With Hall of Fame point guard Steve Nash set to coach the Brooklyn Nets whenever next season starts, another blow was struck against the career coach: the plucky, smart, not-quite-athletic-enough nomad who slogs his way through iffy motel rooms and interminable bus rides to reach the pinnacle: leading an NBA team.
Toronto Raptors head coach Nick Nurse, who isn’t part of a coaching tree, belongs to that fraternity. He’s a grinder: he coached in England—where he had to call banks for lines of credit—and spurred the creation of a D-League team in Iowa so he could coach it.
Coaching the Raptors to an NBA championship, which he did last year, almost feels anticlimactic. Almost! It’s still a great story, and one collected in a new book. Released last week, Rapture: Fifteen Teams, Four Countries, One NBA Championship, and How to Find a Way to Win—Damn Near Anywhere, written with The New York Times Magazine contributing writer Michael Sokolove, isn’t your average basketball-lessons-for-the-boardroom-titans fare. That’s primarily because Nurse is so relatable: He takes shitty jobs and crashes at his sister’s place. He questions whether he should pursue another career. He works like the rent is due in an hour. He just happens to be one of the best coaches in the NBA. In a freewheeling Zoom interview, he talked about his journey, his drive to learn, and whether or not we’ll see a Nick Nurse x Drake collab any time soon.
GQ: You’ve at least been a reader since high school when your coach urged you to read. What's the most influential non-basketball book that you've read?
If you want to say non-basketball, it's [still] going to be related. I talked a lot about Freedom in the Huddle [by coach Darrell Mudra], which is a football book; Managing My Life by Alex Ferguson, which is a soccer book. Those are in my top five of re-reads. I’ll go into every season and reread them. I like a lot of other books, too. The Great Gatsby would be one of my favorite all-time books. Or To Kill a Mockingbird, things like that. Classics, obviously, a lot of them. I had a long stretch of Robert James Waller [author of The Bridges of Madison County].Well, why? He was a professor at Northern Iowa, where I went to school, when he wrote them. The setting is Iowa, where I’m from. I was a big fan of Pat Conroy and his books.
The Great Santini is a great book.
Awesome, right? His nephew, Ed, is a good friend of mine. We played on the same high school all-star team together. [Ed Conroy is actually the late novelist’s first cousin.]
Do you write for fun?
There have been moments that I have. I haven't really lately. I'm doing enough writing in my coursework. I’m doing an online Ph.D., and I'm just about done with it. I got to do my dissertation. I've defended three chapters, I got another seven chapters to do and, hopefully, I can get done by the end of the year. There is no casual writing time these days.
What's the doctorate in?
It's a Ph.D. in philosophy with an emphasis in sports leadership. It’s just something I started about five years ago as an assistant. I was looking to keep myself busy on the road. And it was the only place [Concordia University Chicago] I could find that you can do it all online because the demands of traveling and the NBA season make it tough. But here we are. I got through all the coursework, and we're here with the dissertation.
How has pursuing the PhD. improved your coaching?
It's just a general philosophy of approaching continuing learning, trying to improve yourself. A lot of the coursework was great. There were things that send you down paths and, as any good education or good class does, it will veer you into something that will lead to further research and further reading.
What I'm doing my dissertation on isn't rocket science, but it is what I currently am involved with. I see one of my priorities as a coach is to make sure that our players are giving back and connected in their local communities. So I started studying professional athletes’ charitable giving foundations’ impact on their local communities. And that's what I ended up doing the dissertation on. So I'm doing a lot of research. I've read every article there is to read about it. But now I'm digging in deep and trying to do a lot of interviews and do my own research to finish up a dissertation on what an NBA player can do to make a great impact in a community and what things need to be improved on.
What should they be doing?
I think the first thing is to decide that you do have this platform, and you're willing to give up some of your time, and make an impact on those kids that look up to you. The second thing is you have to understand that you have to run this thing with the utmost morality. On the business side, you have to be as transparent and as legitimate as possible. Those two things are really the key.
How are you able to balance coaching with pursuing a doctorate?
I don't have a lot of a lot of free time. [Laughs] And I try not to waste time very much. I cut out a lot of things maybe that other people do. And I spend it on reading and writing and then playing music and working toward some goals.
What would you do if you had free time?
Well, I used to like to golf a lot back in the day, but that kind of went to the wayside. I don’t know, I’d probably continue to listen and delve into the music a little more. I always seem to be happy when I'm doing that.
What more do you need to learn as a coach and as a man?
One of the things that's in the forefront of my mind right now is continuing to be creative. I don't want to etch in stone my system, or my systems. I want those evolving. I want them to be different. I want to keep them fresh. I think that's a challenge. It's part of the reason I try to link some learning of music. They say it stimulates creativity, so I hope it does for me. I believe that it does. I always say that 15% of my job is the X's and O's, and 85% is everything else. There's a lot of areas you can always brush up on: the communication, the relationship building, sports psychology, the human performance. I’ve got a lot to learn in a lot of those areas.
In the book you talk about early in your coaching career putting flyers on windshields, writing letters to coaches, just moving. Is that 85% the hustle for you?
I think so. I get into a groove [where] I say, “There's just got to be a better way to do this.” Or, “There's got to be a faster way to teach this,” or a more comprehensive way players can learn this more quickly. And then I'll devour everything I can on the subject until that little craving is satisfied, or the one that keeps you tossing and turning or the one that gets you out of bed early every morning searching for answers.
Does any part of you miss that hustle of getting started?
I've never really thought about it, but only because I feel like there's a lot of stimulation still, right? One of my favorite quotes of all-time is, “We couldn't wait to get out of bed in the morning.” [Laughs] I think it's attributed to the Wright brothers when they were building the airplane. I still have that feel of, “Man, you know, whoo, thank God morning’s here. Let's get up and get started and get to work on improving some way.”
Was there anything in your career that prepared you for the bubble?
[Chuckles] It was not bad in its entirety. My immediate thought was, it did feel a little bit like a D-League showcase, but for two and a half months, rather than five days. [In the D-League,] everybody goes to Reno. And there's nobody at the games. There are no fans at the games other than scouts and GMs. You're pretty much at a hotel that's connected to the arena, and you're walking back and forth. [There are] a lot of teams in one area, and you're just clicking off games, and you go back and you click off another one. And you have a practice in between. And that's probably similar, but you knew you were getting two games and you were out of there.
There were a lot of things to like about [the bubble]. I’d never throw it in the ideal category. From a coaching standpoint, we had everything we needed there, and it was certainly fair and the same for all the teams. There was plenty of gym time. There was plenty of weight room time. There was plenty of chances to show film. It was very convenient: literally a five-minute walk from our hotel room to the gym. There was a lot to like about the basketball. I mean, it was just a little confining. There was a lot of groundhog days there, where the days were long and very similar and we're moving pretty slow but certainly glad we were able to go to work.
You certainly miss your family. That's pretty much a given. I think it wasn't bad, but the idea of confinement, I think, never is a big hit with anyone.
How did winning the Finals last year change things for you?
Well, I'm going to give you an answer on both sides of the coin.
There's a sense that it didn't change much for me. It’s not like I sit around and think about it that often. I want to get up and go to work. And I want to get to the start of the next season and prepare the team with a fresh mind of how's this team. How is this team gonna reach its potential without carrying around the champion’s burden? It’s a different walk. It was great from that standpoint, I never felt that at all season to season. So I think that goes to my first side of my coin: didn't feel that much different.
Then there's the other side of it. You come back to Toronto, where the people were fantastic: the crowds; the electricity, the specialness from the whole country following that run, obviously, affects your day-to-day life. I couldn't hardly walk around the city for a number of days. It was great. It was a tremendous experience, but it caught me off guard a little bit. I’m just used to walking down to the grocery store and going shopping and all of a sudden, everybody followed for two months that long run that ends up in a big parade.
I've been lucky enough to win a championship at five or six other places. And they feel really similar. They really do, except for it's just such a big stage and you just gotta kind of treat them all the same, you know?
That’s like me saying I won a junior high writing contest and then won the Pulitzer Prize. [Writer’s note: I have won neither.] They’re not equal in scale.
You’re right. I could sit here and show you my championship ring from the Iowa Energy in comparison to my one from the Toronto Raptors and you're going to know there's some sort of difference there with the championships. [Laughs] I don't know. Maybe in 10 years or 20 years, especially, it'll really sink in that it is a lot bigger deal. For me, I’m just trying to keep my head down and keep my focus on getting the group of guys I’ve got better and making this Toronto Raptors organization a little bit more special and unique each and every day.
You’re a giant Thelonious Monk fan. I know nothing about jazz. If I wanted to listen to one Thelonious Monk album, where do I start?
Well, there's so many good ones to listen to. [Nurse gets out of his office chair.]
Oh, getting out of the chair. It's serious.
Are you filming this?
No, I'm just talking to myself like an idiot.
[Laughs. Holds up Solo Monk.] Here's a good one I just listened to: Solo Monk.
Oh, the vinyl. Look at that.
You're a vinyl guy.
I’ve got I don't know how many, I should probably count ‘em. Probably 40 Monk albums. This is a good one. It's got “Ruby, My Dear” and I'm Confessin’ [(That I Love You)]’” on it. It's two of my favorites. That’s why I was just listening to this one recently. That's a good one to start with. If you've never listened to him, let it roll and let it play and then listen to it some more. It kind of grows and sinks in and then there's a real fondness that develops because it's so unique.
Kind of sounds a little bit like your career.
Yeah, maybe. Good comparison.
I see the guitar. I know you’re quite the piano player. Drake is always a courtside presence at Raptors games. Has there been any talk of a musical collaboration?
[Laughs] No, no, no, no, no. I am a learning guitar player, right. I'm just OK. Less than 18 months I've started playing. It's quite the endeavor. My piano playing is so-so, but I love to play both. I’m a long, long, long, long ways from ever collaborating with someone as talented as Drake, or anybody else.
I mean, you could hand him a demo.
I tend to play for my own enjoyment. So I don't know if there's gonna be any demos being recorded anytime soon. [Laughs] It’s a hobby. I love it. I hope it stretches some creativity in me. They say that it does, and I feel like it does for me. I think music brings people together. I'll sit around and play and sing with different people and bring them into my room and or I'll take requests and try to learn something for somebody.
Who stands out?
Well, Rick Carlisle is a for-real piano player, big time. I can say this: there are a number of my assistant coaches who are also learning to play. They've taken lessons and picked up keyboard. One just got a piano in his apartment. And they're really improving, and it's fun to see.
Has it also improved their coaching, their contributions to the team?
Well, they're both really good. And they're invaluable to me. So I'm going to answer that with “Yes.”
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
Pete Croatto is a freelance writer. His first book, From Hang Time to Prime: Business, Entertainment, and the Birth of the Modern-day NBA, will be released in December.
Originally Appeared on GQ