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Nick Nurse: the NBA champion coach who learned his trade in ... Britain?

Eoin O'Callaghan in Toronto
Photograph: Frank Gunn/AP

As Nick Nurse went through his final preparations on Thursday night, a message came through on his phone from an old friend.

“I get in touch before every game, mostly,” says Nigel Lloyd, one of the standout players on the Birmingham Bullets team that Nurse coached to a British Basketball League (BBL) title in 1996.

“He was getting a lot of grief about a timeout he made in Game 5. So I just said to him, ‘Good luck tonight. Stick to your instincts. You’ve been right so far.’ And he messaged me back – and this is before the game now so I’m thinking, ‘Dude, you need to concentrate’ – and he said, ‘Good point’. When the game finished, I just said to him, ‘Congrats, well done’. And Nick gets back to me with a message that reads, ‘Thanks, Nigel, it feels exactly like ‘96’”.

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After guiding the Toronto Raptors to a historic 4-2 series win over the heavily-fancied Golden State Warriors in the NBA finals – ensuring a first-ever championship for the Canadian team – Nurse walked into the post-game press conference and discussed his unlikely rise, with a specific nod to his long stint in the UK.

“All those jobs meant the world to me at the time,” he said, referring to a coaching career that began with the Derby Rams in 1990 and continued through stints in London, Manchester and Brighton before he returned to his native US and tasted success in the NBA minor leagues.

“I loved all of them. Whether it was winning with Birmingham or with Rio Grande Valley. I never really got discouraged. I didn’t really care about the level I was coaching at. I just wanted to learn and get better.”

He arrived in the East Midlands a lifetime ago, hired by Derby owner Tim Rudge as a player-coach. Nurse had just finished a scholarship at the University of Northern Iowa, where he had built a solid reputation on and off the court. He had served as an assistant to Eldon Miller and although the NBA was never an option, he still felt there were some playing opportunities further afield. He sent his CV to various teams around the globe but heard nothing. Then Rudge called, offered him a dual role and Nurse made his BBL debut five days later.

“He was in his early 20s but looked about 16 or 17 and was quite scrawny” says Martin Ford, who was part of that Derby team. “And he was pedantic. It was all about precision. ‘You sprint down the floor and you stand at this point because this is the optimum place you need to be to start our offense’. Now, that point was about half a square meter. So, the biggest thing I took from him was the pinpoint positioning of players.”

The team travelled to games in a white van. It was customary for the coach to drive but Nurse wasn’t old enough to take the wheel of a rental so Ford, the starting center, stepped up instead.

“A couple of times it broke down on the M1, driving back from Thames Valley and Crystal Palace,” he remembers. “I tried to cradle it to the service area but didn’t manage it so we had to offload on the motorway and wait for assistance. A slight difference to what Nick is used to now.”

Nurse used the unconventional travel experience to his advantage. It allowed him to build relationships, namely with Ford. And that led to trust and the players committing fully to what their coach wanted.

“He was my co-driver,” Ford says. “He’d sit in the front and we’d chat. He was interested in you as a person. He wanted to know about my work, my family. That keeps you grounded as an individual but it also allows you to almost demand more from other people. I remember one game and it was tight. I’d got injured, rolled my ankle or something. He took a timeout, came up to me and said, ‘I need you out there. I know you’re hurt but there are young lads here who don’t have the experience so you’ve got to come out and give me everything you have to try and help us win this game now.’ Because he’d got to know me and because he’d allowed us to get to know him, we understood that desire to win. He created that within us. So I was quite happy to get back out there.”

Kevin Routledge, chairman of the BBL during much of Nurse’s time there, also noticed Nurse’s talent. “The players knew he was for them,” he says. “And they were going to go the extra mile. It’s not about how much they get paid or the training facilities. Ultimately, it’s about how much they buy into a coaching philosophy. It’s a completely different circumstance Nick is in now but it’s still about getting five guys out there, playing for each other.”

Since taking charge of the Raptors last summer, Nurse has frequently mentioned the one season he spent in Birmingham. You can understand why. While there, he first bumped into Masai Ujiri, a journeyman player, then lining out for Derby. Decades later, Ujiri – born in Bournemouth but raised in Nigeria – would become Raptors general manager and hire Nurse to replace Dwayne Casey as head coach.

When Ujiri followed up that appointment by signing superstar Kawhi Leonard, Nurse claimed the last player he coached of that calibre was Tony Dorsey, a key member of the Bullets team.

“Dorsey was the unstoppable force, like Kawhi,” says Lloyd, who Nurse compared to Kyle Lowry.

“There are a lot of similarities. Nick references that period all the time. He doesn’t have to say it was like ‘96. He’s won other championships. But 1996 was the first final, the first time he put a team together, when he figured out the way he wanted to coach and try out a lot of new things. Like the Raptors, we ran into the top team – London Towers, who’d won everything. We weren’t supposed to beat them but we ended up doing it at Wembley.

“I remember our last practice before we headed to London and it was one of the calmest practices we ever had. Whatever he said to do, we all did it. Similar to how Toronto were this year. No emotion, everyone knew what they had to do, the goals they had to accomplish ... he had us so prepared going into that weekend. You looked around and everyone was focused. It was a special feeling. It just felt different.”

Nurse won another championship with Manchester Giants in 2000 and was twice voted Coach of the Year. During his final spell in the UK with Brighton Bears, he ended up as head coach, general manager and owner. Memorably, three days after his eviction from the Celebrity Big Brother house, five-time NBA champion Dennis Rodman played for Nurse against the Guildford Heat and stuck around for two more games.

“That was him thinking outside the box,” Routledge says. “He saw the opportunity and had the audacity to pull it off. It was great publicity, it wasn’t going to win him the league title but it was something he will have learned from. And that was the thing that always struck me about Nick: constantly learning and testing things out to see if they could work.”