How Toronto Raptors Head Coach Nick Nurse is Leading the Next Generation of Champions On (and Off) the Court
Nick Nurse has a knack for simplicity. An NBA champion, philanthropist, and Ph.D. candidate, Nurse is blunt when asked about the ideal character trait of a teammate: “Losing has to bother you, right?” he says. Damn straight.
That bullish belief in the basics has fuelled Nurse’s unorthodox career, empowering him to build championship teams, on and off the court. It’s what gave the reigning NBA Coach of the Year the gall to deploy a middle-school defensive tactic, initially to extreme ridicule, against one of the greatest teams to grace the league. And it’s what gave Nurse the confidence to found a youth charity focused on sports, music, and literacy because “those things make me feel good,” says Nurse, speaking once again in aphorism.
“I like to see people realize their dreams and goals,” he says. “I hope reaching those things makes them happy.”
Being a great leader requires moral conviction. And the imperative to do the right thing in the right way means everything to Nurse. It’s something he inherited from his mother, Marcella, who, in her 94 years, raised nine kids, taught generations of Iowan school children, and on her deathbed, told baby of the family Nick to coach his ass off instead of staying by her side. (The Raptors went on to pummel the Los Angeles Clippers 123–99 that night.)
Pedigree seems to explain why Nurse hasn’t slowed down since winning an NBA championship, his fundamental drive to motivate as much compulsion as it is compassion. In the off-season, Nurse has been busy coaching Canada Basketball’s senior men’s team (a gig he landed for his ability to bring together disparate personalities); for the last five years, he’s been writing and defending a dissertation on the first principles of ethical sports leadership (a philosophy degree with obvious practical import); and back in March, he launched the Nick Nurse Foundation (an extension of his own childhood interests). “There’s a correct way to do things,” Nurse says. “My top priority is to make sure my team is impactful in our communities, maximizing dollars, and spending where you promise.”
2020 has been the craziest year of Nurse’s career, one that has tested his chops as a basketball mind and role model. After being the first major American league to postpone play at the outset of the coronavirus emergency, the NBA ventured down to Disney World in July to complete the season, recoup financial losses, and relieve a weary fanbase. Being stuck in a bubble (and watched by millions around the world like hamsters) without family, friends, or food not from a vacuum pack could drive more complicated men to madness. True to form, Nurse found gratitude in the simple things. “Let’s get out of bed on the right side,” he would tell his staff and players. “Let’s present a good attitude. Let’s show kindness.”
For a long time, especially in the alpha-male theatre of professional sports, leaders were expected to bury their more tender emotions for fear of showing weakness. How things have changed. Today, the NBA is considered a role model for mental-health advocacy, a movement ignited, in part, by former Raptor and Nurse disciple DeMar DeRozan. So, when your leader is Nick Nurse, and he is open and upbeat and sensitive—and boasts the highest head-coach winning percentage in NBA history—you follow that guy into hardcourt war.
The Raptors’ devotion was, indeed, needed to help Nurse weather the bubble’s true test: the fight for racial equality. You see, the NBA’s origins are deeply tied to the civil rights movement. African Americans represent 75 percent of the league, with many of those players having personal experience with systemic violence and prejudice. And for a tense 24 hours in August, the players boycotted the season in response to the police shooting of Jason Blake, and in solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement. The act of protest forced league owners to further amplify the players’ voices and dedicate more resources toward social justice. For Nurse, supporting his adopted family was an easy choice.
“There’s no measuring stick for how far sports should wade into politics,” he says. “You look at the Colin Kaepernick situation and it was never about flags or countries or any of that. It was about police brutality. And he was right.” Here is Nurse, again, refusing to indulge superficialities, instead channeling the moral core of the issue. If you have a platform—NBA celebrity, a charitable foundation, or just a good old-fashioned voice—Nurse argues it’s your responsibility to put some positivity into the world. It’s why the coach became such a vocal voting advocate, imploring the more than 600,000 eligible Americans living north of the border to do their civic duty. “Some of the voting groups we worked with said their traffic had tripled in Canada. We just wanted to help and I’m glad we did that,” says Nurse.
Bubble life, American election, and COVID-19 crisis (hopefully) behind him, Nurse nevertheless has no free time. When he’s not getting ready for the next basketball season and inspiring Torontonians, he tries to set an example for his young children, his greatest hope being that they grow up happy, safe and strong, mentally and physically. And when pressed about his desired “legacy,” Nurse reverts back to basic truisms: “I don’t really think about that word, right? I just try to be a good person.”
Since Nurse’s dissertation has yet to be made public, best to extract some ethical philosophy from his basketball approach. “I tell the Raptors up-front that they’re not always going to play great,” he says. “That when they lose, they have to put it behind them, but never lose the lesson from the last game, and to evaluate each and every day moving forward.”
Winning advice for winning teams.