SCOTT HARRISON | SPECIAL TO THE MONITOR
NOTE: This is one in a series that looks at former RGV Vipers coaches who are now in the NBA.
Former RGV Vipers coach Nick Nurse keeps a miniature statue of an elephant in his office. It’s a symbolic gesture, intended to welcome his players to discuss any number of topics, no matter how uncomfortable.
Should any player feel compelled to speak with Nurse, they’re encouraged to place that elephant on his desk.
There is no proverbial elephant, so to speak, in Nurse’s office, however. Just a literal one, in the form of a toy.
Those measured approaches helped Nurse ascend through the ranks — first winning a championship with the Vipers, and now as an NBA head coach of the Toronto Raptors, who closed out the regular season Tuesday as the second-best team in the Eastern Conference.
“We’ve done OK and are pretty happy with what we’ve done,” Nurse said. “We’ve staved off a lot of guys in and out and a lot of injuries. It’s just a credit to the whole organization, and really everything we’ve done in the last six years, with great player development with our young guys and a very talented team.”
Toronto (58-24) nearly won 60 games in Nurse’s first season as an NBA head coach after years as an assistant under Dwane Casey. Nurse also had success playing at the collegiate level, appearing in 111 games at Northern Iowa (1985-89) and is the school’s all-time 3-point percentage leader (.468), having connected on 170 of 363 attempts.
The 51-year-old Nurse became an assistant coach under Casey in July 2013. Nurse then took over in July 2018, two months after Casey was fired. Nurse’s first head coaching job came when he was 23 years old at Grand View University, in Des Moines, Iowa, and at the time was the country’s youngest college basketball head coach. Through it all, Nurse has kept the same enthusiasm for the sport, regardless of the rank.
“Yeah, (in the NBA) there’s a lot more media and 20,000 people in the arena, but none of that really matters once the ball goes up,” he said. “You are just trying to get a group of guys to buy in and play together. You are trying to put great game plans together, which is nothing really different then when I was at Grand View.”
The Carroll, Iowa, native coached the Vipers for two years and during his second season (2012-13) RGV posted a 35-13 record and won the G League championship with a two-game sweep of the Santa Cruz Warriors in the finals. Nurse felt the G-League was a great place to experiment with tactics.
“The job of the head coach is to manage the team and the experience you get in the G-League is even better because the players change so much so you’re not just slotting guys in their roles and going through a season,” explained Nurse. “You are going to get a few new guys and lose a few guys and then do it again. You just keep getting practice organizing your team and shooting from the hip a bit.”
A total of two G-League titles were won actually won by Nurse with the first coming as head coach of the Iowa Energy (now Wolves) during the 2010-11 season before leaving to join the Vipers. He also was received Dennis Johnson Coach of the Year Award following that championship campaign.
The Vipers success has continued over the years and at 7 p.m. Friday they play the Long Island Nets in the third and deciding game of the NBA G League Finals. The Vipers are looking for their league-best third G League Championship. The game can be seen on ESPN U.
“They actually brought me from Iowa because they knew what I was doing in Iowa was closely aligned with what they wanted to do,” Nurse said about his transition to RGV. “They kind of laid out a little different blueprint for me. Even more extreme on the analytic side of it with the three ball and taking it to the rim. We kind of did it at Iowa, and kind of adjusted it, and did it on steroids in the Rio Grande Valley.”
During six years of coaching in the G-League, Nurse had 23 of his players called up to the NBA. He coached four seasons in Iowa, beginning in 2007, and the final two in the RGV. He admits it was very tough for him to leave his home state of Iowa.
“I really made the decision to go mostly because of Daryl Morey (Houston Rockets general manager),” Nurse said. “The analytics thing was really hot and I wanted to go learn and improve. I felt I reached my ceiling at Iowa and wanted to take a step forward in the learning process. It certainly helped me.”
Previously, Nurse had coached 11 years in Europe, mostly in the British Basketball League, where he twice won the BBL Coach of the Year Award (1999-00 and 2003-04) and competed against Chris Finch who is now his good friend. Currently, Finch is an assistant with the New Orleans Pelicans and coached the Vipers to its other G-League championship in 2010.
“We were fierce competitors for a number of years in England and that grew into admiration and respect,” Nurse said. “We worked closely together with the Great Britain Olympic team for five summers and I was the one who told him to take the RGV job and when they called him up then I took his job with the Vipers.”
Nurse feels Finch is one of the best coaches he’s ever seen and even tried to hire him to be an assistant when he was appointed the Raptors head coach but reportedly was denied permission by the Pelicans to interview him. Matt Brase was a coach on Nurse’s staff when the Vipers won the championship and the current Rockets assistant was in charge of the RGV offense.
“Brase was a really a good piece to our coaching puzzle down there,” Nurse said. “He’s upbeat, always got a smile and always a pleasure to be around him.”
Nurse loved his time in the RGV and says it was a really different vibe then any place he coached plus it reminded him of being back in Europe. He liked the food, the culture, the music and felt the fans were great.
“I always tell people in the two years I worked there I never had an uncomfortable moment with my bosses (including Morey), which is almost impossible when you are a basketball coach,” Nurse said. “Whenever we would lose a few in a row they would say you know what you are doing, get back to work and we believe in you. I look back working there very fondly.”