Nick Nurse, now a title-winning NBA coach with the Toronto Raptors, learned from one of the league’s most esteemed coaches in Phil Jackson
Phil Jackson’s unconventional coaching practices were touched on in Sunday night’s airing of the two latest episodes of The Last Dance, the 10-part docuseries diving into Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls and their most recent title run in 1998. In some ways, they liken to that of Toronto Raptors head coach Nick Nurse.
Jackson, who brought Buddhism, Zen, and other unconventional practices to the table to help his players stay centered on the court and on the common goal, is one of the league’s most successful coaches of all-time, leading the league in titles won with 11, six with the Chicago Bulls and five with the Los Angeles Lakers.
Nurse isn’t a direct parallel but fits in that he’s forward-thinking and not exactly a conformist.
Of strange and unconventional practices, Nurse keeps a toy elephant in his office. Anytime there’s drama or a weird wrinkle in the aura of the culture of the team, Nurse pulls the elephant out so that the literal elephant in the room can be addressed.
It might have been one of the reasons the Raptors, in their sole season with Kawhi Leonard, were able to stay the course toward a common goal.
Nurse also rolled out the box-and-one, a defensive scheme often left for high school teams, to mitigate the threat of Stephen Curry in the 2019 NBA Finals.
Many were surprised about Nurse’s growth and his quick ascension to the top-tier of current NBA coaches. Nurse, in preparation for his first season as a full-time NBA head coach, sought out Phil Jackson among others to learn how to be a great leader.
According to a profile from Ramona Shelburne of ESPN, Nurse learned from Jackson on a three-day retreat in Montana, where Jackson resides.
Nurse said he wasn’t sure how much time he would get with Jackson, and assumed it would probably be just a cup of coffee, but planned on spending a few days in Montana as a retreat for himself. He and Jackson ended up spending the bulk of Nurse’s time in Montana together.
"“It was fun, because he was testing my knowledge of basketball a bit, too,” Nurse said. “He’d be telling a story and say, ‘That red-headed kid’ and stop and see if I could fill in the blanks… Fortunately I’m enough of a historian — or a geek — to know. So I’d say, ‘Yeah, that was Matt Bonner’ or whatever. And I could tell he liked that.”"
According to Shelburne’s article, Nurse had already reached out to and learned from Joe Maddon (Chicago Cubs former manager), Sean McVay (Los Angeles Rams coach), and Dabo Sweeney (Clemson football coach) before topping off his self-imagined mentorship program.
Nurse is well researched and well taught. Clearly resourceful and prepared for his debut season with the Raptors, it shouldn’t be a shock that he was able to win a title, and that he’s pressed on for success with the Toronto Raptors even after Kawhi Leonard’s departure.