“You Can’t Always Win At Everything”: Tangerine Fan of the Game Nick Regis Brings Real Life to Community Coaching

By: Katie Heindl
by Katie Heindl

One of the elements of the game Nick Regis tries to enforce with his young players at the Elmbank Community Centre in Rexdale is that losing is as much a part of basketball as anything else. That balanced mentality Regis utilizes in his coaching and community programming could take a backseat for one night, though, as he stood courtside during the Raptors and Timberwolves warmups. As the winner of Tangerine’s Fan of the Game, a contest that celebrates Raptors fans who make a difference in their communities, Regis could, in this case, focus on his win. When the lights in Scotiabank Arena dimmed and the crowd hushed for the pre-game anthems, Regis stood at the baseline in a new Raptors warmup pullover to guard against any goosebumps that sprung up from being so directly in the moment.  

“I’ve only ever been to 200 level, I’ve never actually been near the court like that.” Regis said over the phone the next day, the experience of the game the night before fresh in his mind, “Being able to stand on the court during the national anthem, that was really cool. The [warmup] sweater was a nice touch, because I’ve always wanted one of those sweaters.”

When I asked if he planned to store the sweater away for safekeeping, Regis was jokingly incredulous, “I’m gonna wear it!”

This easy-going, friendly cadence makes Regis perfectly suited to the wide range of community work he does with kids on a day-to-day basis. In his job with the City of Toronto, he plans programs for youth and children. When asked how he got started with the City, he laughs, “Honestly, randomly.”

“I volunteered at a boys and girls club. I used to play basketball there and one of the coaches I played for, they did a tournament for little kids, and they asked me to volunteer. [The coach] spoke to me after and said I should consider trying to do it as a job or career.” 

While he did start out with the City as a convener for an intramural league, his days now are less basketball-specific. Ranging from hoops to soccer, as well as being inclusive of a wider roster of social programs for kids, Regis plans a multitude of curriculum focused on keeping youth challenged and engaged. It was through his volunteer work at Elmbank that Regis was approached by another coach he worked alongside who asked Regis if he’d consider becoming involved more formally. Now, while Regis gets to flex his coaching muscles on the daily, he also oversees a larger, administrative portion of Elmbank.

“Half of my day is mainly doing attendances, and program planning for our boys club,” Regis says, also noting that he oversees any nighttime programming in the building, “and then the rest of my day is managing the Homecourt Hoops program that we’re doing with MLSE.”

Homecourt Hoops is an initiative between the City of Toronto and the Toronto Raptors that brings basketball and the skill-building surrounding it to communities facing barriers, at no cost. The non-competitive program engages over 2,000 youth ages 6-12, across 26 community centres in the GTA. There are also three girls-only locations. Kids learn the basics of the game from trained coaches, while gaining life skills they can take with them off court. 

Regis walks me through the basics of the detailed assessments every participant undergoes, following a detailed rubric, “whether it’s with layups or shooting, or dribbling.” Kids are graded according to their coach’s observations and a detailed program plan is developed by the coach involved, focusing on specific strengths and what could be improved upon. It’s while discussing his own approach when it comes to this programming that Regis really brightens, speeding up to cover the details. 

“I contact other [community] centres and make sure that their staff are trained to do the Homecourt Hoops program. On my side [for Homecourt Hoops], I plan for my own program. So, come up with drills, skill workouts.”

At the end of the program is a tournament where participants are split into new groups. Regis shared a kind of ingenious method for ensuring each group had a totally different, but physically fair mix, “Last time, we broke them off into teams by height so they’re not in the same group as they did their training.”

No individual group wins at the end of the tournament, as the onus is on team play and skill development—though the Raptors Dance Pack has come through on different occasions to celebrate the kids—“They have to learn how to lose as well,” Regis told me, matter-of-factly. It’s this approach to the game that has influenced Regis’s own pragmatic, applicable to everyday lifestyle of coaching.

At Elmwood, he was part of a program called Leadership Through Basketball. “It’s for my older kids mostly. It’s not that the younger kids are too young,” Regis considers, “they just aren’t really focused on that stuff.”

The “stuff” that he meant is the stuff that everyone, including adults, have trouble with: losing. It’s part of the way Regis has used basketball to teach the kids in his programs life skills by applying them to something they love, instead of the occasionally unforgiving way day-to-day life might deliver the same lessons.

“In life, you can’t always win at everything. Whether that’s getting a job or maybe there’s a girl you like or something, and she doesn’t like you back. You’ve gotta be able to deal with that type of thing as well.”

It isn’t only social skills, there’s a professional aspect he hopes participants can draw parallels from too, “It also comes out to discipline. We have practice times and practice dates, and if you’re able to make those it’s like making a job. So, [just like] you have to be at a job at 9am, you have to be at practice for 9am. We have a list of drills that you have to do, so it’s like having a list of tasks at your job that your job gives you.” 

“If I give you something to do during a practice, or there’s something I want you to focus on, or that’s your role in the game, I try to relate it to everyday life. That’s pretty much it. I try not to overcomplicate it because if you speak to [kids] too long, or try to make things super technical,” he laughs knowingly, “they kind of zone out.”

While there’s likely an entirely new adult market Regis could tap into with his approach, his focus remains on the kids he works with. Work that keeps him just as busy as it does invested in the elements of the game that got him started playing basketball in the first place. Regis is from Toronto, working in the west end and living in the east end, he’s as city-wide as Raptors fandom. He got his start playing in elementary school in East York, continued playing through high school in Scarborough, still finds time to play in a men’s league and plans to play as long as he can.

When I asked what brought him to the game, what he loved about it, he had a tough time as anyone does who finds their love of basketball to have become intrinsic to so many parts of their life.

“What I love about the game is the competitiveness, the split-second decisions you have to make on the court, the skills that you learn while playing—both leadership skills and athletic ability—and also the brotherhood aspect of it. The best feeling is playing the game that you love with a group of your friends that challenges you mentally and physically at a pretty fast pace.”

With the Raptors currently burning through a season fuelled largely by depth, their outspoken care and chemistry with one another, the feeling that Regis described is one that’s evident every time Toronto takes the court. It was, especially, the night Regis took in the game and the Raptors took their 15th straight win against Minnesota.

“A lot was on the line too,” Regis said of the win, “Fifteen straight is a Canadian record.”

Regis, who is a fan of Canadian player Andrew Wiggins, had been looking forward to seeing him take the floor. But of course, the trade deadline happened. “When they traded him for D’Angelo [Russell], that’s a pretty good trade. Seeing him live was pretty dope, he’s super skilled. It was a really good game. It was sticky for the first three quarters, but they pulled it out.”

Nick Nurse’s coaching style down this stretch has been as much about versatility as supporting that next man up mentality, one that meshes well with the benevolent way Regis approaches the game. I couldn’t help asking him, hypothetically, what advice he’d give to this Raptors team if he could.

“That’s a hard question!” He laughed, before beginning a little reluctantly, “I think they play the starters a little bit too long in the first quarter. I think they’re on until maybe three minutes left to go, but we have injuries too, so I get it.” He warmed up as he went, flashes of the game coming back to him, “I’d probably play Chris [Boucher] a little more. Just cause he’s really long and he protects the basket pretty well. That would be my only thing. I’d give him more run because sometimes I think he gets the hook a little too quickly.”

It was good advice considering the anticipated matchup with a very long Bucks team coming up after the All-Star break, but then reconciling the challenges of regular life with the motivational kindling of basketball is what Regis does best.

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