TORONTO — Kia Nurse was just 15 when her uncle Donovan McNabb took her to a Minnesota Lynx game.
Nurse and McNabb, a 13-year NFL veteran who’d just been traded to the Vikings, had courtside seats at Target Center, and the sights and sounds of women’s basketball at its highest level left an indelible impression on the young Canadian player.
The 22-year-old from Hamilton was selected 10th overall by the New York Liberty in Thursday night’s WNBA draft, and the morning after she remembered that Lynx game.
“It was amazing. I have a picture of me with Maya Moore (a five-time WNBA all-star and fellow UConn product), looking star struck and in awe in the picture,” Nurse said.
“But it was absolutely incredible. We watched them play and that was probably one of the biggest memories of the WNBA, just being there, being in that atmosphere —Minnesota’s fans are incredible — just seeing that live and up close.”
Nurse grew up in a sports family, and with few female role models at the professional level, she looked up to her older sister Tamika, a former national team player.
But Nurse is on the crest of a women’s basketball wave. She saw the game’s exploding popularity in Canada first-hand at the Connecticut Huskies’ NCAA “home game” against Duquesne at Ryerson’s Mattamy Athletic Centre last December in Toronto.
She’s looking forward to taking her responsibilities as a role model to the WNBA level.
“It was so much fun to look out into the crowd and see some of the young girls who were excited about basketball,” Nurse said. ”That’s kind of a new thing for us, within our country, ever since Pan Ams (which Canada won in Toronto in 2015) and Olympic qualifiers, girls are finally able to see Canada basketball live in action, and see how well their national team is doing. I think that sparked something.
“I also think with the increase in social media and how we’re able to interact with our fans and interact with the young girls, that’s a big part of it as well. I’m really excited that young girls can see so many Canadian women doing such great things.”
Nurse mentioned Canadians Natalie Achonwa and Kayla Alexander, of the Indiana Fever, and Nayo Raincock-Ekunwe, who played for the Liberty last season.
“You can see them play, watch them on TV, and see that even a young girl from Canada can come and play and get drafted by the Big Apple, and do something pretty incredible,” Nurse said. “So I’m looking forward to that, and hopefully some more female empowerment work with the league.”
Nurse is a few weeks removed from a heartbreaking semifinal loss in the NCAA tournament, when Notre Dame’s Arike Ogunbowale hit a buzzer-beater in overtime. The Irish went on to win the title on another Ogunbowale buzzer-beater.
“Obviously it wasn’t the ending that we wanted for the season, and the toughest part about being a UConn player, and playing in a program like that or any program across the country, is that one game can decide your entire season,” said Nurse, a two-time NCAA champion. ”Unfortunately that’s what happened in our case.
“And I wouldn’t say it was a bad season, I wouldn’t say it was unsuccessful. We went through so many ups and downs as a team that the public never saw because they were never in our practice facility that I think we overcame a lot.
“I’m extremely proud of my team, and to have been part of a program so incredible for the last four years.”
The six-foot guard averaged 13.8 points, 3.5 rebounds and 2.8 assists for the Huskies this season, and earned the NCAA defensive player of the year award. She’s made defence a big focus since UConn coach Geno Auriemma inserted her into the starting lineup just two games into her freshman season.
“He called me into his office and said ‘We don’t need you to score a ton of points, we’re not putting a lot of pressure on you, we need you to come in, start, and play defence, and make good passes, and then knock down the shots when people leave you wide open,’” Nurse said. ”The defensive part was a big emphasis … And that was something I took pride in, something that I love to do, and something I try to do every single game I play.”
UConn’s stunning loss was the second bit of bad luck for the Nurse family recently. Her cousin Sarah Nurse was on the Canadian women’s hockey team that lost in a shootout to the U.S. at the Pyeongchang Olympics. Kia was on a flight during the game, landing just in time to see the heartbreaking finale.
Nurse had her siblings and parents with her in New York on Thursday, along with UConn teammates Gabby Williams (No. 4 to Chicago Sky), and Azura Stevens (No. 6 to Dallas Wings), when she became the 16th Canadian ever selected in a WNBA draft.
Taking that transformative walk across the draft stage was a moment she’d envisioned for a long time.
“Yeah … phoof,” Nurse said, exhaling. ”Absolutely. Especially ever since the season ended, and knowing that you were going to have to close a chapter on that part of your life, and move on to start something new, it was completely nervewracking sitting there, but it was a lot of fun.”
She reports to the Liberty on April 29 and is hoping to play for Canada in the FIBA women’s World Cup in Spain next September.