LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. — Nick Nurse was 27 years old in 1995, and in the middle of his first season coaching the Birmingham Bullets in the British Basketball League, when he had a crisis of confidence about his future as a basketball coach.
After a game that saw the Bullets fall to 8-8 on the season, Nurse went back to his hotel and wondered if this was the right line of work for him to stay in — to the point where he wrote down four potential options of other careers he could pursue instead.
There was only one problem.
“They all looked like absolute s— to me,” Nurse said Saturday afternoon with a laugh, “so I figured I better get working on coaching and figure it out.”
Nurse ultimately kept coaching and, 25 years later, the Toronto Raptors‘ head coach found himself adding the NBA’s Coach of the Year Award to a growing trophy case that includes the NBA championship he helped lead Toronto to last season.
The 53-year-old received 90 of the 100 first place votes cast by a panel of media members selected to vote on the award, finishing ahead of Milwaukee Bucks coach Mike Budenholzer — last year’s winner — and Oklahoma City coach Billy Donovan, who finished second and third, respectively. Because of the changes to the NBA calendar, the league has reverted back from the format it had the past couple of seasons — when it would present all of its season-long awards in an end-of-season show on TNT in late June — to the traditional format of rolling them out one-by-one during the playoffs.
Nurse was honored for leading the Raptors to a second straight second-place finish in the Eastern Conference during the regular season — despite losing NBA Finals MVP Kawhi Leonard last summer in free agency.
But rather than that setting Toronto back, the Raptors instead posted a franchise-record .736 percentage in this abbreviated NBA season, and with a win Sunday over the Brooklyn Nets will advance to the second round of the playoffs for a fifth straight season.
“You still have a job to do,” Nurse said of his mindset after Leonard left in free agency. “We looked at it as opportunities for the other guys.”
The Raptors have taken advantage of those opportunities, with Nurse both winning this award and coaching the East’s entry in the All-Star Game in Chicago back in February, as a result.
Nurse credited the rest of the organization for allowing him to post the success he has had over the past two seasons, including guards Kyle Lowry and Fred VanVleet, who personally handed Nurse the Coach of the Year trophy while he was being interviewed live on TNT before Saturday’s slate of playoff games began.
“They’re very special,” Nurse said. “Let’s start with Kyle and Fred and the rest of the players and staff and all that kind of stuff. It just doesn’t happen [without them]. It’s a real organizational-type award. I said that when we went to coach the All-Star Game, too, but it’s true. You’re not given that award without guys like Kyle and Fred, Serge [Ibaka] and Marc [Gasol], Pascal [Siakam] and OG [Anunoby], all the way down that are going out there and performing on the court every night. [And] you’re not getting an award without a great staff.”
When Nurse was asked to appear on TNT on Saturday, he said he had no idea that he would be getting the award — to the point that he joked that he got into a bit of an argument with Jennifer Quinn, Toronto’s director of communications, about what he would be talking to the “Inside The NBA” panel about.
But Nurse visibly became emotional when his high school coach, Wayne Chandlee, came on the broadcast to tell him he’d won this year’s award, before Lowry and VanVleet then presented him with the award.
“It kind of all starts with Coach Chandlee,” Nurse said. “I’m a young ninth-grader as a player, and he’s the coach that’s coaching me on my first real kind of basketball team in high school. He has a tremendous knowledge of the game, a tremendous love of the game, knows how to break it all the way down to the finer points. You start learning these things from him. And I think the love that he has gets transferred to you, too.
“It’s pretty special to have three of my favorite people, Coach Chandlee, Kyle and Fred, involved in that moment, that’s for sure.”
In winning the award, Nurse not only becomes the third Raptors coach to win the honor — following Dwane Casey (2018) and Sam Mitchell (2007) — but also becomes the first coach to win both the NBA’s Coach of the Year award as well as its equivalent in the G League.
Nurse, who coached several years in the G League, has often talked about how instrumental his success both there and overseas was in him becoming the coach he is today. He said the time he spent as a head coach in the NBA’s minor league was “invaluable” to his development.
“I think it’s irreplaceable for me,” he said. “I think that anytime you can get up in front of a team and be the head coach, is invaluable experience. And it was tough, that league is tough to coach in. There’s really great players, there’s really great coaches, there’s NBA organizations backing those teams, and people are competing to win.
“It’s high-level competition and you’ve gotta fight and claw and figure it out. So that’s part of it, too, the competing factor. But, you know, calling the timeouts, making the subs, developing chemistry, developing a system of play, all that stuff happens in that league. And I always say, any coach that asks me, I always say get in front of a team, get head-coaching, any head-coaching experience you can get; it’s invaluable.”
Nurse has come a long way over the past 25 years, and he and the Raptors still have designs on not only making it out of the first round on Sunday, but going on to win a second straight championship during their time inside the NBA’s bubble at the Walt Disney World Resort. But Nurse admitted that if you’d told him back when he was sitting in that hotel room in England that things were going to work out the way they have, he would have had a hard time believing it to be true.
“At that particular moment, I would have probably said you’re full of it a little bit,” he said with a smile. “But that team actually that year got it together pretty well and went on a nice winning streak. It started 8-8 in the league and ended up 26-10, so it actually ended up being a pivotal year in my professional decision or career choice or whatever.
“Even saying that, I would say winning the British Basketball League championship as a 27-year-old is a long way from where we are now.”