Nick Nurse’s long journey to the NBA and how his experiences led to the Raptors’ Championship
Nick Nurse distills the wisdom, insight, and experiences that helped him lead the Toronto Raptors to the NBA championship in his first year as head coach.
NBA fans had modest expectations for rookie coach Nick Nurse and his Toronto Raptors. But what those naysayers didn’t realize was that Nurse had spent the past thirty years proving himself at every level of the game, from youth programs and college ball to the NBA D League and Britain’s struggling pro circuit. While few coaches have taken such a circuitous path to pro basketball’s promised land, the journey-which began at Kuemper Catholic high school in Carroll, Iowa-forged a coach who proved to be as unshakable as he is personable.
On the road, he is known to bring his guitar and keyboard for late-night jazz and blues sessions. In the locker room, he’s steadfast and even-keeled regardless of the score. On the court, he pulls out old-school tactics with astounding success. A rookie in name but a veteran in attitude, Nurse is seemingly above the chaos of the game and, with only two seasons on his résumé, has already established himself as one of the NBA’s most admired head coaches.
Now, in this revealing new book — equal parts personal memoir, leadership manifesto, and philosophical meditation — Nurse tells his own story. Given unprecedented access inside the Raptors’ locker room, readers get an intimate study of not only the team culture he has built, but also of a rookie coach’s unique dynamic with the star players — such as Kawhi Leonard, Kyle Lowry, and Pascal Siakam — who helped trail-blaze the 2019 championship run. As much for readers of Ray Dalio as for fans of John Wooden and Pat Summitt, Rapture promises to be a necessary read for anyone looking to forge their own path to success.
I’ve been looking forward to this ever since it was announced (which was, I think, shortly after the Raptors’ NBA victory last summer). I started reading this a couple of days after it came out, and zipped through it. Written in an inviting and engaging style, Rapture is a quick and interesting read. I enjoyed this.
One thing that jumps out frequently in Rapture is that Nick Nurse is a very decent guy. Unlike in other circumstances, or other memoirs, there’s nothing in here that feels forced. In his descriptions of his situation, his career, his opinions on other coaches, players, the League, and more, he is generous and usually positive. This does mean that readers hoping for gossip won’t find much exciting content in Rapture. Readers who want extensive accounts of winning games will also be disappointed — despite Nurse’s interest in and use of statistics in coaching, the book is blissfully free of stats-heavy game accounts.
Nurse is a very thoughtful coach and student of basketball. He always on the lookout for new information, anything that can help him coach better — not just in a pure basketball sense, but also as someone who is coaching young men who are still growing and developing as people, as well as players. He’s gracious in defeat, cognizant of his own shortcomings, and willing to take the blame when it’s deserved. He’s not afraid to admit mistakes. All of this makes Rapture a refreshing read, to be honest: despite his clear confidence in his own abilities, there’s no bombast, here. His confidence is balanced by his clear desire to keep learning, which means he never believes he knows everything. I’m sure this makes him a great coach to work with (even without the great results his teams achieve).
After an interesting and as-expected well-written introduction from Phil Jackson, Rapture opens properly with a quick chapter on Nurse’s upbringing and early life, and his early interest in sports, and his college basketball career. He covers his realization that he wants to be a coach, and also the many obstacles he kept confronting when he tried to make this happen. He takes readers along with him on his international coaching career. He provides comparisons between the NBA culture and that of European basketball leagues (especially the UK’s, where he had plenty of success and most of his international experience). It’s interesting and engaging, but also quite brief. He probably made the calculation that most readers wouldn’t be that interested in non-US/-NBA basketball, but I would have welcomed a bit more. He does cover his very brief tenure as Dennis Rodman’s coach in the UK.
What he teases out of these professional experiences, for the main, are lessons in making sure a team coheres, can work together, but can also remain nimble and flexible when it comes to strategies. As any fan of the Raptors (or, really, their opponents, too) will know, Nurse has injected a considerable amount of creativity into the way the team plays. Over the last couple of NBA seasons, I’ve seen many opponents’ coaches say the Raptors are very hard to prepare for, because you never know what they’re going to do on any given night. Nurse explains how his varied experiences showed him the importance of flexibility, and the considerable benefits it can provide to a team willing to put in the effort and listen to each other. (Communication is a recurring theme throughout the book — “Basketball relies on a lot of little human interactions.”)
If you are sitting courtside at a basketball game, you’ll hear players shouting out switches as they play this “help” defense. A quiet team is in almost all cases a losing team. A basketball team does not have to be composed of players who are best friends, but it never works if they don’t like and trust one another.
Across the whole memoir, Nurse discusses his theory of basketball, as well as his coaching philosophy. For example, the importance on shooting, which is something he was focused on as a player (he was short and not as athletic as many of his fellow and rival players), but recognized that it wasn’t something that others — for example, recruiters, scouts, and coaches — focused on. This led him to start shooting camps, which would ultimately help raise his profile in the sport.
“If you want to stay in basketball, devote yourself to shooting. If you’re already a good shooter, become a better one,” he writes. The players are there to get buckets, so make sure you can contribute to your team’s points on the board. Over his years coaching the sport, he became more interested in the statistical side of coaching — something that has only expanded as years have passed — and how certain shots tend to have greater success rates. So, he developed a “shooting spectrum”, which he applies to practices and game strategies pretty rigidly. Surprisingly so, in fact, given his general preference for flexibility. The one exception, perhaps, is for Fred Van Vleet, whose height meant he had to break all of the spectrum rules and just bomb away from way beyond the arc (something he does very successfully).
Nurse writes that he was especially interested in Phil Jackson and Tex Winter’s triangle offence, which Michael Jordan’s Chicago Bulls used and perfected to incredible success. Nurse writes that “everything about it appealed” to him, when he watched the Bulls’ winning seasons while in the UK (on VHS tapes that he bought and got shipped over from Europe).
“Free-flowing basketball is often compared to jazz, and the triangle was, to my mind, the jazziest hoops I had ever seen,” he writes. Music is another pastime of Nurse’s, and it is both a refuge from the swirling environment of professional basketball, while simultaneously informing his opinions of the game and coaching style:
Great jazz has a structure beneath it and the artists are deeply grounded in its fundamentals. But there’s also a freedom and spontaneity. The musicians step forward and create, and the great ones innovate. That’s how I see basketball. Free-flowing and seemingly random — but with everyone versed in the underlying system. It only works if we’re all speaking the same language.
[As an aside, I would highly recommend you watch The Last Dance to learn more about this — it’s a fantastic, fascinating documentary series.]
Many readers will pick up this book because they want to know more about his first season coaching, when the Raptors won their first ever championship. (I, too, was looking forward to that portion of the book.) They will find plenty of new content, but they might come away wishing for something a bit more meaty. Given Nurse’s aversion to bragging, it’s possible that he thought it would have been poor taste to focus more on the winning season. It was, however, very interesting to get his take on the postseason series and ultimate victory. Readers get some more insights into how he handled Kawhi Leonard’s addition to the team, and also his taciturn nature and how that affected his coaching style.
He writes fondly and positively about many of his players — especially Kyle Lowry, Marc Gasol (who he was familiar with from Europe), Pascal Siakam, Fred Van Vleet, Serge Ibaka and more. It’s clear he not only values them as players, but cares about them as people. This, too, is something that comes across over the course of the book: Nurse is, perhaps to a fault, interested in helping others get to their next level, to reach their potential and achieve their goals. He writes that this is likely a result of his own long, convoluted journey to the NBA and his dream job, but also that he often helped players move on from his teams because it got them closer to the NBA or just into better situations. Yet another way in which he comes across as a great coach and person.
This generosity extends beyond the Raptors’ organization and locker room, too. For example, here’s just a short paragraph about the Atlanta Hawks, which I thought illustrates his fondness for the game, also respect for players, but also the way the postseason is an entirely different beast to the regular season:
What your fans (and management) care about is what you did in the playoffs. In that same 2014–15 season, the Atlanta Hawks had a really nice team—no superstars, but balanced scoring led by Paul Millsap, Kyle Korver, DeMarre Carroll, and Al Horford. But I don’t know how many people would remember that squad. Outside of Atlanta, probably not too many. They finished the regular season 60-22, seven games better than LeBron James’s Cleveland Cavaliers—and then got swept in the Eastern Conference Finals by the Cavs.
Even LeBron James, the seemingly impossible barrier to Raptors success (the stats support this), Nurse has nothing but positive things to say. The harshest criticism I noticed in the book, if you can call it that was about James Harden. Harden, Nurse writes first, “can be difficult to guard one-on-one. In fact, basically no one can guard Harden.” The criticism arises in relation to Harden’s “kick out” tactic: “If I were to be mildly critical, I’d say that he has conditioned refs to give him that call. It is highly effective for him — and incredibly frustrating for his opponents.” That’s it. That’s the most critical thing he writes in the whole book. (For me, it makes watching Harden very annoying and far less interesting and fun.)
Overall, then, this is a must read for all fans of the Raptors, but also anyone with an interest in basketball in general and what it takes to become and succeed as a coach. It’s written in a style that seems entirely in keeping with Nurse’s character: generous, engaging, thoughtful, and interesting. It’s a relatively quick read, and one I enjoyed very much.
If you’re interested in reading more about the Raptors, I think Doug Smith’s recently release We The North (also available in the UK) will also be a good read. (It’s rapidly climbing my TBR pile, and I hope to read it very soon).