Connecticut’s Kia Nurse, left, responds to a question as teammate Gabby Williams, right, watches during a press conference at the NCAA women’s college basketball tournament in Albany, N.Y., on March 23, 2018. When Kia Nurse was growing up, the lack of a decent girls basketball program prompted her dad to start his own team. Now Nurse is following in her dad’s footsteps. The WNBA player will have her own girls AAU program, which will begin playing next summer. THE CANADIAN PRESS/AP, Frank Franklin II

Connecticut’s Kia Nurse, left, responds to a question as teammate Gabby Williams, right, watches during a press conference at the NCAA women’s college basketball tournament in Albany, N.Y., on March 23, 2018. When Kia Nurse was growing up, the lack of a decent girls basketball program prompted her dad to start his own team. Now Nurse is following in her dad’s footsteps. The WNBA player will have her own girls AAU program, which will begin playing next summer. THE CANADIAN PRESS/AP, Frank Franklin II

Canada’s Nurse wants to give young girls opportunity to play at highest level

When Kia and Tamika Nurse were growing up, U.S. college basketball coaches rarely ventured north of the border to scout — and even less so to scout girls. Travelling teams for top female players were scarce.

So dad Richard Nurse started his own.

Originally called Canada Drive — it’s now Blue Star Ontario — it gave Kia, Tamika and a talented collection of other Canadian girls the opportunity to be seen by top U.S. programs. Tamika went on to play at Oregon and Bowling Green. Kia, nine years her sister’s junior, starred at Connecticut.

Now, Kia Nurse wants other young girls to have the same opportunity. The 22-year-old from Hamilton, Ont., recently announced the formation of Kia Nurse Elite, her own Nike-backed AAU program that will play on the Elite Youth Basketball League (EYBL) circuit in the U.S. starting this summer.

“It’s something we’ve talked about for a really long time, me and my family,” Nurse said. “(Canada Drive) was a big part of my ability, and a lot of my teammates’ ability to be recruited and be seen by schools in the states, to play down there. So me and my family talked about what I wanted to do with my legacy, and how I could help build a program.”

There are still details to firm up. But the plan is to virtually mimic elite Canadian boys programs such as Toronto-based CIA Bounce. Her program will have U15 and U17 teams to start.

“For me and this team, they’ll probably have these same kind of advantages in terms of those Nike tournaments, on the girls side,” Nurse said. “We don’t have any Canadian women’s Nike teams or EYBL teams at all that go to the states to play in those tournaments. This is the first one.”

The program will be a family project. Tamika, Richard, who played football for the Hamilton Tiger-Cats, and Kia’s mom Cathy, who played basketball at McMaster University, will all be involved.

“We’ve got a lot of knowledge and depth in terms of women’s basketball, and we’ve been fortunate that both my daughters have played at the national level, have played at major NCAA schools, so it’s kind of something that we take pride in and we want to help other kids,” Richard Nurse said.

“Kia’s had the opportunity to play against some of the best competition in the world when she was young, so I think for her, it’s the same opportunity that she’d like to give people.”

The six-foot guard is one of Canada’s most recognizable female athletes. She carried Canada’s flag into the closing ceremonies at the Pan American Games after the Canadian women won gold in Toronto in 2015. She played a key role at the 2016 Rio Olympics, where Canada narrowly lost to France in the quarterfinals.

She gladly assumes any responsibility that comes with being a role model.

“When I was younger, we didn’t really have the social media presence that we do now, we just had Instant Messenger and Myspace and Facebook and we were not allowed to have those as kids,” she laughed. “So, growing up, I saw my sister, and I saw her teammates, and that’s who I wanted to be, exactly like my big sister.”

Women’s basketball got limited exposure. Nurse saw Maya Moore play one game for UConn — “that was a big deal for me.” It was also her inspiration to play college ball for the Huskies.

“Now I think it’s way more important for me to be a good model, because now we have social media, we have the ability for people to interact on a different level with their favourite female athletes across the world and across all sports,” Nurse said. “I think I’ve taken that as a big responsibility and made sure I’m aware of what I post, I’m aware of the little eyes that are on me from all different directions, and understanding I’m giving these girls an opportunity to see they can do whatever they want to do, at any level, if they put their mind to it.”

Nurse wrapped up her WNBA season for New York Liberty last summer, averaging 9.1 points off the bench. She then played in the women’s World Cup in September, where Canada finished seventh. Because most WNBA players need to play professionally during the off-season to pay the bills (the WNBA Players Association recently voted to opt out of its CBA), Nurse is living and playing in Canberra for the Capitals, in Australia’s WNBL.

“I absolutely love it. One of the big things I told my family over and over again is that I got it right on the first try, and I wasn’t sure if I was going to,” Nurse said in a phone interview from Canberra. “With overseas basketball it’s so confusing, because nothing that you do is going to be a perfect situation. This has probably been the closest thing to perfect that I could get. It’s very similar to Canada. Once they said ‘Boxing Day,’ I was like oh my gosh, this is perfect.

“And we’re winning, so that’s not bad either.”

Canberra is third in the eight-team league. Nurse is second in scoring the Capitals, averaging 18 points a night.

The Australian league wraps up next month, giving the six-foot guard from Hamilton more time at home than she’s had in awhile. She’ll spend a lot of that working on her new AAU program.

But the AAU competitive season conflicts with the WNBA.

“It will be being able to get to a couple of tournaments if possible, being able to go to some practices, being able to go to be at some clinics with them,” she said. “Obviously if they’re in New York, it’s very easy for me to take a road trip out to see what they’re doing too, but as much as I can be in the gym and be around the young women, and help them out in any way that I can.”

Richard Nurse is a proud dad.

“She understands what it’s like to be a female athlete, and she understands what it’s like to give back to kids,” he said. “Because obviously for her to be where she is, she’d have to play with some really great women, and some women who have given back, and some people have put time into her development and programs that she’s been involved in.”

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