Fifteen Teams, Four Countries, One NBA Championship, and How to Find a Way to Win -- Damn Near Anywhere


By Nick Nurse

With Michael Sokolove

Foreword by Phil Jackson

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Nick Nurse distills the wisdom, insight, and experiences that helped him lead the Toronto Raptors to the NBA championship in his first year as head coach.
Foreword by Phil Jackson.
NBA fans had modest  expectations for rookie coach Nick Nurse and his Toronto Raptors. But what those naysayers didn't realize was that Nurse had spent the past thirty years proving himself at every level of the game, from youth programs and college ball to the NBA D League and Britain's struggling pro circuit. While few coaches have taken such a circuitous path to pro basketball's promised land, the journey-which began at Kuemper Catholic high school in Carroll, Iowa-forged a coach who proved to be as unshakable as he is personable.

On the road, he is known to bring his guitar and keyboard for late-night jazz and blues sessions. In the locker room, he's steadfast and even-keeled regardless of the score. On the court, he pulls out old-school tactics with astounding success. A rookie in name but a veteran in attitude, Nurse is seemingly above the chaos of the game and, with only two seasons on his résumé, has already established himself as one of the NBA's most admired head coaches.

Now, in this revealing new book-equal parts personal memoir, leadership mani­festo, and philosophical meditation-Nurse tells his own story. Given unprecedented access inside the Raptors' locker room, readers get an intimate study of not only the team culture he has built, but also of a rookie coach's unique dynamic with the star players-such as Kawhi Leonard, Kyle Low­ry, and Pascal Siakam-who helped trail­blaze the 2019 championship run. As much for readers of Ray Dalio as for fans of John Wooden and Pat Summitt, Rapture promis­es to be a necessary read for anyone looking to forge their own path to success.



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Nick Nurse's Coaching Journey

1989: Assistant, University of Northern Iowa

1990: Player-Coach, Derby Rams (UK)

1991: Head Coach, Grand View University

1993: Assistant Coach, University of South Dakota

1995: Head Coach, Birmingham Bullets (UK)

1998: Head Coach, Telindus Oostende (Belgium)

1998: Head Coach, Manchester Giants (UK)

2000: Head Coach, London Towers (UK)

2001: Assistant Coach, Oklahoma Storm

2001: Head Coach, Brighton Bears (UK)

2005: Assistant Coach, Oklahoma Storm

2007: Head Coach, Iowa Energy

2009: Assistant Coach, Great Britain National Team

2011: Head Coach, Rio Grande Valley Vipers

2013: Assistant Coach, Toronto Raptors

2018: Head Coach, Toronto Raptors

2019: Head Coach, Canada National Team

Foreword by Phil Jackson

Corn-Bred and Corn-Fed

Nick Nurse came out of his rental pickup with a big grin on his face and extended his hand. "Never thought the beauty of Montana was this grand," he said. We shook, and I asked him to get into my truck for a drive around Flathead Lake. The trip is really quite long—it's a big lake. We made an early stop at a fruit stand and got a bag of washed cherries. Our conversation centered around people we knew but quickly got down to basketball. The sport is not the center of Nick Nurse's life, although he takes it very seriously.

I titled this foreword "Corn-Bred and Corn-Fed," but I don't mean that condescendingly. Nick exhibits his Midwestern sensibility quite naturally, even though he had to travel many roads to many places before he was given the chance to coach an NBA team. You even get the feeling that coaching any team is fine by him. Just look at his résumé and you'll see the wide variety of basketball venues he successfully competed in before he finally got a shot at coaching in the NBA.

I first heard of Nick a few years ago from Alex McKechnie. Part of the triumvirate of medical support staff with my old team, the Los Angeles Lakers, Alex had come to LA—joining Gary Vitti, a long established Laker trainer, and Chip Schaefer, who was with me for all eleven of my titles—to help Shaq recover from an abdominal tear in the late 1990s, and he was then recruited to join the Lakers full-time in 2001. When the Lakers staff disbanded in 2011 before the lockout season, the training staff was released, except for Vitti. Alex found employment in Toronto, which was no surprise. We stayed in contact, and when Nick Nurse joined the Raptors staff, Alex had a lot of good things to say about him. Alex brokered the visit by Nurse to Flathead Lake after Nick was named head coach of the Toronto team in the summer of 2018. So here we were driving around the lake, eating cherries, talking hoops, and enjoying the day.

Nick let me know he had studied the triangle offense back in the day. In fact, he had watched the first practice I had with the Lakers at their summer camp in Long Beach back in 1999. At the time, he was just a young coach, but he was absorbing as much b-ball as he could find. During our drive, we talked about the advent of the present game with nary a post-up player cluttering the lane. The stats "just verify" the fact that three-point shots have supplanted  two-point shots. I argued that even if 33 percent of made threes is the score equal of 50 percent  made twos, 66 percent of those threes are still misses, which makes rebounding and transition defense risky. Offensive rebounds become a "maybe" thing and full-court pressure defense becomes impossible. "What becomes the basis of a sound offense?" I asked. I give Nick credit for taking the bait. He explained that his tenure with the Rio Grande Vipers of the NBA D-League gave him the chance to make a system out of three-point shooting. Passing and movement were still priorities. It wasn't all dribble and screen-and-roll.

We went back and forth for the rest of the ride around the lake and then at lunch at a roadside diner. Later that night we had dinner and talked more in terms of managing players, which is a very important skill in NBA coaching. How does a coach develop the confidence of the team? Nick's personality and ability to be a known entity to his players were real positives in his move to the head chair.

*  *  *

Nick asked me to write this foreword and I was happy to do so. His book will give you a good idea of the dedication and focus it takes to win as a coach. He does have that Midwest sensibility and hard work ethic, not to mention a variety of interests. For example, he taught himself how to play the piano and has a love of Thelonious Monk's genius. He even named his offense the Monk Offense (similar to Ron Ekker's) for its freestyle methods.

Coaching takes or makes a strong personality—one that understands that the coach is where the buck stops. This takes grit. Coaches have to point out the elephants in the room. Sometimes they take risks to bring players around to making changes in their game or in the team's. They have to have the verve to give the team confidence that everything is going to work out when things aren't going smoothly. When situations are tenuous and there is a victory or defeat in the balance, they must be calm enough to allow the players to relax and enjoy the moment. Nick's passion is evident, and his decisiveness during the pressure of last year's playoffs bodes well for his continued success. He just wants to coach.

Just before the 2020 All-Star Game, the Raptors were on a tear with a fifteen-game winning streak that has confounded basketball experts. After they lost Kawhi Leonard in free agency at the end of the previous season, experts thought the team would have trouble finishing in the top ranks, but Nick has made a career out of proving people wrong. Kudos to Nick Nurse—he can coach.



When I was twenty-two years old, just out of college and with a degree in accounting I was not excited about putting to use, I decided to give pro basketball a try. I was not anybody's idea of an NBA player. I could really shoot the ball—in four years at the University of Northern Iowa, I made 47 percent of my three-point attempts—but I was just six feet tall and, by the standards of high-level basketball, athletically deficient. Years later, my former college coach, Eldon Miller, paid me what I believe he meant as a compliment. "Nurse couldn't run very fast and couldn't jump at all," he told a reporter, before adding that I was an intelligent type who did not make many mistakes.

Through a friend in Iowa City who had connections in South America, I got an offer to play in Brazil, but their economy was collapsing, and the opportunity quickly vanished. I put together a résumé, cover letter, and some newspaper clippings about my playing career, figured out how much postage to put on the envelopes (this was 1990), and sent packets to pro clubs in Europe, Australia, and Japan.

The global basketball world was not nearly as connected then, and it wasn't obvious how to get on a roster. I thought I had a job with a team in Bonn, Germany, but then nothing came of it. Soon after, I received a letter from the owner of a team in Derby, England, a place I'd never heard of, saying they would like me to play point guard for them. That same day, the team's owner, a man named Tim Rudge, reached me by phone to tell me that in addition to playing, he wanted me to be the head coach. Later, he would let me know he also expected me to score twenty points a game.

Two days later, I flew from Chicago with another American they had signed, Ernest Lee, who would provide one of my first lessons in international basketball: however far removed you may think you are from the main basketball grid, you'll be with some talent. Lee was a high school legend from Sacramento, a six-foot-four, broad-shouldered scoring machine who averaged thirty-four points a game at his Division II school, Clark Atlanta University.

The day after our arrival, we had a game. I was still learning the names of my players, and if we had a practice first, I don't remember it.

The home court of the Derby Rams was a community center that held no more than 1,500 people, and we had to roll the bleachers out before games. We only had access to the gym for practice twice a week, at seven P.M. A badminton club was in there before us, and as soon as they stopped hitting, we sort of stormed the court. The other days, I lifted weights, ran, and practiced shooting at a local health club after first paying a daily entry fee of eighty pence.

My job had other expectations. We were required to drink in a local pub with fans after home games. Normally, the coach would drive the team van to away games, but I was too young to legally operate a vehicle of that size, so I sat beside our center, a nice guy named Martin Ford, as he drove.

One night on one of our most distant road trips, to Newcastle, we broke down at like three in the morning and had to hike up a dark hill to a pay phone, and I remember asking myself, "Where the fuck am I?" and "What am I even doing here?"

*  *  *

That first job, player-coach in Derby, feels in some ways like a long time ago. I had a mop of sandy blond hair and still looked like I was seventeen years old. All I really knew how to do was lead by example, like the team captain I'd been all through my youth. In practices, I tried to win every wind sprint and shooting drill. In games, I played extremely hard.

But the experience is ever present, as are all the stops on my long journey to the NBA:

The years in England with five different teams, where it's said that no one cares about basketball, but I sure as hell did.

The college job where I found out I didn't yet know how to communicate with players—and that I better learn if I wanted a future in coaching.

The time I got fired from a good gig in Belgium by an impatient owner known to all as "Mr. V."

The three games I got to coach a forty-four-year-old Dennis Rodman.

My tour of duty in the D-League, including the season I had my Thanksgiving dinner at a Denny's in Sioux Falls, South Dakota.

I carry it all forward. Every crazy, maddening, fulfilling day of that three-decade odyssey.

Every championship—even the one that was followed by my star player heaving the Waterford crystal trophy in the direction of our owner and shattering it in a thousand pieces.

Every player I helped move on to a higher level.

Every moment that edged me closer to an NBA sideline.

Every bit of learning, every failure, and every success that propelled me to becoming coach of the Toronto Raptors—and to the night of June 13, 2019, when we defeated the Golden State Warriors and stood atop the pinnacle of the basketball world.

*  *  *

What you will read about in the pages that follow is the story of a quest, one that took me across national boundaries and from city to city and team to team in search of better opportunities—or sometimes just a job.

Over the span of more than a quarter century, I taught myself to organize and lead teams, to understand what motivates players, to draw up plays, to win more close games than I lost. I would come to know when my methods were failing and how to self-correct. I would think deeply about how I had been coached and even how I was parented—and I'd keep what I believed had value and reject a lot of the rest.

I found time to pick up a master's degree and am closing in on a PhD. Someone was quoted recently as saying I am a concert-level pianist, which is absurd. I'm not even close, but I'm not terrible, and on my off-hours on the road, I am just as likely to be playing jazz or blues on the keyboard I travel with as I am to be watching basketball tape.

I was never a part of any "coaching tree"—not a former assistant or disciple of Dean Smith, Gregg Popovich, Pat Riley, or any other basketball deity. I was a long way from all of that, a hoops vagabond, toiling in the basketball backwaters. In all honesty, it was lonely at times, and often difficult. I moved around a lot and from a certain perspective I'm sure it could look like I was going sideways, not up.

Some of the moves I had made probably did not seem explicable at the time, and perhaps do not even now. They were unorthodox, in part driven by a young man's yearning to see the world beyond a horizon of corn and soybean fields.

The last team in England I coached was the Brighton Bears, and I also owned them. It went horribly. When I finally came back home after that experience, after a dozen years of coaching overseas, I was out of money. And by that, I mean flat-out broke—the kind of broke where you move in with your sister and rent a P.O. box at a grocery store.

I wanted to write this book because I know the vast majority of people with aspirations of reaching some big goal are just like I was. They start out with no guarantees, no step-by-step route, probably not even a fully visible path.

They take a couple of steps forward and then get knocked back. I'm thinking about anyone trying to start a business—about the musician putting her stuff up on YouTube and trying to get noticed—or the kid from humble means driving an Uber at night while he tries to fight his way through college.

The point I hope that readers will take from what I've written is that it's not about the dream. It's about the work.

You put in the time and the sweat for the satisfaction of knowing you've thrown yourself into the struggle. And you do it to make sure that if somebody does give you that opportunity you were dreaming about, you're worthy of it.

*  *  *



Carroll, Iowa

A foundation built up from a pole-vault pit


With my parents and eight siblings. (I'm the one on my mother's lap.)
(Nurse family collection)

Where does anyone begin when writing about how they grew up, their hometown, who raised them, and how? What felt important at the time but really wasn't, as opposed to what carries forward and sets your course in life? It's a lot of ground to cover, and hard to know what to assign value.

Random as it may seem, the first thing that feels relevant for me to pass along is that we had a pole-vault pit in our backyard. I think one of my older brothers talked his track and field coach into letting him bring a pole home after the high school season was over. It was before they were made of fiberglass, so our pole was bamboo or some other kind of flexible wood.

We dug the pit by loosening up the ground with shovels and spades and emptying bags of sand over the dirt. Then we threw a couple of old mattresses down and finished off the landing area with piles of old clothes. The crossbar hung between planks of wood with nails sticking out every six inches, so it could be raised or lowered to various heights.

I'm sure my father must have supervised the construction, but once the thing was built, my memories are of my brothers and me out there with other kids from the neighborhood, often five or six of us at a time, with no adults around. We'd make a big run, stick the pole in the ground, try to clear the bar, and hope it didn't hurt too much when we came back down.

Pole vaulting was one of those things, one of many, that we figured we could learn pretty much on our own if we put our minds to it. One Nurse boy passed it down to the next.

We also had these funny old instructional books with drawings of upper-body exercises and handstands and all this other stuff to do to make you a better pole vaulter. We did the exercises religiously, convinced that if we just applied ourselves like the book said, we'd become champion pole vaulters. We survived some broken bones and a lot of close calls.

My brother Dan set the pole vaulting record at our high school, Kuemper Catholic. Then my brother Tom broke it. When I got to high school, I broke Tom's record, clearing the bar at twelve feet, ten inches. That's still the record and I'm confident it will stand because Iowa high schoolers no longer compete in the pole vault. It was deemed too dangerous, along with the hammer throw and javelin.

I'd like to claim that I am the only NBA figure of any significance to have been a pole vaulter, but I'm enough of a basketball geek to happen to know that Tex Winter, Phil Jackson's old assistant coach and the architect of the triangle offense, was a world-class pole vaulter and would have been in the 1944 Olympics if they had not been canceled because of World War II.

*  *  *

My schooling, family life, pole vaulting, and just about all else of any importance in the first eighteen years of my life took place in or around Carroll, Iowa, which is roughly a hundred miles northwest of Des Moines, hard by the Middle Raccoon River. Carroll is in the opposite direction of Chicago, toward the corner of the state bordered by Minnesota, South Dakota, and Nebraska.

My mother was raised a short distance away, on a farm that is still in our family, though the farmhouse is gone. Her grandparents were homesteaders who came down from Ontario, Canada. We spent a lot of time on the farm as kids among the crops, cows, and hogs—fishing in a good-sized pond formed by a creek that had been dammed up, and running around and inventing our own games.

My mom went to the same college I did, the University of Northern Iowa, but back when it was called the Iowa State Teachers College. She started teaching in a one-room schoolhouse and then for a long time was a substitute teacher in Carroll, working whatever days she could.

She did not have her first child until she was thirty-one, and she was forty-three when she had her ninth, which was me. I don't think she and my dad wasted a lot of undue time trying to think up inventive names for any of us. In addition to Tom and Dan, my other brothers are Jim, Ken, and Steve. My sisters got the names Susan, Michelle, and Maureen.

My dad was from Carroll proper, which with its ten thousand residents is the population center of an otherwise rural area and is sometimes referred to as the Big Apple. After serving in the navy during World War II, he went off to the University of Illinois and then came back to work as a mail carrier. For most of my childhood, he was our town's postmaster, and on weekends, he ran his own painting business.

Our house was small considering all the people living in it—just three bedrooms upstairs and one downstairs in the basement, where I slept, with a bunk bed and a couple of twins. One of the nonnegotiable things in the family was church. You went, no questions asked.

The whole area, pretty much, was Irish and German Catholic. (The town is named for Charles Carroll, the only Catholic with his signature on the Declaration of Independence.) We were about five blocks away from our parish church, and on Sunday mornings, the Nurse family filed into the pews, arriving in stages, depending on how fast any of us ate breakfast and got dressed.

On our free days during the summer, the rule was you did not leave the house until nine-thirty A.M. After that, you went out on your bicycle, usually somewhere to play ball with friends; returned promptly by twelve-thirty for lunch; rested for at least an hour (another ironclad rule); went back out; and came back for dinner at five-thirty. My mother had no idea where we were but Carroll was a place you didn't lock your doors or worry about too much.

When we got older, the expectation was that you worked. If you intended to go to college, you earned money toward it because there was no way a postmaster and a substitute teacher were paying tuition for nine kids. By my mid-teens, I was baling hay in the summers and "walking beans," as it's called—which means walking along rows of soybean with a hoe and digging out weeds that competed with the crop for water and nutrients.

The most lucrative of the farmwork we did was also the most difficult and unpleasant: detasseling corn. It was seed corn, meant to feed cattle—planted in two male rows and four female rows. The female row has a tassel on the top that has to be taken off so it can get pollinated. The corn would be six or seven feet tall, but the tassel hung down a little so you could reach it if you weren't tall enough. Or you bent the stalk a little bit to get it to your height.

In the hottest weeks of the summer, every boy I knew detasseled corn. The rows were at least a half-mile long. You walked up one row, came down another, stopped briefly for a drink of water, and then got started on a new row. You packed a lunch and ate it in about five minutes because you got paid according to how much ground you covered.

From what I hear, Iowa kids are not doing this work anymore. They don't want to. Their parents do not want them to. Migrants get it done.

The corn could easily cut you. Even if it was 95 degrees (and it often was) you dressed in jeans, a long-sleeve shirt, a bandana around your neck and socks on your hands—with little holes cut out for your fingers and pulled high on your forearms so your wrists didn't get sliced up.

If you were experienced at it, like my older brothers were, you got contacted directly by farms to come and work. I went out with them sometimes. Other times, I'd go to the steps of the courthouse with a couple of friends—one of my parents would drop me off at six A.M.—and we'd jump on one of the buses that came by. It dropped you off at a field, a crew boss pointed you in a direction of your rows, and you jumped off and went to work.

*  *  *

In addition to the compulsories of church, education, and work, the overriding theme in my family was sports, and that goes back to my dad. He was a big solid guy, about six foot three, a good athlete in his day, hardworking and stone-cold honest. In contrast to my mom—who always had a smile on her face—there was not a lot of back-and-forth with him. If he had something to say, it was probably to kick your ass about some chore you didn't do. He did his work, read every newspaper and magazine he could get his hands on, and listened to the Cubs on the radio. We used to say that if we could buy him anything, it would be patience.

Most of his waking hours were devoted to his regular job and the weekend work he did so he could keep our large household in food and clothes. But he also found time to basically serve as our town's sports czar.

He founded the local Little League and was its president for many years, and he organized big basketball tournaments for seventh and eighth graders. A couple of times a year, the local gyms would be packed with players and parents from all over the state. The events were sponsored by the Catholic Youth Organization (widely known as the CYO) but they were precursors of today's big AAU tournaments.

My dad coached a lot of my brothers' teams, though by the time I came along he was mostly just running the leagues and tournaments. I was the second baseman for Kuemper's baseball team, the point guard for the basketball team, and the fourth Nurse brother to be the starting quarterback for the varsity football team. It probably would have been all six of us except that there were times when we were in high school at the same time, so one of my brothers had to become a receiver and another was a lineman.


  • “When the Toronto Raptors clinched our country’s first NBA Championship in the spring of 2019, they created a once-in-a-lifetime moment that brought Canadians together. Through Coach Nick’s leadership and vision, this hard-fought victory brought us to our feet, inspired heroes and role models for our children, and united us all. The Raptors are truly Canada’s team – and we’re proud of the exceptional role Coach Nick plays.”—The Right Honourable Justin Trudeau, Prime Minister of Canada
  • “There’s plenty in this book for everyone. Whether you’re a coach, player or just a curious person, Nick’s journey reveals many lessons in the pursuit of personal growth and excellence – and the benefits that accrue to those willing to bet on themselves.”—Steve Nash, eight-time NBA All-Star
  • “Nick Nurse didn’t just work his way to the top. He lead his way to the top. He’s won everywhere he’s been as a coach for a reason. His leadership, story and principles will encourage and empower you. This book is a must read!”—Jon Gordon, bestselling author of The Power of Positive Leadership
  • "A first rate basketball book."—Booklist
  • "An engaging account for fans of the Toronto Raptors or for readers who also enjoyed Phil Jackson’s Eleven Rings."—Library Journal
  • This inspiring take on turning a dream into a dream job is pure joy for basketball fans. —Publishers Weekly
  • "The true story of a basketball coach taking the long, often difficult road to the NBA."—Kirkus

On Sale
Oct 13, 2020
Page Count
272 pages

Nick Nurse

About the Author

Nick Nurse, born and raised in Carroll, Iowa, is an American basketball coach and is currently coaching the Toronto Raptors in the NBA.

Michael Sokolove is a longtime contributing writer for the New York Times Magazine and the author of seven previous books.

Learn more about this author