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Book Review: Reflecting on the philosophy of Nick Nurse in Rapture

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Nick Nurse’s book is not a self-help guide or NBA tell-all. Instead, it helps the reader understand his coaching philosophy, and inspires them to pursue their own dreams regardless of the path.

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Nick Nurse’s new book Rapture chronicles what shaped him as a basketball coach. As befits its long subtitle (Fifteen Teams, Four Countries, One NBA Championship, and How To Find A Way To Win — Damn Near Anywhere), the book takes the readers on a real journey. The yarn, as co-written with Michael Sokolove, begins in Nurse’s native Iowa, before establishing his sports background, his eventual turn into becoming a coach, and then the winding road he took to get to where he is right now. The book also details Nurse’s extensive tenure in the British Basketball League (BBL), his struggles to get into the coaching ranks in the United States, and, of course, his role in winning the NBA title with the Toronto Raptors.

For readers looking for NBA content, you’ll be left waiting until the latter half of the book. As per the personal chronology, Nurse spends the first half establishing his humble beginnings and struggles, and all the steps he took just to make it to the NBA. Along the way, we get an inside look at some specific points of Nurse’s coaching career, and added insight into the foundations of his basketball philosophy. Sure, this history isn’t the same as coaching high stakes NBA basketball, but it proves formative. If nothing else, Kawhi Leonard would probably enjoy reading about Nurse’s BBL exploits.

Speaking of which, Nurse has plenty of high praises for some of his players, including Kawhi, Kyle Lowry, Fred VanVleet, and Pascal Siakam. However, readers can pick up some subtle messaging here, particularly as it relates to Leonard. As Nurse implies, Lowry remained Toronto’s real leader throughout 2018-19, even with Kawhi on the team. It was Lowry’s mindset and mentality during the championship run that most shaped Toronto’s team philosophy, not just Kawhi. No surprise there perhaps, but that’s the kind of inside story most will be looking for with a book like this.

That said, what else is on offer in Nurse’s Rapture (and its long title)? Let’s get into some quick hits.

Beyond Xs and Os

Nurse has a few instances in the book where he geeks out and goes in deep on some technical explanations about basketball. This commentary ranges from simple shot mechanics all the way up to advanced stuff like going through the triangle offense. (Note: Phil Jackson wrote the foreword to the book, so this shouldn’t come as a surprise. Nurse also expounds on ZMT (zone, man, trap), his “shot spectrum,” and his modern NBA offense.

As Nurse makes clear, his out-of-the-box thinking was honed thanks to an interest in human behaviour and psychology as it applies to basketball. That now-famous willingness to experiment in the NBA came out of necessity (as the book goes into), but it ultimately helped hone his skills and instincts to get him where he is right now.

Name Drops

Nurse’s book does not lack for big-name cameos outside of the people involved with the Raptors organization. The biggest one is, as mentioned, Phil Jackson, on whom, after visiting his Montana farm, Nurse even dedicated an entire chapter. Other notable names that pop up include: Dennis Rodman and his brief BBL stint, Chris Mullin and his influence on Nurse as a youngster, Pete Carroll welcoming Nurse into a team practice, and coaching against a young Pau Gasol in Europe.

Much like the random obscure DVDs and books Nurse like to name drop in his interviews, this book did not lack for lesser-known names. For example, Nurse talks up Curtis Stinson, a player he coached in the D-League and some he likens to Kyle Lowry. And then there are figures like Des “Dr. Shot” Flood, Darrell Mudra, Will Conroy, Dick DeVenzio, and Dick Bennett, some of whom are maybe less known to the basketball world at large or the casual fan, but who profoundly impacted Nurse’s basketball philosophy. It’s worth reading about them in Rapture.

Spicy Takes

Now the good stuff! Nurse’s book pales in comparison to George Karl’s controversial book, but it doesn’t pull punches on certain topics. While Nurse doesn’t name names for the most part, it’s clear sometimes who and/or what he’s talking about. For example, there was a blunt conversation he had with a player who appears (to me) to be Stanley Johnson. It’s worth noting that Nurse called out Stanley (among others) at the start of the 2019-20 season.

Nurse also calls out NBA draft blog sites, like nbadraft.net, blasting the blog boys’ evaluation of older players, physical attributes, and player comparisons. Meanwhile, some shots come off as more random, like when Nurse calls his piano instructor “not good” and later fires some shots at disgraced executive David Kahn, who ignored his coaching interest despite owning four D-League teams.

There’s also an off-hand compliment directed at coach Mike Budenhozer’s Atlanta Hawks, who were great in the regular season, but hit the same roadblock as Dwane Casey’s Raptors. No, Nurse doesn’t explode at Casey or anything, but he does admit that he felt like the Raptors at that time were playing with fear.

Heartbreaks

Nurse touches upon several iterations of Toronto’s heartbreaking moments in the playoffs and ties them in with some of the adjustments and philosophies he later made as the team’s head coach.

For example, given how Lowry was run to the ground during the regular season a few years, Nurse and the staff had some idea on how to handle Kawhi’s load management plan later on. It’s a small note, but that’s the kind of back-and-forth insight provided in Rapture. Of course, it’s funny to note that now since during Nurse’s first Kawhi-less season, Lowry was back to burning heavy minutes in the regular season and even more in the playoffs.

Humour

Rapture’s tone is largely reflective, but Nurse does find ways to slide in some light-hearted humour and sarcasm throughout. For example, he likened Fred VanVleet’s features to a Footlocker staffer (we all agree on this), and notes that James Naismith would be calling “travel” on every play if he were alive to see the modern game.

I had a chuckle reading the part where we learn how OG Anunoby snitched on VanVleet during practice. There was also a funny in-game exchange between Nurse and Norman Powell when the team was short of players due to injuries. Nurse isn’t going to throw tons of dirt around, but he knows how to get a joke off!

Not Covered

I must admit though, there are many fascinating topics, events, and situations I had hoped Nurse would get into for his book. It would have been cool, for example, to learn about his experience interviewing for other coaching vacancies, beyond just his assistant’s interview to join Casey’s staff. We learn some stuff there, but I would have liked to read more.

Nurse also does not address the later tension between him and Casey — though he does confirm that Casey wanted him hired in Toronto. As an assistant coach for the Raptors, Nurse takes credit for their gradual improvements on the offensive end. However, he makes it clear that he could only do so much as an assistant and that “the Raptors were not my team to run.”

Masai Ujiri hired Nurse when the team had DeMar DeRozan instead of Kawhi Leonard. And while it doesn’t really matter now, it would have been interesting to read Nurse’s thoughts on coaching that hypothetical team, as DeRozan’s game goes against the grain of his offensive philosophy. Given Nurse’s flex on the defensive end, it’s also interesting to see how that would work with DeRozan. Much like coaching, you write about the team you, I guess.

While Nurse spends a few chapters covering his tenure as Raptors head coach, it feels like he still holds back on a lot of things. There’s an obvious focus on the significant points of their championship run, especially in the post-season, but somehow it still feels a bit lacking. Maybe I just wanted Nurse to write more about Lowry, especially given how he sets the readers up with an earlier story about Stinson, his “Lowry” in the D-League. There’s also nothing on the celebrations, parade, and one of the craziest free agency periods involving the Raptors. Ah well.

What’s Next?

I suppose holding back content on their championship season gives Nurse another book to write. There are plenty of Raps fans that would like to consume every detail from 2018-19, starting from the Kawhi-trade rumour to Toronto, through the championship run, and the aftermath of Kawhi’s defection to Los Angeles. There’s also more to get into on the Marc Gasol-Serge Ibaka pairing, OG Anunoby’s season-ending injury, the shift away from Danny Green down the stretch, the experience of actually being in that championship parade, and what it’s like to be involved in a superstar’s free agency decision like Kawhi’s. Any Raptors fan would enjoy consuming all the information.

Ultimately though, Nurse’s Rapture has a different feel from a tell-all book. It serves more as an inspirational memoir. At some points, its detailed breakdown underscores how Nurse would sound as a motivational speaker, and it also doubles as a window into what influences the so-called methods to his madness as a coach. In this, the book does a good job of defining Nurse as a forward thinker rather than just a reckless mad scientist. In that spirit, who knows, maybe Rapture is just a prologue of sorts, something that could inspire more writing from Nurse on basketball philosophy. If nothing else, it’s clear Nurse is willing to go with it to see where he ends up in the future.