Iowa native Nurse travels meandering path to title

In a coaching career that included numerous stops and leagues, Nick Nurse became an NBA champion in his first season leading the Raptors.



Head coach Nick Nurse of the Toronto Raptors reacts in the fourth quarter against the Golden State Warriors during Game Five of the 2019 NBA Finals at Scotiabank Arena on June 10, 2019 in Toronto, Canada. (Gregory Shamus/Getty Images/TNS)

Robert Read, Sports Reporter

The Toronto Raptors were subjected to unrelenting criticism from the sports media after firing head coach Dwane Casey following a 2017-18 season in which the team went 59-23 and Casey brought home the Coach of the Year award.

His replacement was a 50-year-old from Carroll, Iowa, who had no prior head-coach experience in the NBA. In fact, a decade prior, he had coached the Manchester Giants of the British Basketball League.

A year later, Nick Nurse has gone from replacement coach to NBA champion whose team dethroned the Warriors, winners of three of the last four titles, including the previous two.

Nurse’s path to basketball’s highest peak began to pick up steam at a place not many hoops stories of NBA title caliber begin: Cedar Falls.

In four years playing basketball for Northern Iowa from 1985-89, Nurse appeared in 111 games on his way to becoming the program’s all-time leader in 3-point field-goal percentage. In his senior season, Nurse’s Panthers went 19-9 and finished second in the conference.

The next year, Nurse became an assistant coach at Northern Iowa and was on staff when the team upset No. 20 Iowa and recorded an NCAA Tournament victory over No. 3 seed Missouri.

After leaving the Panthers’ sideline, Nurse’s next college coaching gig was at Grand View as head coach. At 23, Nurse was the youngest head coach in the country.

Between taking jobs overseas or taking a summer coaching job in Oklahoma that required him to wash uniforms and drive the team to games, Nurse did not make his way back to the state of Iowa until 2007, when he became the head coach of the then-NBA D-League Iowa Energy.

The team’s inaugural season was 2007, and in the Energy’s first game, they broke the D-League record for single-game attendance.

During his six seasons in the D-League, the NBA called up 23 players on Nurse’s rosters, and he won two titles to pair with his two British Basketball League championships. In 2011, Nurse won D-League Coach of the Year.

In 2013, Nurse finally got the call to the NBA, joining Casey’s staff on the Raptors as an offensive assistant.

After Casey was let go for failing to advance far enough in the playoffs once again, Nurse received the promotion, and the goal was clear: win the Eastern Conference.

The goal was made easier by LeBron James departing the Cleveland Cavaliers, who had been a thorn in the Raptors’ side the previous four seasons.

Nurse went 58-24 in his first year as an NBA head coach to earn the second seed in the conference.

From that point, Nurse and the Raptors knocked off the Orlando Magic, the Philadelphia 76ers, and MVP front-runner Giannis Antetokounmpo and the Milwaukee Bucks en route to the franchise’s first NBA Finals appearance.

The season came to a close with a Game 6 victory on the Warriors’ home court for the Raptors’ first title in history.

The team won the championship for a whole country, and a dynasty was brushed aside, with a small-town Iowan leading the way.