SYDNEY -- It's a nondescript exhibition game between Team Canada and the New Zealand Tall Blacks, part of the lead-up to the FIBA World Cup, and Nick Nurse is displaying the same roiling emotions as if it were a national TV game taking place under the unforgiving microscope of an NBA season. There are few spectators in the 4,000-seat venue, and even fewer media paying attention. Yet the occasion offers a canvas for an artist -- an on-court chess master such as Nurse -- to dream of possibilities and permutations, just as any NBA Finals matchup would.
Nurse, of course, is fresh from delivering the Toronto Raptors -- and by extension, Canada -- their first NBA title in June. Sure, the plaudits are foisted onto Kawhi Leonard. A veritable United Nations supporting cast that includes Kyle Lowry, Marc Gasol, Pascal Siakam and Serge Ibaka also deserves the lion's share of credit. But it's Nurse who had to put the puzzle together, nursing (forgive the pun) disparate parts into a title-winning juggernaut.
But the larger point is that the man who is adored for masterminding a 4-2 Finals defeat of the Golden State Warriors didn't need to be here. Not in a gym on the opposite side of the world. Not at a time when he could be on holiday. But that hasn't stopped him.
Instead of enjoying an interlude heading into training camp to prepare for the grind of the upcoming NBA season, tonight he's pacing up and down the sideline in his baggy team sweats, quibbling with the referee over a perceived missed call.
His flushed visage emits a half-dozen emotions over the course of a possession. There's the mouth agape in disbelief at a no-call, before finally, resignation hits and he snaps his head back and turns away, and almost politely stalks -- if that's possible -- back toward his bench.
Nurse is all-in as he watches his team dismantle the Tall Blacks, applauding and raising his fist at every made basket. He is literally shouting instructions, or encouragement, on each possession, at one point stepping perilously close to the sideline, hands cupped, to warn of a looming Rob Loe screen.
He's all agitated energy, clapping his hands to no one in particular, chewing gum with gusto, and yelling at guard Kevin Pangos to "Go!" and push the pace. He slaps his hands together in ferocity after New Zealand nabs an offensive rebound, and shakes his head (mouthing, "Oh my god") after an illegal screen is called on Canada.
"C'mon!" he yells, as Tall Blacks guard Corey Webster physically hounds Thomas Scrubb into a turnover, and no foul is called.
Then there's the quiet shake of his head in awe as Pangos crosses his defender and nails a deep triple, as if one artist is appreciating another at work -- when real meets real. Nurse rides every possession as though it's as important as a last-second game winner in a Game 7.
Welcome to the kaleidoscope of emotions of Nick Nurse, the appointed saviour of Canada's national men's program.
"When the ball goes up," he tells ESPN, "I think it's such an instinctual thing that takes over. I'm really lost in the 10 players on the court; and the crowd, the music, all that stuff just is like gone."
Like an eccentric artisan, he's fidgety as he watches his players toggle between defence and offence. Occasionally, a smile breaks out on his face, as if the possibilities he has imagined have melded into reality on the court, his canvas of choice.
"And I find that to be such an interesting experience," Nurse says of getting lost in the moment. "I guess, a little bit of an art form for me to be out there trying to do my thing."
Riding on the coattails of the Raptors' NBA title in June, the FIBA World Cup was supposed to culminate in an extended celebration of Canadian hoops. It was meant to be a showcase of starry junior talents who had matured in the NBA before finally arriving as Team Canada stalwarts who could drive the national cause to international success.
"People don't realise," former Canadian head coach Leo Rautins says, "for many years, Canada was top 5-6 team in the world. People think this is just kind of happening now."
Rautins was once the face of Canadian basketball. He was drafted 17th overall by the Philadelphia 76ers in 1983, before injury ultimately curtailed his NBA career. He subsequently finished his playing career with sojourns in Italy, Spain and France.
After his playing days, Rautins entered broadcasting and is a longtime analyst for Raptors broadcasts. He was also the head coach of the national team for six years. In that respect, he offers a blend of historical insights regarding the national program, and also insights into Nick Nurse the person and coach, someone he's been able to observe closely.
The national men's team won an Olympic silver in 1936, and achieved two fourth-place Olympic finishes in 1976 (Montreal) and 1984 (Los Angeles). Interspersed was Canada's first victory against Team USA in 1982, at the World's Fair in Knoxville, Tennessee.
The NBA arrived in Canada in 1995, with the formation of two expansion teams in the Toronto Raptors and the Vancouver Grizzlies. From that point on, Canadian kids could grow up with NBA basketball. From 2005 to 2011, when Rautins was the head coach of the senior national team, the stark reality was that the country's best talent was at the junior level.
"We had an obligation and a mission to develop that talent," Rautins says. "What you're seeing now is kind of the fruition of Canada basketball's focus, and the NBA's impact."
And yet starry name after starry name withdrew from this year's World Cup squad, transforming the mood regarding the team's prospects from celebratory to cautiously hopeful. Those hopes took a further hit when Kelly Olynyk, the most accomplished NBA player remaining on the roster, slipped in an exhibition against Nigeria and sustained a knee injury that will sideline him for the tournament.
Yet in spite of that, Team Canada has shown signs of coalescing into something greater than its parts, with the seeds of doubt slowly expunged. Instead, seeds of belief are growing into offshoots of optimism. Nurse has been a veritable wizard, conjuring some form of magic to imbue this unheralded Canadian squad -- missing almost all of its NBA players -- with a collective belief. Two strong showings against Australia only cemented that further.
"Well, No. 1, he's an NBA champion," says Rautins of how Nurse can impact the team. "That offers a tremendous amount of clout."
"You definitely listen to what he's got to say, right?" swingman Melvin Ejim said after the second game against the Boomers. "He's proven that he's been successful on the best league. And he's proven that he's brought a bunch of guys and got them to play at an extremely high level."
"Nick's a creative basketball mind that relishes the opportunity to make something positive happen out of any situation. And I think that's unique," Rautins says. "A lot of coaches do get rattled. And a lot of coaches like to know 'what I got in front of me.' That's almost insignificant to Nick. He just adapts."
So, whilst the Australian media descended upon Melbourne to pick apart, rehash and repackage the same narratives around Team USA, Nurse operates in relative anonymity almost a thousand kilometres away in the quiet of suburban Sydney. He is busy grappling with the creative and intellectual assignment of inspiring this unlikely band of brothers to greater heights.
"I think that these guys are growing on me," Nurse says. "Not that they need to grow on me or anything, but they're super coachable. There's a lot of desire. There's a lot of heart. And there's a lot of talent. Maybe some untapped talent."
There's Khem Birch, as the defensive anchor, enveloping pick-and-rolls. The Scrubb brothers, Phil and Thomas, ruthlessly efficient. Oshae Brissett, equal parts swagger and lithe toughness. The stout and calm Ejim brings it all together, whilst Aaron Best and Kaza Kajami-Keane are fearlessly drilling daggers from deep. Andrew Nembhard does not yet know fear, and Kyle Wiltjer provokes fear in opponents with his feathery outside touch. Don't forget Owen Klassen, the personification of a brick wall, a battering ram the equal of Aron Baynes.
But Kevin Pangos is the star playmaker.
Only days earlier, Team Canada crushed Australia in Perth 90-70, playing frenzied defence and seemingly making shots at will. Afterward, in the postgame news conference, Nurse was asked what he was learning about this group.
"Well, I'm learning a lot because I didn't know too much about them, to be honest," he said, before laughing and pointing a finger at an unassuming Pangos, who smiled back at his coach.
"We met for the first time about a week ago," Nurse said. "So I've never coached Kevin before and become a big fan of his. So, I'm learning a lot about a lot of guys, to be honest with you. And I just got to try to piece it together, and find the roles, and find the depth, and keep plugging away."
"He almost looks at it like it's a game when you have to figure something out," Rautins says of the moving pieces Nurse has had to deal with. "It's almost like he's playing a formidable chess game. I do think there's a joy to the way he does his job."
That joy is fashioned by Nurse's excitement for teaching the game, but also the excitement of getting lost in the moment, and seeing the balletic machinations of athletes manoeuvring on the hardwood.
"I do enjoy it," Nurse says. "I love the game. And I love competing. I like to see what's going to happen. I go back to your word -- I'm super excited about what this group has a chance to accomplish, and looking forward to helping them do it."
"Nick is almost a perfect coach for a national team," Rautins says. "If you look at his background, obviously, he's a first-time NBA head coach, but he's been an NBA assistant. He's been a G League coach. He's been a European pro coach. He's involved with the Great Britain national team. He's got such a vast amount of experience. And the places that he's coached, you've got to adapt. You've got to change on the fly."
Nurse's vibrant energy rubs off on the players, and that's perhaps the greatest weapon for Team Canada. An example: On a blustery Sydney day at Qudos Bank Arena, Nurse hops off the team bus and proceeds to clap his hands, exuding sheer enthusiasm, as every player files through the entrance for practice.
"I think when he's a leader at the hub, communicating, and being loud and expressive, it's contagious," Ejim says. "And I think everyone's started to do that."
"A lot of enthusiasm," associate head coach Gordie Herbert says of Nurse. "Very positive. Great leadership. I think he's been very, very good for the program and players."
"He's a great coach," Birch says. "He gave me great confidence."
"They see his sincerity, passion, knowledge, authenticity and his ability to communicate his message," Rautins says. "And he seems to put players in a position to succeed and thrive. Therefore, they love playing for him."
In the span of weeks, Nurse has managed to foment a belief that has this team willing to run through walls for him. "You've got to have some real self-sacrifice, to fit into your role, to find the role and the chemistry as quick as you can," he says.
Behind a simple game plan of tough, frenetic defence, pushing the pace at every opportunity (Nurse continually motions with his hands to push the ball up court), and fearless shot-making, this Canadian team is primed to shock the world.
"We're going to have to play complete team basketball," Nurse says. "At both ends. We're going to have to use our offence to score -- not just individual players. We're going to have to use our defence to stop [and] not just individually."
There is no top-line talent on this roster, although Nurse firmly believes that there is more talent here than even the players themselves seem to realise.
The schism born from the debate regarding wider NBA player availability for national team duty will persist all the way through to the Tokyo Olympics.
"FIBA plays a big hand in this," Rautins says. "The scheduling is honestly ridiculous to have a tournament leading right into an NBA training camp basically. And I think that excluded a lot of players. It excludes a lot of young players. It excludes a lot of players that are trying to establish themselves in their [NBA] teams."
Rautins cites the case of Jamal Murray, who recently signed a five-year, $170USD contract extension with the Denver Nuggets. Murray participated in the Team Canada training camp but won't play in the tournament after suffering a sprained ankle. "There's a lot of pressure and expectation that comes with that contract," Rautins says.
For Nurse, the tension between wanting to represent your country and preparing for the rigours of a long NBA season need not lead to mutually exclusive outcomes.
"Here's what I would say," he says. "I think for me -- I know it's different because I'm not on the floor playing -- I get up every day trying to figure out how I can become a little bit better [as a] coach that will hopefully eventually help me down the line. And I think these guys should prepare that way.
"Some of these guys [in the squad], I know some of them for a fact are going to go back and have better seasons this year because they're putting in this hard six weeks with us. We're helping them to become better players, and this competition is going to make them better. And I think it will give them a boost of confidence going into their seasons."
Does he feel the pressure to lead the national program back to prominence?
"I don't really live in the pressure world much," he admits. "I know that sounds strange, because we are. Every night in the NBA -- every night -- the day-to-day, night-to-night pressure that's going on in the NBA is a very real thing. But I guess maybe since you do it all the time, you've got to remove that from the equation.
"For me, and I try to get this across to the players, is that we work extremely hard, right? On a daily basis to get ourselves ready to go. We prepare. We do our opponents preparation. We do our own preparation. And when it comes time for the ball to go up, we've got to let it all hang out. And we know we're prepared, so we shouldn't feel the pressure. We're going to do our best because we're prepared, you know?"
That calmness seeps down to the players, especially knowing that this figure -- this proven championship commodity -- is firmly with them, and wants to be here.
Back to the game, and Nick Nurse is standing, applauding with gusto as his players are introduced one by one behind the thunderous concoction blared through the public address system, as the intimate crowd awaits tipoff.
A small band of 10 or so Canadians has congregated in one corner of the gym. Some are draped in the national flag. One fan wears a Kawhi Leonard Raptors jersey, whilst two others sport tees with Pascal Siakam and Kyle Lowry prints on the back. There are kids with tinsel headdresses of the maple leaf. All bear smiles, hoping for a glimpse of the guy they've come to support, and have come to adopt as one of their own.
Nurse makes his way to that corner with a big smile. He proceeds to take selfies, taking care to chat with every fan. He's having the time of his life.
"Coaching doesn't dictate who he is," Rautins says. "I think who he is dictates how he coaches."
"Well maybe, I don't know," Nurse says. "I think coaching the team, both the Raptors and Canada, is a job. It doesn't necessarily define everything I'm doing all day long."
And that's what Team Canada is banking on -- that Nurse's character and force of personality, as well as his X's and O's, can propel this motley crew to World Cup success.