Story contributed by Ben Forrest
In the final minute of the Australia Women’s National Basketball League (WNBL) Grand Final championship in March, reigning MVP Kia Nurse (Hamilton, Ont.) took a handoff from a University of Canberra teammate, dribbled to her right and fell hard to the floor.
Jenna O’Hea, an opposing forward from the Southside Flyers, bumped Nurse as she switched to defend her near the top of the key, knocking Nurse to the maple-hued hardwood.
No whistle. No foul call. Canberra trailed by a single point, and clusters of angry fans roared in disbelief.
Nurse momentarily lost her dribble but corralled the ball and passed to teammate Olivia Epoupa from her seat. Then, everyone scrambled. O’Hea dropped back into the post, leaving Nurse wide open for a long three-pointer with 21 seconds left.
The shot fell. Nurse screamed and clenched her fists as she back-pedalled toward the other basket. Southside called a timeout. An elated home crowd at AIS Arena went nuts.
This was the dagger they needed, the shot that gave Canberra its second straight championship in Nurse’s final game with the team. She couldn’t have scripted it better.
“It was obviously a fairytale ending to a really good story,” she said two months later in Hamilton, where she is staying with family during the COVID-19 lockdown.
“I was allowed to be in a system in Australia where I was a lot more free than any system I've played in since my high school days. That allowed me to kind of get confidence back into my offensive game … and that was pretty exciting.”
Nurse was, and technically still is, riding a two-year high that saw her voted to start in the 2019 WNBA All-Star Game as a second-year guard with the New York Liberty.
She also signed an exclusive deal with Jordan Brand, one of only three female players to receive the honour; and she helped push Team Canada to a No. 4 global ranking and a chance at a medal at the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo.
Then COVID-19 happened, and sports entered a state of limbo.
A year full of big goals and big possibilities shifted into perspective as athletes and fans around the world grappled with problems much bigger than basketball.
Nurse is philosophical about it. She has enjoyed her extended stay with family, converting her parents’ garage into a makeshift gym and jogging to stay in shape, with a neighbour’s hoop available when she needs to get shots up.
“I can't really figure out why I am the way I am,” she said. “I don't feel like I've done anything significant in my career. I feel like there's a lot more to do, and a lot more to prove to myself.”
Soon after she signed with Jordan Brand in 2019, Nurse met Michael for the first time.
It was a brief encounter — “Just a hello,” she said, at an event where there wasn’t much opportunity to talk. “He welcomed me into the into the brand,” she said. “And it was really cool to kind of just be in his presence … I haven't really gotten too deep into his brain yet, but I'm sure one day I will try.”
The sneaker deal came as a surprise.
Yes, Nurse is a rising star in the WNBA and the face of women’s basketball in Canada. Yes, she won two college championships at the University of Connecticut and carries herself with a confidence and maturity that exceeds her age.
But the brand could have chosen a bigger name, or a more established star.
“It means a whole lot to me to be able to step into this role,” she said. “It truly is special, because there's not a whole lot of us. There’s not a ton of Jordan athletes, and that's what really makes it a family-based brand.”
Minnesota Lynx star Maya Moore became Jumpman’s first women’s basketball ambassador in 2011, and Nurse and New York Liberty teammate Asia Durr — a former No. 2 overall pick — joined last year.
The perks aren’t small. Nurse was the first player to wear Air Jordan XXXIVs in a WNBA game. She also wore them religiously with Team Canada, she said, and typically rotates them with Russell Westbrook’s signature Why Not Zer0 series.
Like many basketball fans, Nurse has spent part of the lockdown watching The Last Dance documentary series about Jordan’s last championship with the Chicago Bulls in 1998.
“When he was in his prime, I was an infant,” she said. “So it's been cool to kind of see and get a little bit more of an insight into who he truly was as a player, both on off the court.”
“I think the biggest takeaway for me has been, he was one of a kind,” she added. “He didn't really care what people thought. He didn't really care what people said about him.
“He was busy trying to win, and I think that was — that’s pretty impressive.”
Nurse learned a great deal about winning at UConn, where she was part of a 111-game streak and national titles in 2015 and 2016. She was also the ACC Freshman of the year in 2015 and became a key part of the Huskies attack under legendary coach Geno Auriemma.
But similar lessons have been few and far between in the WNBA, where the Liberty have finished out of the playoffs in her first two years. That futility led to a significant overhaul in the most recent offseason.
All-Star centre Tina Charles, the face of the franchise, was traded to Minnesota in a three-team deal just days before the 2020 Draft, where the Liberty selected Oregon standout and potential WNBA superstar Sabrina Ionescu with the No. 1 overall pick.
New York also selected UConn forward Megan Walker at No. 9 and Louisville guard Jazmine Jones at No. 12, with three additional picks in later rounds of the draft.
As they begin a new era at Barclays Center in Brooklyn after playing last season in a small 5,000-seat arena in suburban White Plains, N.Y., the Liberty are suddenly one of the most exciting young teams in the league, and Nurse is embracing the fresh start.
“Tina was a big veteran for us, and that's a really big hole for us to fill,” she said. “But I think they've done a great job in recruiting and their draft picks.
“We're going to have our growing pains, just because of our youth and being in a league like the WNBA. But I think in the long run, building up this core and building up the youth core, will be good for us.”
Ionescu was the face of women’s college basketball last season, and the first NCAA player — man or woman— to score 2,000 points and gather 1,000 assists and 1,000 rebounds.
She was a triple-double machine over four seasons with the Ducks, shattering the NCAA record, and while at 5-foot-11 she’ll struggle to grab rebounds in the WNBA, she may quickly become the biggest name in the sport.
“Obviously, she's going to be a big face for the league,” said Nurse. “I think the one thing that's really going to translate is, she's competitive.
“And no matter what, as a rookie, you're going to go through a learning curve. She's coming in the absolute hardest position in the league [point guard] to have that curve.
“But I think her competitive nature, her ability to make plays and make people around her better, is going to help that learning curve go a little bit quicker.”
The Liberty will look to Nurse for leadership, though older veterans will also have their say. At 24, she is only two years older than most of the incoming rookies, and more apt to lead with actions than with words.
“I think they're expecting me to share insights that I can with the players,” she said. “But obviously, I've only been in the league for three years. So it's like me talking to kids my age. It’ll be interesting in that sense.”
This was supposed to be the year Canada won its first Olympic medal in basketball since 1936, and the first in the history of its women’s program. It's a moment Nurse has been working toward since she joined the women’s national team in 2013 as a 16-year-old, and likely before.
As a veteran leader entering her prime, there’s no lack of pressure here. But with the Tokyo Games delayed to the summer of 2021, Nurse and the rest of Team Canada will have a year to regroup, refocus and improve.
“We've had a lot of time together in the last three years to prepare for this,” she said. “So hopefully another year won't be anything of an issue for us.”
The COVID-19 lockdown has given Nurse time to reflect on the phenomenal run of success she’s had in the last two years, but it isn’t in her nature to look back. There are still many mountains left to climb, many summits to reach.
“I know I've won championships. You know, 111 games in a row — that stuff's crazy, and I know it doesn't happen to everybody. But I feel like there's just more that I want to do.
“I try not to sit back and think about what I've already accomplished and feel like, ‘OK. Well, it was good enough, my career's gonna have a legacy.’
“I feel like I want it to be a lot more than what it is.”