UNI Panthers

Atop the world, Nick Nurse spends some of his summer in Iowa

Coach of NBA champion Toronto Raptors was in Cedar Rapids Monday for Zach Johnson Foundation Classic

Nick Nurse hits across a creek on the seventh hole fairway at the 9th Annual Zach Johnson Foundation Classic at Elmcrest Country Club in Cedar Rapids on Monday, July 8, 2019. The annual golf tournament raises funds for Johnson's local charity, Kids on Course. (Rebecca F. Miller/The Gazette)
Nick Nurse hits across a creek on the seventh hole fairway at the 9th Annual Zach Johnson Foundation Classic at Elmcrest Country Club in Cedar Rapids on Monday, July 8, 2019. The annual golf tournament raises funds for Johnson's local charity, Kids on Course. (Rebecca F. Miller/The Gazette)
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CEDAR RAPIDS — Nick Nurse had lost his superstar less than three days earlier, but the Toronto Raptors coach was as sunny Monday as the weather as he played in at the Zach Johnson Foundation Classic.

Nurse is less than a month from coaching the Raptors to their first NBA title in his first season as their head coach. That’s the highest of the highs in basketball. Then came the free-agency window that slammed with a thud in Toronto early Saturday morning when the news broke that Finals MVP Kawhi Leonard was leaving the Raptors to sign with the Los Angeles Clippers.

Instead of feeling blue, though, Nurse was upbeat and lively as he mingled with PGA Tour pros and fans Monday at Elmcrest Country Club.

He flew into Cedar Rapids Sunday night from Las Vegas, where he was watching Toronto’s team of young players — including undrafted free agent Lindell Wigginton of Iowa State — in the NBA Summer League. Then he’d be flying back to Vegas. He was already in looking-ahead mode, dealing with the roster he’ll have with life after Leonard. Life, as he sees it, still is great.

“It’s all fun, right?” Nurse said Monday before his first tee shot. “It’s not hard to get on a plane and come play golf, and it’s not hard to get on a plane to go watch basketball. I’m fortunate to be able to do all this stuff, and happy, obviously.”

It’s good to be king, but Nurse put on no airs here. Like Johnson, Nurse’s route to the pinnacle of his sport started in Iowa and was an unconventional one. He coached at Grand View University in Des Moines and was an assistant at South Dakota. He spent about a decade coaching in England, then coached for six years in what is now the NBA G-League before becoming a Raptors assistant.”

“I keep coming back to Iowa,” Nurse said. “I started at Northern Iowa (as a player and a graduate assistant coach), went to England, Grand View, back to England. I came back to coach the (G-League) Iowa Energy. I’ve lived in Iowa most of my life. I was spending my summers in West Des Moines.

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“I’ve got a lot of family here and I’m very, very proud to be from Iowa, no doubt about it.”

Nurse, a Carroll native, was one of 110 people to attend a family reunion in Churdan, Iowa on June 28-30 before he was feted at “Nick Nurse’s Journey,” an event in Jefferson. That’s where friends, family and former teammates and coaches saluted him.

The NBA’s championship trophy was on display. In Jefferson, Iowa.

“Nick’s humble,” said Chuck Lamaak of Hiawatha, Nurse’s cousin. “He wasn’t afraid to start coaching at the NAIA level.

“He’s coaching the Canadian team (at the FIBA Basketball World Cup in China) this summer because he still wants to learn.”

Lamaak and his wife attended Games 1 and 2 of the NBA Finals in Toronto. The Raptors won the Finals over the Golden State Warriors in six games, with the clincher in Oakland.

“We had tickets for Game 7 (scheduled for Toronto),” Lamaak said. “I’m glad we didn’t have to go.”

Lamaak was at Elmcrest Country Club Monday to see Nurse hit golf shots. So was longtime Northern Iowa athletics equipment manager Steve Nurse, Nick’s brother. Steve and his wife drove from Cedar Falls to Toronto for Game 5 of the Finals, “the third time we were up there during the playoffs,” Steve said.

It’s what family does.

During the playoffs, Nurse kept hearing from friends back in Iowa. They were more nervous during the Finals than he was.

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“When you’re in the middle of it you’re so insulated,” Nurse said. “I would get a lot of texts from people saying ‘We’re having near-heart attacks, can you not win by such close margins?’”

Instead of chasing publicity and working on building his “brand,” Nurse has been to Iowa twice since being in the middle of a celebratory parade in Toronto that seemingly was attended by every person in Ontario.

“There’s certainly a work ethic I think we in Iowa are all instilled with and people around us are all instilled with,” said Nurse. “Our environment is all about work ethic.

“It’s Iowa nice and Iowa togetherness and Iowa spirit. It’s a real thing, man.”

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

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