UNI Panthers

Nick Nurse: From UNI to NBA Finals, and almost everywhere in-between

Former Panther from Iowa coaching Raptors vs. Golden State

Toronto Raptors head coach Nick Nurse gestures to his players as rapper/Raptors superfan Drake applauds behind him during Toronto's deciding Game 6 Eastern Conference final win over the Milwaukee Bucks last Saturday at Toronto's Scotiabank Arena. (Dan Hamilton/USA TODAY Sports)
Toronto Raptors head coach Nick Nurse gestures to his players as rapper/Raptors superfan Drake applauds behind him during Toronto's deciding Game 6 Eastern Conference final win over the Milwaukee Bucks last Saturday at Toronto's Scotiabank Arena. (Dan Hamilton/USA TODAY Sports)

Nick Nurse has done basketball with Steve Kerr before, but they were on the same side.

A decade or so ago, Kerr was the general manager of the NBA’s Phoenix Suns and Nurse was the coach of the then-NBA D-League’s Iowa Energy. Phoenix was one of the Energy’s NBA affiliates, and Kerr came to Des Moines to be present when Iowa made its selections in a college player draft.

Kerr played at Arizona, was a member of five NBA championship teams during a long playing career, was a TNT basketball broadcaster, went to Phoenix as GM and president of basketball operations, stepped down and returned to TNT, then became the Golden State Warriors’ coach in 2014 and proceeded to win three championships.

That’s a basketball career spent in the spotlight.

Nurse? By the time he became the Energy’s coach in 2007 he had been a Northern Iowa graduate assistant, a player-coach of the Derby Storm in England, the head coach at Grand View University in Des Moines, an assistant coach at South Dakota, and the head coach of professional teams in England and Belgium for over a decade.

That’s a basketball career spent in obscurity, and that was before tacking on six years in the D-League with a 183-117 record and two titles.

There’s more than one path to coaching a team in the NBA Finals. Thursday night, it’s Kerr’s Warriors against Nurse’s Toronto Raptors in Game 1 of the Finals. Many who knew Nurse at UNI are loving it.

“My son, Austin, was 2 years old when Nick lived across the street from me in Cedar Falls,” said ESPNU basketball analyst Kevin Lehman of Iowa City. Lehman was an assistant on Eldon Miller’s UNI coaching staff for the last three years of Nurse’s playing career, which was from 1985 to 1989.

“Austin said ‘Dad, how cool is it my babysitter is now the head coach of the Toronto Raptors?’

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“We got to know him as a 19-year-old and watched him progress. He’d get up at 6 a.m. in the summer and spend two hours doing a shooting workout in the gym.”

Nurse, a multi-sport star at Carroll Kuemper, played in 111 games at UNI. He is first on the Panthers’ all-time 3-point percentage list (.468) and second in steals.

“As a player, he understood the game inside and out,” said Steve Phyfe, one of Nurse’s UNI teammates. “He was one of those silent heroes who didn’t get the accolades he maybe deserved. The teams didn’t have the success like some that came afterward, but he definitely was part of the foundation.

“He’s one of those guys with a high basketball IQ. You could tell that playing with him. Once he was in a graduate assistant role you could see that really come out.”

When Miller held a team meeting after taking the UNI job in the spring of 1986, just four players from the previous season’s team were left to attend. One was Nurse. Another was Greg McDermott of Cascade, the current Creighton head coach who held that position at UNI from 2001 to 2006.

“Two small-town Iowa kids,” said Lehman.

UNI improved to 19-9 in Nurse’s senior season. The next year, with Nurse a graduate assistant, the Panthers beat Iowa during the regular season and stunned No. 3-seed Missouri in the NCAA Tournament.

“He thought outside the box even as a GA,” Lehman said. “He came up with our first Midnight Madness in the West Gym. We had that place packed. Kids were hanging from the rafters. He had our players dress in tuxedos for the team poster.”

“Nick wasn’t the tallest or quickest,” McDermott said, “so he had to be fundamentally sound. He had a very creative basketball mind, and you’re seeing that from his team as it comes out of timeouts.

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“You can see his personality in the team. They play without fear, something that sounds easy but isn’t.

“First and foremost at the NBA level, you’ve got to have a connection with the players. His appears to be incredibly strong. He was able to show confidence in his bench players even when they weren’t playing well early in the (Eastern Conference finals against Milwaukee) series.”

Nurse coached Iowa’s Des Moines D-League team from 2007 to 2011, won the league championship in 2011, then went to that league’s Rio Grande Valley franchise and won another title in 2013. He was hired by the Raptors during the following offseason to basically be the offensive coordinator for head coach Dwane Casey.

Though Toronto averaged over 52 wins in Casey’s last five seasons and went 59-23 last season, team president Masai Ujuri decided things had flattened out. He fired Casey, took a month to consider candidates for the vacancy, then went with Nurse. Ujuri had first become acquainted with Nurse in 1995 when Ujuri was a player for the Derby Storm in the British Basketball League and Nurse was coaching the rival Birmingham Bullets.

“His teams were tough,” Ujiri said last June when he introduced Nurse as his coach. “There was always something about the Birmingham team that was different from the whole league. People talked about them that way.”

Steve Forbes, the head coach at East Tennessee State and a native of Lone Tree, said “Nick’s always been very smart and basketball-savvy, but he’s not afraid to take chances. He thinks outside the box, and that’s paid dividends throughout his career.

“I see a guy who can handle the game, obviously, but if you don’t get cooperation from your teams you don’t win. His players believe and trust in his message and cooperate.”

Forbes was in Toronto last Saturday to attend the Raptors’ clinching Game 6 win over Milwaukee. He sat next to Nurse’s wife at the game. He has been Nurse’s friend since Forbes began his coaching life at Southwestern Community College in Creston while Nurse was at Grand View, then the youngest head coach in college basketball.

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The two often scouted and recruited in the same places, and worked at a lot of the same basketball camps.

“I remember sharing a dorm room with him at a camp in St. Joe, Missouri,” Forbes said. “I was thinking about leaving Creston for Barton County (Community College in Kansas) and he was thinking about leaving Grand View to go to South Dakota. The next day, we both changed jobs.

“Later when I was head coach at Barton County I wanted him to come be my assistant, but he said he wanted to be a professional coach and went back overseas.”

That was over 20 years and a lot of jobs ago for both men. Forbes is no slouch, with a 100-39 record and an NCAA Tournament appearance over his four seasons at East Tennessee State.

“I’m a thousand times more nervous during Nick’s games than mine,” Forbes said. “I was at home, watching the game outside — you can do that in Tennessee — when Kawhi Leonard made that shot (a last-second 3-pointer to close out the Raptors’ Eastern semifinal series win against Philadelphia). I was crying because I was so happy and emotional for Nick.”

From coaching an NAIA school in Des Moines to five British pro teams that all are now defunct to leading teams for six years in what’s now called the G-League, Nurse is 51 with literally a world of experience.

Now he’s leading a team representing all of Canada in front of a global television audience for his sport’s most-prestigious title. Many a person with UNI ties — and many who are just Iowans proud of one of their own — will cheer hard for Toronto.

“It’s the coolest thing ever,” Lehman said.

l Comments: (319) 368-8840; mike.hlas@thegazette.com

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