"His teams were tough," Ujiri said Thursday as the Raptors officially introduced Nurse as their coach. "There was always something about the Birmingham team that was different from the whole league. People talked about them that way."
More than two decades on from that initial introduction, Ujiri is hoping Nurse has what it takes to turn Toronto into the talk of the NBA. The ninth head coach in Raptors history, Nurse replaces his former boss, Dwane Casey — under whom he spent the past five seasons as a Toronto assistant. Casey was fired after the Raptors were swept out of the second round of this year's playoffs by Cleveland, their third straight playoff defeat at the hands of LeBron James and the Cavs.
Ujiri called Nurse "everything you want in a candidate" and said his new coach, the first he has hired as an NBA executive, is someone who "thinks the game differently." "He was outstanding," Ujiri said. "He really came out on top. Trying new stuff, being innovative, is who Nick is. You can tell he's a tactician who really thinks the game."
Nurse called it "a long month" of waiting for a decision following Casey's dismissal but said he understood why Ujiri needed to take his time. "Even though I've been across the gym from him for five years, there's a lot of detail to go through," Nurse said.
Nurse also gave credit to Casey, who was hired as Detroit's head coach this week. "We shared a lot of winning together," Nurse said. "He's a competitive guy, a great professional. I learned a lot from him. You can't take away the five years we shared."
Toronto went 59-23 this season, the best record in the Eastern Conference and second-best in the NBA behind Houston. Nurse was in charge of the offense, led by All-Star guards DeMar DeRozan and Kyle Lowry. He also engineered a successful overhaul of the game plan before last season as Toronto put increased emphasis on ball movement and 3-point shooting.
For the coming season, Nurse said he wants to inject more defensive creativity "so we can try to be ready for more things in the playoffs." Rex Kalamian, a Raptors assistant alongside Nurse last season, is expected to join the Los Angeles Clippers, leaving Nurse multiple spots to fill on his staff. Nurse said Thursday he has a good idea of what he's looking for.
"I think it's really important that we get an experienced staff," he said. "Guys that have been head coaches at some level is important to me. It's good to know what it's like to be the decision maker."
There's also the possibility of new players, with Ujiri acknowledging Toronto has "work to do" with its roster. Nurse graduated from Northern Iowa and got his first head coaching position at Grand View College when he was only 23. He spent more than a decade in Europe and was an assistant coach for Britain at the 2012 London Olympics. A past G League coach of the year, he's the only coach to lead two teams to an NBA G League Championship, winning with Iowa in 2011 and Rio Grande in 2013.
Nurse's career has seen its share of stops and opponents, but he still recalls facing Ujiri while with Birmingham. "I remember," Nurse said, smiling. "He played really hard."