After a start in college and international basketball, Nurse found a niche in the D-League, taking a title with the Energy in his fourth year at the helm -- not to mention defeating former RGV coach Chris Finch, Nurse's boss with the British National Team, while he was at it.
On the day that he was named the new head coach of the Rio Grande Valley Vipers -- the NBADL affiliate of the Houston Rockets, and one of three D-League teams to use the hybrid model of ownership
-- Nick Nurse sat down with D-League.com's Kevin Scheitrum to talk about what lured him to the team that he defeated in the D-League Finals last year, and what makes the Vipers and Rockets such a unique partnership.
D-League.com: You’ve been the only coach in Iowa history, with your four years capped off with a D-League title – what made you leave?
Well, it was a combination of a lot of things. First of all, I’m from Iowa and absolutely loved coaching the Iowa Energy, but with the Houston Rockets people and the Rio Grande people, I just felt a good connection with them. I thought my future would be good for me down here, so I’m looking forward to learning from the Rockets, and kind of taking a small step forward in my coaching career.
D-League.com: With the success you had in Iowa, how tough was it saying goodbye to everybody up there?
It was very difficult. Winning that championship last year was really special. Every championship’s special, but the way it unfolded with our community and our fans – the crowd sizes, the electricity in the arena – that’s something I’ll never forget.
The way it unfolded with our community and our fans – the crowd sizes, the electricity in the arena – that’s something I’ll never forget.
I’m gonna miss a lot of people in the state of Iowa, in the organization. We had tremendous owners. I’m gonna miss players who are gonna come back and play for the Iowa Energy, but again the opportunity to get close and work with the Rockets was great. To hopefully see a path up to the NBA at some point is big.
D-League.com: Last week, when coach MacKinnon was hired in Springfield, he talked about how ‘attractive’ the hybrid model is. RGV uses that model. What, to you, makes that appealing?
First of all, the Rockets have had a really good track record of hiring good coaches and developing those coaches. You get more involved with training camps, summer leagues, Playoff runs, all those things that a hybrid model can provide for a D-League coach, and in the second part of that there’s a little more help personnel-wise, picking players, getting guys into training camp, helping with Draft selection, having players assigned to you, et cetera
, there are some advantages that Bob [MacKinnon] talked about.
D-League.com: Is there anything, specifically, that you like about the way the Rockets do business?
I think they have a unique way of looking at the way basketball is played and can be played. They use their D-League team as a training ground for not only coaching and playing, but ideas in general, and I like that. I like the creative nature of the thought process behind the scenes.
D-League.com: You’ll still be working with [former RGV coach and British National Team coach] Chris Finch – how big of a role did he play?
The Rockets use their D-League team as a training ground for not only coaching and playing, but ideas in general, and I like that.
Obviously a very big role. We worked together for a lot of years. Throw [his input] into the list of reasons why I’m here. He had nothing but great things to say about the Vipers, the Rockets, living in the Valley and all the things I’d really enjoy. I took a lot of counsel with him on the decision, and I should get to see a lot of him in Houston.
D-League.com: You beat him in the Finals last year. That got you bragging rights for exactly how long?
[Laughs] I don’t know. We’ve gone back and forth about 10 or 12 times this year, it’s almost like another season of basketball, competing in the Finals. It was a great series, and our home court and our crowd probably propelled us through there, so it’s not that big of a deal, but it’s certainly nice, certainly for the organization.
D-League.com: You’ve now seen a team in Iowa grow from the ground up, going from a town that was a little skeptical to a place with fans that you say ‘propelled’ you to a Finals win. Talk about that evolution.
That was unbelievable in a way. Obviously, we started as an expansion franchise, and we did OK, people were interested, but to have it virtually explode the way it did with the 14,000-person crowd and the 10,000 crowd, it just changed the whole landscape in how everybody saw us in the city. People were just excited. They were thrilled. They were proud. I won’t forget that, man. I won’t forget it. It was really a fun moment in my coaching career.
[The championship] it just changed the whole landscape in how everybody saw us in the city.
D-League.com: Last time you made a coaching change, there were some discrepancies [Nurse left Iowa briefly in early 2010 for an associate head coach job at Iowa State, but went back to the Energy after Cyclones head coach Greg McDermott took the head job at Creighton]. Any loose ends right now?
Nah, I think we’re ready to go. You’d better call me in four days, though. I think last time I lasted three days last time. On second thought, you’d better give it a week. [Laughs]
D-League.com: For you, what are your big priorities as a D-League coach?
I just like watching players and coaches grow. Like my assistants – I like watching them reach their potential. I like trying to squeeze everything I can out of them, to help them along in their career and their personal lives and make them the best players and people they can be.
D-League.com: How do you strike the balance between winning and losing guys to the next level?
We’ve been able to do that for three years, and we don’t really see it as two separate things. We’re there to develop players every day, and also to win – it’s not a juggling act, it’s the job.
D-League.com: You talked about how great the Iowa fan base was. What about RGV?
It’s one of the places in the D-League you come when you’re on the road, and everywhere you go in town they’re telling you ‘The Vipers are gonna get you tonight and you don’t have a chance.’ Obviously the numbers show how well they’re supported, and how they have some of the most passionate fans. They’re used to winning and care about it. They’re obviously one of the better franchises.