Nick Nurse: The Continuing Education Of A Coach

Nick Nurse

by Neil Johnson, D-League.com

Iowa Energy head coach Nick Nurse could have settled. In the dog days of the season when road trips turn weary, eyes tire of seeing the same faces, and ears begin to deafen from whistle to whistle, Nurse could have assessed his coaching and his team’s play with a “That’ll do.” The Energy sat atop the Central Division. Courtney Sims would go on to be crowned NBA Development League MVP. Standout teammate Oythus Jeffers took home Rookie of the Year honors at the season’s end. But for a man with one Masters Degree under his belt who was clearing wall space to hang another diploma, improvement isn’t finite. Development isn’t just measured by wins, losses, or awards. Unbeknownst to his players, Nurse enrolled in two Michigan State University Global Online Learning courses—Interpersonal Communication and Conflict Management—in February to sharpen his player and referee communication skills.

When Des Moines opened its doors to the NBA D-League for the 2007-08 season, the city laid the groundwork for Nurse to return to his roots. The Iowa native had spent the previous 12 years as a head coach in Europe, honing his skills in England and Belgium against the likes of Pau Gasol and Andrei Kirilenko. His impressive resume didn’t make the transition from Europe to the NBA D-League effortless, as the team went 22-28 in its inaugural campaign. However, his experience did limit the growing pains, and Nurse reversed the Energy’s fortune this season to the tune of a 28-22 record and Central Division title. Nurse can’t guarantee Iowa that level of success every year, but if his players continue to follow his lead, fans can expect each season to be played with an unwavering desire to grow and improve. “Our league is about development, and I think players and coaches both can take advantage of these opportunities. I’m a big fan of higher education and continuing education, and I think people should always be trying to take classes and improve themselves.”

Nurse found the aforementioned classes through the NBA D-League’s Player Development program, which allows players to take advantage of continuing education opportunities. As the first coach to participate in the program, Nurse and his MSU professor embarked on the two-class, four-week journey into academia in February despite the midseason rigors of coaching. “It was a really enjoyable experience for me. Being an NBA D-League coach, there are a couple of pressing issues that I would imagine most of my colleagues face, and one is handling the constant change of players. One of the things we talked about was just how to handle problems and how to handle the guys who have been playing for 15 to 20 games and all of a sudden two or three NBA players get sent down to you and how to communicate with the guys that are currently on your roster. Another area we tried to work on was communication with referees. Trying to improve how I could express questions and concerns to referees in a better manner.”

The courses began with a lot of reading and exercises to refresh Nurse on many of the concepts and then evolved into “… role-playing and setting up some real scenarios of how conversations might go with players and referees. My professor was amazing.” And what’s class without homework? When Nurse began refining his conflict management methods, he had to rate his behavior toward each game’s referees on a ten-point scale. Between phone calls and text messages, Nurse and his professor evaluated his improvement through the end of the season.

As the season progressed and Nurse incorporated the communication strategies into his coaching, the results became evident. “I had an NBA guy coming to my team, and a player that had been with me from day one didn’t like it. It was a real tough deal to handle with a really good player coming in. My professor and I role-played the conversation that I needed to have with the current player beforehand; it was a like a dress rehearsal. She may have a career in acting. She made it tougher for me than it was in real life.”

Between his professor grilling him in practice scenarios, players coming in and out of his lineup, debating calls with referees, and fending off the eager Dakota Wizards and Erie BayHawks for the division lead, Nurse also adopted a personal assignment: balance. Twelve years coaching in Europe left him with a clear view on balancing work and life: “I think it’s important to do that. I found it was a nice way to get away from the constant grind of film work. You can sit in your hotel room on the road and watch film and make player personnel decisions 24 hours a day, and sometimes it isn’t the best way to get the most out of them. I did it on purpose so that I could have a diversion away and get refreshed to go back to my basketball work.”

In the season’s final stretch when the focus shifted to capturing the Central Division title, Nurse finally did settle—on the Dakota Wizards—as the Energy’s playoff opponent. Iowa felt another growing pain in their first-round loss to the Wizards, but just because the season ended, their opportunities for growth haven’t. Nurse’s development will have an impact for years to come and will benefit not only him, but his players and the franchise. “I felt better about the way I was approaching things with both the players and the referees. I felt better in the ways I was handling situations with them. Communication with players is always an ongoing process and is such a huge and important part of what we do.”