, famous one.
I read that you're about to make your acting debut soon. You've got an upcoming cameo on Private Eyes.
Yeah, I guess so! I filmed that a while back and I guess it's getting ready to come on. Yeah, that was fun! That was fun. Those guys were great. Jason Priestley was great and he directed the episode. I met some really cool people that day. It was great. Mike Weir was on there, the Masters champion, right? I played myself. It took place at like a charity golf outing. So I went to the charity golf outing and woops! I probably shouldn't say that. They probably don't want me saying that stuff. [Editor's note: We checked with Global and they said it's all good.]
OK, no worries! Well, what was it like trying your hand at acting? I guess it's not that hard to play yourself.
It's not as easy as you'd think! You know, you've still got some lines that they want you to say and you gotta deliver them. [Laughs.] You've got to do it several times over and over. But they were good coaches and very nice, very nice to me. It was a lot of fun.
So now you're an actor, an author, a musician, and a PhD student. You seem busy enough as it as being the head coach of the Raptors. Why are you so keen to take on so many different outside projects? Aren't you exhausted?
Well, I kind of live by this idea. The thing is that time keeps on moving and you either do stuff or you don't... I was going to say "do shit"—you either do shit or you don't. [Laughs.] I just like to dig in, man. I mean, I think there's a lot of instances where you say something like, "Aw man, I'd like to learn how to play the guitar!" And so, I pick it up and find somebody to give me lessons and I try to stick with it for a while. You know, I like lifelong learning. Education, reading, listening to music—those are all things I like to do. I just like to keep super busy, man. I like to use the full day. I like to use the full day and do that over and over. It adds up to something sometimes, you know?
Totally! That's awesome. You don't waste a single minute. So tell me about this PhD. Are you really pursuing it just so that people can call you Dr. Nurse?
It's part of it. [Laughs.] But I started it back when I first got the assistant job here. I thought it'd be good way to learn and, you know, give me something to do on the road. Keep me busy and occupied. It's been a lot more difficult to finish it off since becoming head coach. Obviously, I have a lot more responsibilities. I'm a lot busier. But I'm getting there. I got a little bit more work to do but I'm getting there.
What is it on? Has it influenced your coaching in any way?
Yeah! It's a PhD in philosophy with an emphasis on sports leadership. So there's a lot of a lot of research in a lot of different areas that I think has help me. But one of the things I'm doing my dissertation on is the impact that NBA players have in their local communities. I'm doing a lot of research on that, and I think that's at the top of my priority list for our players: to make sure they're all impacting their local communities, along with myself.
You and the team have been leaders in the fight for social justice. You were very vocal in your support for the Black Lives Matter movement in the bubble, and about getting people to vote. So now that it's done, what are your thoughts on the outcome of the election?
Well, I just hope that President Biden unifies the country. I think there's a lot of work to be done there. President-elect Biden, I guess I should say. And, you know, I think that's the biggest thing: There's a lot a lot of work to be done in racial unity and racial equality, but in a lot of other areas as well. So let's hope that he can do that.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.