SAN FRANCISCO — On the day Fred VanVleet’s girlfriend gave birth to a baby boy, all but changing his post-season, another baby in the Raptors family was born.
Only Nick Nurse would rather talk about basketball than himself, or about his wife, or share anything resembling news of baby Rocky, pictures even, for public or almost-private consumption. It’s a lot about who he is and how he coaches and how he got here and how protective he is about his personal life versus his professional life.
Here, two games into the NBA Finals, in his first season as a head coach at the highest level, Nurse goes behind a podium once or twice a day to talk basketball, answer questions, deal with being a public figure for the first time in his 51 years. There’s the public Nurse and the private Nurse and he struggles almost daily to separate one from the other on this grand stage as he builds a reputation from unknown to known coach.
“It’s not about me,” said Nurse in a rare one-on-one interview. “It’s about the players, man. It’s about what they’ve done on the court. I’ve got way more attention than I ever needed or wanted.
“I just want to coach the team, and it’s about what they’re doing.”
This is a sport in which coaches become stars. Steve Kerr is more a star as coach than he ever was as an NBA player. Gregg Popovich is a bigger name than any of his players in San Antonio. It’s the same, really, with Doc Rivers and the Los Angeles Clippers. And, before that, Pat Riley or Phil Jackson, average-to-below average NBA players, became giants as coaches.
Nick Nurse doesn’t turn on his phone to show you photos of two-week old Rocky. He doesn’t, like a lot of us have done, publicly obsess over his two-week baby boy. He doesn’t say much about sleeping or not sleeping or everything that goes on when a newborn arrives, the conversations you might hear regularly from new dads. He just goes to the podium and returns to his office and watches film and prepares and provides us with as much of himself as he chooses to.
“I don’t think that’s a story,” he said of his wife giving birth in late May. “That’s not the story. I don’t think it was necessary to talk about it. That’s my business. It’s private business.”
When Nurse was asked just once on the podium in these playoffs about being a new dad, he looked terribly uncomfortable, shot a glance at Raptors PR boss Jennifer Quinn — as if to say, “Why are they asking me this?” — and then said little with his response.
This is all new for Nurse. He comes from small-town Iowa, population less than 10,000. He was quarterback on the high-school football team. The star of the basketball team. A pole vaulter in track season. A big fish in a tiny pond with large dreams.
And it took him forever to get here. A lot of coaches, a lot of families, would have given up somewhere along the way. He spent too many years in too many obscure places, 24 years and 13 spots in several countries before being hired in Toronto in 2013, his first NBA job.
“I remember landing at the airport and I had to get my work permit and the guy says to me, ‘What is your job?’
“I told him I’ll be working for the Raptors. And some of the people heard that and they were literally laughing at me. They were rolling their eyes, laughing at me. That’s what they thought of the basketball team, back then. It was like, ‘Really, that’s what you’re doing?’
“And then last Sunday (after beating Milwaukee), we went to church and went to a park and then went to have lunch, and it was a complete mob thing. The whole restaurant was trying to come over and get a picture. And all I’m thinking about is those guys at customs laughing at me.”
Nurse has had to change as he has become an NBA head coach. Everyone does in his own way. He’s a big sports fan, a huge basketball fan, and he’s had to shut down the world around him.
He’ll listen to his podcasts once the season is over. He’ll listen to sports radio in the off-season. He’ll read online stories then.
Just not now.
Especially not in the Finals.
But not at all during the season, where for public consumption he is the coach, but for those who cover the Raptors regularly, he is the coach who has revealed so little about himself in his rookie campaign. He is cooperative, but to a point.
There is this wall around him, built intentionally by himself. He will let you in, but he will only allow you to see so much. And that’s after gaining his trust.
“I’m just not cut out for attention,” he said. “A lot of stuff has happened to me these playoffs. The Drake thing. The meme thing — or however you say that, whatever that is. All that stuff. They become things and, to be honest, they make me uncomfortable. It’s not like I’m shy or anything. I’m not. It just seems strange to me.
“In a game, I’m locked-in. I maybe notice three rows in the stands the arena over and that’s it. I didn’t know Drake put his hands on my back because I’m locked-in. I don’t see things like that. I get pretty locked-in to what I’m doing. The game. The preparation. The film work. The adjustments. That’s what I do.
“It’s about what the players are doing. My job is facilitate that. My job is to put them in positions to succeed. My job is to listen to their ideas. Take them, if they’re good, quietly push them to the side if they’re not. My job is to help them grow.”
The job he was hired for isn’t necessarily the job he is doing now. There was no Kawhi Leonard in Toronto when he was hired. LeBron James was still in Cleveland. DeMar DeRozan and Jonas Valanciunas were Raptors. Marc Gasol was in Memphis. Danny Green in San Antonio. Pascal Siakam was part of the bench.
He was hired because Dwane Casey took this team, according to president Masai Ujiri, as far as he could.
And then the team changed completely and the no-pressure hiring became a pressure job of sorts. In the middle of all this, this offensive-minded coach — that was his background — was suddenly coaching one of the NBA’s best defensive teams. It has been a whirlwind of a season, an emotional whirlwind of a playoff run, culminating with four straight wins over Milwaukee, the best team in the NBA, and an opening-series win against Golden State.
In the Milwaukee round, the Raptors adjusted. The Bucks and coach of the year candidate Mike Budenholzer — whom the Raptors thought about hiring to coach — did not. The tight Philadelphia series went back and forth, a coaching chess game of sorts, with Leonard making the last shot of the series. Now he’s up against Kerr, the three-time champion, who once almost hired him as an assistant, and, typically, Golden State adjusted for a Game 2 victory. In the back-and-forth of an NBA playoff series, it’s now Nurse’s turn to answer back.
This is the part of coaching he likes best. The chess game.
It doesn’t necessarily matter that it’s the NBA Finals in a coaching kind of way. The job is the job, except for the public part and the media part. You answer more questions and come under more scrutiny, but in your office, the job is the same as it’s always been.
“This feels very similar to a lot of championship runs I’ve had in the past,” said Nurse. “I know that sounds crazy because it was the minor leagues or British basketball or high school, but as a coach, the job is the same. There is a relative calmness to it for me. I know there’s a whole whirlwind of s— going on outside this office, but I don’t feel it. I’m insulated from it here. And I like that.”
The NBA Finals is a media show, full of interviews and television and radio appearances. So his eight brothers and sisters see him more than he sees them. In more than one interview, he has been asked to name all the teams he’s coached in order, as fast as he can.
“And I can do it. That stuff is fun.”
He hasn’t been asked much about his wife, Baby Rocky or his other kids. There, he gets quiet. That’s his home life. That’s his business. He never did show me a baby picture.
“It’s nobody’s business but mine,” said Nick Nurse, rookie coach, now talking to the world.