TORONTO — Masai Ujiri was playing for the Derby Storm of the British Basketball League against a tough Birmingham Bullets team coached by a 20-something Nick Nurse.
It was 1995, and the first meeting between the now-Toronto Raptors president and his new head coach, and Ujiri said he was impressed by Nurse even then.
“His teams were tough,” Ujiri said Thursday as the Raptors introduced Nurse as the team’s ninth head coach. “There was always something about the Birmingham team that was different from the whole league. People talked about them that way.”
The 50-year-old Nurse replaces his former boss Dwane Casey, who was fired after the Raptors’ second-round sweep by Cleveland in the post-season. Casey, meanwhile, has agreed to a five-year deal with Detroit.
One of the youngest coaches in the British league, Nurse was “a very respected coach at that time,” Ujiri said. ”He thinks the game differently. In the NBA, we’re a copy-cat league. We copy everything that everybody else is doing. I’d love not to be that and go different ways. Sometimes they might fail, but what’s the next best thing? He’s that kind of thinker, to be honest.”
The Raptors rode a revamped offensive style to a franchise-best 59 wins and the No. 1 seed in the Eastern Conference. But they ran into a roadblock in LeBron James for three consecutive seasons. Nurse will be tasked will taking them one step further.
And at Thursday’s packed press conference at the Air Canada Centre, much was made of Nurse’s coaching creativity, and an ability to think outside the box. Nurse was a two-time NBA G-League coach of the year, and is second all-time in G-League wins. He worked with Houston’s farm team, the Rio Grande Valley Vipers, which was a virtual lab for testing playing styles for the Rockets.
“If you’re going to be a little bit innovative or risk taking sometimes you’re going to be wrong and it’s going to look bad. That’s one of the things I learned going to work for the Rockets at Rio Grande,” Nurse said. ”I know it’s the G-League and no one cares, but they were encouraging me all the time: do this, try this, if it doesn’t work, throw it out, if it works, keep it. I’m not saying it’s a hundred things a game but there are some things, some ideas that I have that I want to try. If they don’t work, I’ll stand in front of you guys, take the heat.
“I’ve already talked to some players about being more open-minded about things we want to do.”
Nurse said he’d spoken to most of the team already.
Asked about Kyle Lowry, who arrived in Toronto with a reputation as a coach’s worst nightmare, Nurse raved about the all-star point guard.
“First of all I love him. I’ve never seen a guy compete the way he competes. I’ve had guys similar to him in my coaching past. I thought he had a really good year … he had a good playoff run, he shot the ball well,” Nurse said.
“Now that he’s got a grasp of his offence a little more now — I know that sounds a little funny — but we changed a lot, offensively, last year, but I’m going to put the ball in his stomach a little bit more and have him run the offence. I look forward to him. I think he’s an unbelievably competitive guy and a hell of a player.”
Like Casey, Nurse believes Cleveland was beatable this past post-season, and had Game 1 gone their way, the conference semifinals might have been a different series. But while the Raptors’ offence held up in the playoffs, Nurse said the team’s defence wasn’t good enough.
“The game’s changing, there’s so much switching going on, there’s so much you’ve got to figure out, double teams, rotations, how you’re taking away the three, how you’re challenging shots, how you’re protecting the rim,” he said.
“There’s a lot more creative ways being done right now and I think there’s some creative things to do … that we’ve kind of thrown out there that we can get our head around and polish up a little bit. It all comes down to putting the players in the best position they can be successful, and that includes defence. If a certain guy can’t fight underneath the basket against a bigger guy, well, let’s work on things to keep him on the perimeter.”
Nurse was in London last week to see the Rolling Stones at Old Trafford with his son — “I said to Bobby (Webster, the Raptors GM) I’ll be wherever you need me to be but I got these tickets man, and I’m going.”
He was home in time to meet with Larry Tanenbaum, the chairman of Maple Leaf Sports & Entertainment, late Sunday night. He received the call Monday morning.
Nurse was Ujiri’s first head coaching hire, and he sought a leadership consultant coach, for guidance on “the right questions to ask and how to bring the best out of these people and what you want.”
Before arriving in Toronto in 2013, Nurse spent six seasons in the NBA G League as head coach for the Rio Grande Valley Vipers (2011-13) and the Iowa Energy (2007-11).
Nurse posted a 183-117 (.610) regular-season record in the G-League, and also has the most playoff victories in the league’s history with a 15-6 (.714) record.