Instant Impact

by Peter Proko | Mar 28, 2024
Instant Impact
The irony is not lost on Nick Nurse.

After all, it was just a few short years ago that he was coaching the Toronto Raptors—his first year as an NBA coach—and watching his team knock off the Philadelphia 76ers in a fateful Game 7 of the Eastern Conference playoffs. His star player Kawhi Leonard’s buzzer-beating shot bounced around the rim four times before falling through the basket, sinking the Sixers’ season and catapulting Nurse and his squad to the NBA Championship.

But now that he’s switched sidelines and is in the midst of his first season leading the Sixers, he’s energetic about the fresh start with a new team and eager to move forward. That doesn’t mean he’s still not reminded from time to time about that 2019 playoff game and how it devastated the local fan base.

“I heard about it a bit during the first few weeks [of me taking the job], but you actually just broke the streak right there,” Nurse says with a laugh.

Now, fully focused on his new squad, he has the Sixers playing well. And under his tutelage, superstar player Joel Embiid, fresh off his MVP season a year ago, appeared to have taken another major step in his progression before severely injuring his leg in late January.

After a recent practice at the team’s facility in Camden, we had the opportunity to catch up with Nurse and talk basketball, family and more. As he adjusts to his new surroundings, he shared what it’s been like for him coaching a team he’s competed so often against and why he’s excited for what the future holds.


So, you deep into this season and the team has had some really good stretches, especially before Joel’s injury. How has the adjustment been for you since joining the organization?

It’s been good, pretty smooth. I am fortunate that this is my second time taking over a team and I think it allowed me to know what to expect a little bit. It’s a bit of a whirlwind starting with a new team, as far as getting to know the members of the organization, hiring staff, getting to know players, finding your way around town, around the arena; that kind of stuff.

Everybody in this organization does everything first class, and the fans have been very welcoming.


What about this area? How are you and your family enjoying living here now that you’ve been settled in for a little while?

We really like it. … It’s a good community and the people have been very helpful. We’re very happy and blessed that it turned out well.


Outside of the practice facility, have you gotten any time to get out and explore South Jersey a bit?

I did get lucky enough to get to the Shore over Labor Day weekend. That was fun. I have a couple little guys that ran around on the beach and did the Shore thing, so that was good.

I haven’t had a whole lot of free time to get out to too many restaurants, but I have snuck in a couple concerts and shows here and there. That is kind of my off-day activity, to try and find a good concert.


Having coached against the guys on the team previously, does that give you a different perspective when taking over the roster in the sense that you’ve tried to stop them in the past, and now you’re trying to unlock their full potential?

I think you said it just right. I did feel like I knew this team really well. That was part of what attracted me to the job in the first place: I knew how good the team was and how difficult it was to coach against them. And we played them so much [over the years], in two playoff series and of course all the regular season games.

But you don’t really get to know a team until you’re coaching them from the inside. I’ve been pleasantly surprised and happy, because I think there’s some guys who are better than I thought, and I admired them a lot already [laughs]. I think there’s still room for growth, so it’s been exciting.


You worked your way up the coaching ranks, in college and overseas, as well as at the NBA developmental league level. How did those stops along the way help shape your philosophies and make you a better coach?

It all plays a part of who you are. I think that’s the case with any coach. For me, it was just a big learning lab, and with each job I was trying to get better every year. I was experimenting with a lot of things, keeping the things I liked and chucking out the stuff I didn’t like.

I was fortunate. I spent a lot of years in what people have termed the “backwaters of basketball,” and you can get experimental and not be afraid to try very different things. I think that all becomes one big pile of who you become as a coach.


What’s something you know now that you wished you knew when you first started coaching?

I can’t give you anything super specific. I had some great mentors in coaching, who told me to be patient and learn, take notes and watch tons of games. Then I had other mentors who shifted me over to the psychological side. I did a lot of studying on chemistry and teamwork, and getting guys to play harder. Those are the things that I think really helped me. The Xs and Os are one thing that takes a lot of study. But how do teams fit together? How do you get guys to play together? What roles do guys play? As much as I would have liked to known all that stuff 20-30 years ago when I was first starting out, you can’t. It’s part of the learning and growing process of a coach.


Being an NBA coach can be a bit of a thankless job at times I would imagine. When you’re doing well, fans expect it; when things go bad, you shoulder a lot of the blame. So, what do you find to be the most rewarding aspect of the job?

For sure, the single most rewarding thing is trying to get guys to play to their potential, or even beyond it. I always try to get players to go beyond even what they think they can do. That’s what drives you every day; what can you do to get these guys to use their God-given gifts to the best of their ability.


You coached some standout players in Toronto, and now get to coach the reigning league MVP in Joel Embiid and a budding star in Tyrese Maxey. In a star-driven league like the NBA, is it difficult trying to manage top talent?

It’s probably not as difficult as you would make it out to be. Great players are obviously driving great teams. They also are like everybody else: They have to come to work, work hard and have goals. They want to be coached. They want us to give them great game plans and put them in positions where they can do things they want.

I love watching [Joel and Tyrese] play. I think it’s absolutely the best part of my job, to stand courtside and watch what those two guys do night after night. We as a coaching staff, we just try to keep making them better and keep trying to help them.


What about when it is time to step away from the game, how do you like to unwind?

Family for sure. Pretty much any of my free time is spent with my boys. And I love to listen to music and I love to play music. I also like to read. Not a lot of stuff—hoops, family and music.


Can you tell me a little bit about the Nick Nurse Foundation and why the cause is so near and dear to you?

It started after I won the championship in 2019. I felt like I had been given a great platform to go out there and try to give back to the community. And I always have to do things that are in my wheelhouse and that I am passionate about, so that is how the focus of the foundation became basketball, music and literacy.

We look forward to getting things rolling in Philadelphia and the surrounding areas.


You had the chance to throw out the first pitch at a Phillies game last August and then spent some time over at Eagles training camp. With how passionate this fan base is for all the teams, was it important for you to connect with the other organizations and get a sense of what it’s like to play and coach in this city?

One of the things I try and stress to our players is to not forget about the community you came from. And then, to get out [and become involved] in the community you are playing in.

And I love both baseball and football. It was fun and a tremendous honor to throw out the first pitch. I also loved going to football practice; I really watch and study football coaches a lot. Any chance I can get over there to pick up any tidbit I can from a really great coach, I’m going to take advantage of it.


Throwing out the first pitch is an honor, but it’s also a little bit of pressure too, isn’t it?

A little bit. It’s not that easy to do [laughs]. … I played some catch leading up to the game, but then you get out there and it looks a lot further than you think it is.

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Published and copyrighted in South Jersey Magazine, Volume 20, Issue 11 (February 2023)

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Author: Peter Proko


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