University Lecture Committee hosts Toronto Raptors head coach Nick Nurse

Nurse, who hails from Carroll, Iowa, talked about his journey from a small town to the NBA stage.



Head coach Nick Nurse of the Toronto Raptors looks on during a game against the Milwaukee Bucks at Amalie Arena on January 27, 2021 in Tampa, Florida.

Chloe Peterson, Sports Reporter

NBA Toronto Raptors head coach Nick Nurse talked about his journey from his small Iowa hometown to becoming a title-winning NBA coach during a Sunday afternoon lecture hosted by the University of Iowa’s Lecture Committee in partnership with the University of Northern Iowa Alumni Association.

Work ethic was the name of the game for the Carroll, Iowa, native growing up, as he was the youngest of nine children. The ambition he learned from his parents and siblings translates into his coaching abilities today.

“We all detasseled corn and worked in the bean fields and all those kinds of things,” Nurse said. So the work ethic was there and still here today. I’ve told a lot of my teams over the years that the other coaches in this league want to win the championship too, so you have my word that I’m going to outwork them.”

Nurse, a graduate of UNI, played for the Panthers from 1985-89. He ended his collegiate career as the program’s all-time 3-point percentage leader at .468. Iowa head women’s basketball coach Lisa Bluder, also a graduate of UNI, moderated the lecture.

After graduation, Nurse took a winding road to become a coach in the NBA. He coached in Europe for 11 years, the NBA D-League (now called the NBA G League) for six seasons and became the assistant coach for the Raptors in 2013.

In 2018, he was promoted to the head coaching position. He led the Raptors to a franchise-first NBA Finals championship in 2019, and in 2020, he was named the NBA Coach of the Year.

UI Lecture Committee member Adam Parker, a professional MBA student from Holstein, Iowa, pitched Nurse to the committee because of his unconventional journey to the NBA.

“There’s not a lot of international exposure that you get in small town Iowa,” Parker said in an interview with The Daily Iowan. “I just think international exposure is a great teacher, as most life experiences are, so it’s just interesting [how those experiences] shaped his outlook, how it shaped his viewpoint of coming back to Iowa.”

During the lecture, Nurse also mentioned his mentors. One he specifically mentioned was Phil Jackson, who famously coached the Chicago Bulls during their reign over the NBA in the 90s and won 11 NBA championship titles as a coach with the Bulls and the Los Angeles Lakers.

“I always say Phil Jackson was my mentor, but he didn’t know it,” Nurse said. “I ordered all these tapes and watched them of the Bulls because I was stealing the triangle offense from Phil Jackson… The rest of the NBA was passing it into the low post and standing around, and the Bulls were passing and cutting and moving and reshaping, and everyone was touching the ball. To me it was fun to look at, it was beautiful to see.”

After Nurse obtained the head coaching job in 2018, he could finally meet Jackson, his childhood hero. To Nurse, it was surreal.

“I got to fly out to his cabin lake in Montana and spend three days with him,” Nurse said. “It’s just so weird. Like, I’m driving around in a pickup truck with Phil Jackson and spitting the seeds out the window and I’m pinching myself because I’m from Carroll, Iowa, and I’ve watched this guy’s every move my whole life.”

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At the conclusion of the lecture, Nurse talked about being prepared for the next step. During his six seasons in the NBA D-League, he said he didn’t feel ‘passed over’ for NBA coaching jobs because he wasn’t ready for them yet.

Once he got on the NBA coaching bench in 2013, he was as prepared as possible.

“I think that once you get a chance, you want to make sure you’re ready for it,” he said. “And I think that the good Iowa work ethic is real, the Iowa nice is real, the Iowa spirit is real, and those will take you a long way. So make sure you’re thankful for those and pay heed to those.”