New York Liberty guard Kia Nurse (5) shoots next to Indiana Fever's Kamiah Smalls during the first half of a WNBA basketball game Thursday, Sept. 10, 2020, in Bradenton, Fla. Nurse isn't just one of Canada's finest female basketball players, she's becoming a popular voice of the game as well. THE CANADIAN PRESS/AP -Phelan M. Ebenhack

Canadian basketball star Nurse is carving out space in sports broadcasting at just 25

Canadian basketball star Nurse is carving out space in sports broadcasting at just 25

Kia Nurse isn’t just one of Canada’s finest female basketball players, she’s becoming a popular voice of the game as well.

The Canadian national team and WNBA star has drawn rave reviews for her work as an analyst and colour commentator on TSN broadcasts of the Toronto Raptors and NCAA March Madness, impressing with her professionalism and immense knowledge of the game — and her humour.

During the Raptors’ all-female broadcast on March 24 — the first in NBA history — Nurse dropped a hilarious “Get that GAH-BAGE outta here!” in an impression of legendary broadcaster Jack Armstrong, complete with Brooklyn accent.

“Got to pay homage to the OG,” Nurse said with a laugh in a phone interview this week.

Nurse is carving out her space in a field that remains overwhelmingly male, and she’s just 25. She got her start when she was asked to join the broadcast team for March Madness in 2019.

“I was home early from (playing) overseas, and it was an opportunity that arose. And so I just said, ‘Sure, let’s do it.’ And it’s pretty easy to just sit there and talk about basketball, because it’s what I’ve done my whole life.

“The first time was a little bit more nerve-racking, because I felt like I was almost thrown into the fire, straight into doing it. There were probably a lot of ‘ums’ at that time. As the weeks kind of went on, I started to get the hang of it, and just from seeing other people do it, obviously for their careers and watching sports as much as I had, it kind of just became pretty natural.”

The plan was to do the same in 2020, but the March Madness tournament was cancelled due to COVID-19.

She was a regular on TSN’s Raptors broadcasts before leaving for Phoenix last week to prepare for the WNBA season.

“Kia’s very good. And what she does is she’s not trying to be a broadcaster. She’s talking basketball. And she comes across really naturally,” said longtime Raptors broadcaster Leo Rautins. “(The late Canadian broadcaster) John Saunders used to tell me ‘It should be like you and I are talking hoops on a couch where people can happen to hear the conversation.’ And that’s the way Kia is.

“She’s not trying to impress you with her knowledge. She’s sharing her knowledge. And she enjoys it. She’s very good at it. She knows the game, there’s no question about that. And she’s fun to work with because she’s real.”

She’s similarly impressed her big brother, Edmonton Oilers defenceman Darnell Nurse.

“Seeing her do it and how well she’s been doing it, for me that’s a lot of pressure to step in behind that. I don’t know if I have the confidence to hop in behind Kia, she’s been doing such a great job,” Darnell Nurse told reporters with a laugh. “She can do it all… it’s so cool to see.”

The Raptors’ all-female broadcast drew plenty of praise, including from Toronto point guard Kyle Lowry.

Nurse did the colour commentary alongside Meghan McPeak, who did play-by-play. Kayla Grey handled sideline duties while Kate Beirness and Amy Audibert hosted the show.

“The great thing about our broadcast is obviously, Kate mentioned it early in the pre-game, was we were excited to be there to make history and to allow young women to see representation of themselves on television in these roles,” Nurse said. “But at the same time, we were there to do a job, and we knew we were good at our jobs, and that’s all we really had to go out there and do.”

Nurse isn’t sure whether fulltime broadcasting is in her long-term future.

“I don’t really look that far ahead,” she said. “It’s great to have this kind of started already, at some point, the ball is going to stop bouncing, and for female athletes, you have to have a Plan B. This is something that wasn’t originally on my radar as a Plan B, but it’s something that I really love doing, and it’s exciting.”

The television work is a huge help financially. Most WNBA players spend their off-seasons playing overseas, because their WNBA paycheques aren’t enough to get them through the year.

Television work is a chance for Nurse, a Hamilton native, to stay home between WNBA seasons.

“In my eyes, if it’s as lucrative as being overseas then I don’t have a problem staying home, and so we’re able to make it work in that sense,” she said.

Nurse, a six-foot guard, was traded to the Phoenix Mercury in a three-team deal in February. She was the Liberty’s 10th overall selection in the 2018 WNBA Draft, and averaged 11.6 points, 2.6 rebounds and 2.0 assists per game during her three-year tenure with New York.

She led the team in scoring the past two seasons.

The WNBA has prided itself for its work off the court as well, so it was no surprise that during a summer of racial unrest across the U.S. and abroad, the league led the way in the Florida bubble — or “wubble,” as it was affectionately known.

When Raphael Warnock defeated former WNBA owner Kelly Loeffler for Senate, he owed a large part of his victory to WNBA players, who threw their support behind Warnock after Loeffler critiqued their participation in the Black Lives Matter movement, among other issues.

Both the WNBA and the women’s NCAA basketball tournament drew record numbers of viewers this past season, and Nurse is confident the momentum of the women’s game will continue, as will their work on issues such as racial injustice.

“We definitely as a league understand that it wasn’t just a one-time thing, we knew that this was gonna be a fight for the long haul,” Nurse said. “So, for us, it’s just continuing to find different ways to create spaces where tough conversations can be had, and education can happen as well.”

Nurse added that being back in their home markets, and doing work in their own communities, will only increase the momentum.

“Because there’s 12 teams that are doing that across the country,” she said. “We’re going to continue to use our voice, we’re gonna continue to keep speaking up on things that we believe need more attention, and justice that needs to be served. That’s the great part about our league is that it’s always about momentum moving forward.”

The Mercury open their 32-game WNBA season on May 14 against a Minnesota Lynx team that includes Canadians Natalie Achonwa and Bridget Carleton.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published April 21, 2021.

Lori Ewing, The Canadian Press

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