In the end, it wasn’t even close.
While a few seeds of doubt were planted when coaches voted Milwaukee Bucks’ Mike Budenholzer and Oklahoma City Thunder’s Billy Donovan as co-coaches of the year in their vote, the media made it loud and clear who the winner of the official award should be.
Raptors head coach Nick Nurse claimed 90 of the 100 first place votes to finish with 470 total points, more than triple that of second-place Budenholzer. Toronto finished 53-19 on the season after many speculated they would struggle after the departure of Kawhi Leonard. Instead, the .736 win percentage is the highest in franchise history and they look like true contenders once again. Sam Mitchell and Dwane Casey are the other two coaches to have won the award while coaching the Raptors.
The announcement was made during Saturday afternoon’s opening segment of Inside the NBA, when Ernie Johnson, Shaquille O’Neal, Charles Barkley, and Kenny Smith pulled a couple classy moves by having Nurse’s high school coach in Iowa, Wayne Handlee, declare that he had won the award and then had two of his stars, Kyle Lowry and Fred VanVleet, present the award to him.
“It was quite amazing to be able to lift up that Larry O’Brien trophy last year with these guys, that’s for sure, that one certainly means the most to all of us to try and get one of those,” Nurse said. “But this is cool, and to have those two guys, they’re as tough and as smart and as competitive as it comes and you don’t do it without those kind of guys and an amazing staff, amazing organization, and the other thing is the people in Canada, man, they support us really well so this goes out to them, too.”
Nurse was noticeably and understandably emotional when he found out, the journey to the top having been a long and winding road. One that even almost ended when he was coaching in the British Basketball League just over 25 years ago.
“My team was about 8-8, I went over there to see if I was any good or if I could get better,” Nurse remembered. “It was my second go-around over there but the first time was as a player-coach. I went back to my hotel thinking maybe I should pack up and go home. I wrote down four other things I thought I might like doing and they all looked like absolute shit to me, so I figured I better get working on coaching and figure it out.”
Among the options were working as an accountant, real estate agent, or running a recreation centre as a director. But it was the love of the game that always brought him back. Making pennies at the time, all Nurse knew was he never wanted to leave basketball. He wanted to be around a team and lead others to accomplish their dreams and so he kept plugging away and finished the season 26-10 after the slow start. In 1996, he won a title with the Birmingham Bullets, then another with the Manchester Giants in 2000. He won a Coach of the Year award, too.
Reaching the mountain top in the United Kingdom and earning over a decade’s worth of experience had Nurse itching to return to the States and prove himself there. There was a window, albeit a tiny one, back in his home in Iowa and he busted down every door he possibly could to squeeze through it. Iowa didn’t have a team, but there was an arena available. He got in touch with some contacts to try and get the ball rolling and eventually the Iowa Energy—now known as the Iowa Wolves—was formed. By the 2010-11 season, he won both the Coach of the Year and D-League title. Two years later, working with Houston Rockets affiliate, the Rio Grande Valley Vipers, Nurse won a championship with a completely new set of players and an extremely dynamic, ahead of its time offence that was running and gunning and knocking down one three-pointer after the other.
“I think it’s irreplaceable for me,” Nurse said of his G-League experience. “I think that anytime you can get up in front of a team and be the head coach, is invaluable experience. And it was tough, that league is tough to coach in, there’s really great players, there’s really great coaches, there’s NBA organizations backing those teams, and people are competing to win, it’s high level competition and you’ve gotta fight and claw and figure it out. So, that’s part of it too, the competing factor.
“But, you know, calling the timeouts, making the subs, developing chemistry, developing a system of play, all that stuff happens in that league. And I always say, any coach that asks me, I always say get in front of a team, get head coaching, any head coaching experience you can get, it’s invaluable.”
By now Nurse’s name was drawing chatter, and thanks to former Raptors scout Dave Pendergraft, Toronto offered him the opportunity to join Dwane Casey’s staff as an assistant and the ascent has continued. Heading into the 2017-18 season, Nurse was tasked with revamping the Raptors’ isolation offence and used the opportunity to tease just how creative he could be. The next off-season, he was named the team’s new head coach, expected to manage championship expectations, a rental superstar, and a disgruntled face of the franchise upset his best friend was traded away.
That story ended in Toronto and Canada’s first-ever NBA title, Nurse showcasing incredible calm and tactical know-how in overcoming series deficits in the first three series—including trailing 0-2 to the Bucks in the conference finals—and then ending the Golden State Warriors’ dynasty by any means necessary including a Box-and-One defensive strategy that threw Steph Curry for a loop.
In the time since, Nurse’s has expanded his brand significantly outside of basketball. He has his own foundation where he sells merchandise including his now famous hat with his initials on the front as well as a Box-and-One hoodie. He played the guitar and piano at appearances for Canadian rock band Arkells and is leading a program to raise awareness for American voters living outside of the United States on how they can vote. He has consistently kneeled with his players during the national anthem and voiced his support for the racial injustice suffered by the Black community.
“I think that with regards to voting or any social messaging or my foundation, I've been given a tremendous platform,” Nurse said. “I was given a great job, and obviously the team has been fabulous and I've been given a platform to speak on some things I believe in and do some good with things I believe in.”
Nurse has become the model head coach, following in the footsteps of current coaches Steve Kerr, Gregg Popovich, Rick Carlisle, and Doc Rivers as those who have won both an NBA title and a Coach of the Year. It’s an exclusive list that can add plenty of pressure, but just as Nurse has revealed before that he hasn’t felt the weight of winning the title the previous year, staying invested in the here and now and the day-to-day is what keeps allows everything else to take care of itself.
“Some of those emotions and feelings come at you sometimes,” Nurse said about expectations going forward. “But I think it’s my responsibility and my job to just stay super focused on what I’m doing with this team, to block any of that out and focus in on the next game or focus in on getting certain guys playing a little bit better and preparing the team as best I can. That’s really the only thing I know to do, is put my head down, go to work and try to get ready, and when the ball goes up, the instincts to compete and try to figure out a way to win take over.”