What's jazz got to do with Raptors' winning NBA strategy, head coach explains
The role music plays in Nick Nurse’s basketball philosophy
While we're on the offense from the looming pandemic which continues to shoot beyond the arc, we tend to remember and refer to things and events where we could hang out without masks, that happened just last year, as the "good old times."
Remember the one when over one million fans of the indomitable Canadian basketball team, the Toronto Raptors, gathered on the streets of Toronto to celebrate their epic NBA win over the Golden State Warriors.
Winning their first-ever NBA championship was an Homeric feat. But the secret sauce to winning the most prized basketball title — other than a top notch three point game, a really skilled team and rock solid teamwork — is an unusual one.
The Toronto Raptors' head coach, Nick Nurse, wrote all about it in his book, Rapture: Fifteen Teams, Four Countries, One NBA Championship, and How to Find a Way To Win — Damn Near Anywhere, where, among other things, he chronicles the arduous journey to the pinnacle of basketball, talks about his love of music and how the two connect.
Ahead of the interview with q's host Tom Power, Nurse provided a list of formative songs that illustrate what role music played in his basketball philosophy and as they listen to some of those, Nurse shares interesting associated stories.
WATCH | Nick Nurse's full interview with Tom Power:
'The Monk offense'
Nurse is a huge fan of the legendary jazzer, Thelonious Monk, whose music became a big part of his game strategy.
"I could listen to that tune all day," says Nurse as Power plays Thelonious Monk's Little Rootie Tootie.
The coach continues to describe Monk's music, and in particular his song Misterioso, as magical, sophisticated and complicated.
Oddly enough, the way he discovered Monk's music was through his coaching contacts rather than his music ones. It was coach Ron Ekker who would call his offense "the Monk offense," says Nurse, adding: "So, I kind of stole that from him. I started listening and studying Monk, when I heard [Ekker] talk about that."
Initially, the eclectic notes of the jazz legend were a head scratcher for Nurse, who says that only after repetitive listening did he start to understand the true depth of it.
"It gets, kind of, deep into your soul. And the more I listened, the more I loved him. And the more I loved him, the more I listened."
Some may argue that basketball and music are dissonant but, whether it's a band on the stage or a team on the court, both require a mutually supportive collective who will present a harmonious front. For that reason, Nurse says, "it made sense to me to look at my offense as a little bit like a jazz man.
"I certainly have some structure and a group of players trying to perform the common, you know, song or common goal, 'Let's get a basket,' right. But in the middle of that, I want to see some spectacular improvisation."
Nurse wanted to give the players freedom and a chance to show spectacular play, and ensure when one player is putting on a solo performance, just like a soloist in a band would, the other team members are ok with that.
It's never really the guy stepping out that we're worried about, it's how the other four guys are reacting to that guy stepping out.- Nick Nurse
Moving the players around in order for each to get that chance to shine on the court was also something he wanted, says Nurse, explaining: "One time it's Pascal Siakam, the next time it's Fred VanVleet and the next time it's Kyle Lowry. We move it around the group, so to speak, and hopefully everybody can show some specialness. Everybody gets a chance and then when it's time, we all come back together and we're still trying to get the same common goal."
In his first meeting with the team, Nurse presented his offense strategy and used the opportunity to make a point using Monk's quote, "the piano ain't got no wrong notes," and by showing a painting of Monk with his music playing in the background.
All that to explain: "You really can't make a bad decision in our offense, as long as you make one quickly and do it well."
He later introduced a little bit more of Monk, he says, in the form of a video that he edited together using footage from Monk's documentary, Straight: No Chaser. Nurse was making another point about performance, passion and play by paralleling the team's play and Monk's performance, cutting between a closeup of Monk's fingers as he played the piano and the players on the court.
"[Monk] is such a showman when he's playing the piano. Not only is the music fantastic, watching him play it with the sweat and the rings and just the body movement and the foot tapping and all that stuff, I thought, would be interesting for the guys to see — just what encompasses all that."
Switching off the high intensity motor surrounding the profession
Aside from unconventionally coaching one of the biggest basketball teams as well as the Canadian National Team, Nurse is also a philanthropist, book-lover and a musician who, as he puts it, finds playing piano meditative and enjoyable.
"It gives me a nice, calming release. I would say."
When I can lose myself in a song, you know, or just some rhythms or, I don't know, maybe just a little blues riff I play over and over to try to get a little better ... it's a good way to kind of switch off the high intensity motor that sometimes surrounds the profession.- Nick Nurse
In fact, when the biggest game of his career was over, Nurse says he went back to his hotel room, where he had his keyboard, and played "a little bit of Monk" to his high school friends.
Earlier this year, he also got to play the Steinway piano that Monk himself recorded on, at the Rudy Van Gelder studio.
The best part of that experience, he says, was meeting Monk's son and grandson and telling them his Monk story.
"When I got done telling the story that I just told you about incorporating the clips, and the painting and all this stuff … [Monk's son] said: 'You're a bad mf' and, kind of, gave me a hug."
"It was so cool for me to be able to express some gratitude to them."
Formative songs lead to 'a thrill of a lifetime'
In his book, Nurse mentions that Prince's Purple Rain was the first song he learned how to play. So when we play it for him, the coach candidly laughs adding that the song was a "formative years song" for him — recalling a fond memory: "I rode a Greyhound bus from small town Iowa up to Minneapolis to see the Purple Rain," at the age of 17. It's still a song, he says, he plays the most on the piano.
Nurse says that Norah Jones is also tied to a formative moment in his life: "My first son, Noah, loved to be calmed to Norah Jones' Come Away With Me album, so I became a big fan."
Her song Humble Me, is one of his favourites to not only play but sing as well, he says, adding: "It tries to keep me grounded a little bit."
"One of the highest compliments people ever give me as they tell me, you know: 'You've remained humble' … and that means a lot to me."
For his virtual book launch with Indigo, Nurse chose a song by Hamilton, Ontario's the Arkells, Quitting You.
"We played that song together for my book launch ... Max [Kerman, lead singer of the Arkells] was one of the hosts. Matt Devlin, the voice of the Raptors, was the other."
"[Devlin] said, 'Hey, you guys, there's a piano and let's hear a song.' So Max and I played that and I played the keys and backup vocals and I let him do his thing [laughs]."
"Max is such a sweetheart of a guy and he's also a musician and a great songwriter. I admire what he does. … [He] has really helped me grow a little bit, especially on the keyboard and piano, showed me a few things, and just music in general."
Nurse says, they became good friends quickly after Max called up and asked him to play the guitar at the Arkells' concert, "in front of 70,000 people at the Bud stage — after we won the championship."
"Never been so scared in my life, by the way," he reflects, adding how hard he'd worked to get the chords right for the song.
"I was exhausted. We had the draft two nights earlier. In fact, on Saturday morning of the concert, I told Max, 'I'm out. I'm just too tired. I can't do it.' He said, 'No, come on over to the soundcheck.' … The band sounded great and I felt like I hit the chords really good."
Nurse decided to perform after all and even though he was very "nervous sitting on the side stage," once he was on the stage, he loved it.
Max [Kerman] gave me a thrill of a lifetime there, to be honest.- Nick Nurse
The connection between basketball and music seems to be intertwined for Nick Nurse but the one between hip-hop and basketball is also a close one, especially in Toronto — with one of the biggest hip-hop stars, Drake, so close to the team.
"He's a super super fan. He is funny. He comes into the locker room a lot after the games. … He's great to have there."
"He's just hyped to see the Raptors win and play and gives a lot of love, man."
Changing the game but not the man
Life has clearly changed tremendously for the nomadic — Iowa born, Toronto based — coach who became an honorary Canadian and just this August, has been named NBA's coach of the year.
And while Nurse seems to have changed the game, did the game and winning the most revered accolade in basketball change him?
He says: "I hope it didn't change me too much," explaining that winning the championship did change his life in a way that people now recognize him on the streets which "wasn't necessarily the case before the playoffs" but he says he loves it.
"You don't get tired of people smiling and being happy and saying congratulations. … And so that's all it really changed, I think."
In fact, he decided to combine his three loves — basketball, reading and music — and pay it forward by using his new platform to give back to the kids and the community, through the Nick Nurse Foundation.
"Let's help [the kids] see a brighter future. Let's give them a more positive self image. Let's give them opportunities they may not have had, you know, whether it's books or basketballs or basketball shoes or instruments or lessons or getting them part of a band or taking them out onstage in front of somebody to lift their self image. Or any strands of all those things where they may be able to see a career or a future. And we just want to do that to the best of our ability with the foundation."
Written by Vanja Mutabdzija Jaksic. Interview produced by Ben Edwards.