The curly-haired 12-year-old on the fringe of the tunnel has traveled 2 1/2 hours on a college evening for an opportunity to fulfill her hero. As the Toronto Raptors heat up on the courtroom at Scotiabank Arena and 1000’s of followers discover their seats, Annalise Verbruggen waits at part 105-A along with her father, Kevin.

They left early from St. Thomas, in southwestern Ontario, to achieve Toronto nicely earlier than tip-off realizing that the window, if any, could be transient. An usher walks over to the TSN broadcast crew arrange on a perch overlooking the courtroom, ensuring they’re conscious of the fan who has come all this manner.

Kia Nurse sits on a stool between broadcasters Kayla Grey and Leo Rautins, bantering by way of highlights of the Raptors’ star sophomore Scottie Barnes throughout TSN’s dwell pregame present. Grey requires the management room to run again a spotlight of Barnes dunking on two Chicago Bulls.

“One more time, just for Leo,” Nurse says. “So he can use this in his next pickup game.”

Rautins, the 62-year-old veteran Raptors commentator, is a prepared goal amongst his millennial colleagues. The former Team Canada participant and head coach absorbs the jabs freely because the previous man on set. He believes he sits beside the way forward for Canadian basketball commentary in 26-year-old Nurse.

“Have you been dunked on?” Rautins asks Nurse.

“No,” she laughs. “I get out of the way.”

“Leo’s face lets you know he’s been dunked on quite a few times,” Grey says, as they lower to business.

Verbruggen and her father wait by way of your complete half-hour pregame present for an opportunity to sneak in a fast assembly with Nurse. She wore a Pascal Siakam jersey, however her favourite is the Team Canada No. 5 Nurse jersey she has at residence. The St. Thomas Shock level guard — who mimics the bruising however cerebral fashion of her idol — had hoped to fulfill Nurse throughout a visit to Chicago when the Phoenix Mercury have been enjoying the Sky, however they weren’t in a position to attain her.

As the announcement of the Raptors beginning lineup blasts over the world audio system, Nurse shouts to introduce herself to Verbruggen, who fiddles along with her fingers nervously. It’s a quick interplay and Verbruggen says little past hi there, along with her father filling within the blanks. Nurse pulls her shut for a photograph and the tween beams ecstatically.

It occurs usually, normally youthful children who discover Nurse in entrance of the digital camera and wish to say hi there. It’s been taking place since she rose to nationwide fame because the 19-year-old star of the Canadian nationwide crew, the place she scored 33 factors in opposition to a powerhouse United States crew to win gold on the 2015 Pan Am Games. She went on to win back-to-back NCAA championships with the UConn Huskies earlier than turning into a WNBA All-Star.

In an period full of Canadian basketball expertise, Nurse has turn out to be one in every of a number of well-known northern faces of the sport. In girls’s basketball, particularly, Nurse is the beacon for youth wanting towards a beforehand uncharted path to a life and profession within the sport. For most of her WNBA colleagues meaning enjoying abroad in the course of the offseason to make life work financially. But Nurse’s rising profile as an on-air analyst has allowed her to stay residence, serving to construct the game for the subsequent technology of Canadian expertise.

After the Raptors’ victory over the Houston Rockets, Nurse walks down the aisles towards the courtroom for a postgame hit. Several followers double-take as she passes amid the movement towards the exit.

A few middle-aged followers in Kyle Lowry and Siakam jerseys cease and ask to take a selfie along with her. Another man nudges a good friend, excitedly.

“Oh, whoa,” he says. “That’s Kia Nurse!”

None of this was attainable within the creativeness of the 10-year-old lady watching her older sister play for the University of Oregon. Tamika Nurse was the head of what Kia hoped for in basketball. Tamika, 9 years older, represented Canada on the junior nationwide crew and earned a U.S. school scholarship.

Basketball was a way to an finish, Tamika says. Growing up, the aim was to get a free schooling at an ideal college by way of the game after which get a job. The cash being supplied within the WNBA didn’t examine to beginning a profession after school.

Nurse idolized her sister, usually to the purpose of annoyance. She took out her aggressive drive, a Nurse household trait, on her brother, Darnell. He was drawn to hockey and lacrosse. She was all in on soccer and basketball. But when it got here to the inevitable conflict of siblings, Kia took particular be aware of her victories, whether or not in a make-shift recreation of sofa-cushion soccer within the household’s residence in Hamilton, or at cross-country meets the place — as famous at school bulletins — the extra athletically gifted sister raced to the end line whereas Darnell lumbered to the modest center. Playing basketball on the neighbor’s roll-out web was little competitors. Darnell was lanky in his youth, having but to develop into his physique, and he lacked the pure athletic talent his youthful sibling possessed.

Both labored onerous, although. In the Nurse household that was a given. Richard and Cathy Nurse raised their children inside the classes sports activities present. Richard was a former large receiver for the Hamilton Tiger Cats, although in his thoughts he by no means fairly accepted the “former” designation. To today, in his mid-50s, he’ll problem anybody in his household to a 40-yard sprint. Cathy was a degree guard for the McMaster Marauders, recognized for her bodily play.

As mother and father, they have been coaches and chauffeurs. Richard would rush residence from his job in Toronto on weeknights, change from his go well with and tie into his sweats, and run Kia’s basketball practices. Cathy drove the wrong way, ensuring Darnell arrived on time for his hockey practices and video games in Toronto’s GTHL. The mother and father would collapse close to midnight earlier than waking as much as do all of it once more.

They set a excessive customary for his or her kids, who have been usually advised if that they had underperformed on the courtroom or on the ice — and couldn’t play in any respect if their grades slipped at college. If they needed to be nice, Richard advised his children, they needed to sacrifice issues like events or going to the mall.

“We were about accountability in our house,” Richard says. “We never gave them an out. … You couldn’t come to me and say it was the coach’s fault or it was the teacher’s fault.”

Everything needed to be earned within the Nurse family, together with buckets on that neighbor’s web, the place Kia and Darnell would battle Richard and Tamika in epic showdowns whereas Cathy litigated disputes over low-cost foul calls from the porch. It’s an upbringing for which all three siblings say they’re immensely grateful.

“There’s nothing in this world that’s given to you, no matter how you’re brought up,” says Darnell. “I’m very appreciative of the way that our parents showed us so much love and support and at the same time, held us accountable and held us to a high standard from a young age.”

Kia emerged as one of many high younger basketball abilities within the nation in her teenagers, simply as Darnell rose by way of hockey’s elite ranks, transferring away from residence at 16 to affix the OHL’s Sault Greyhounds. At the identical age, Kia was invited to camp for the Canadian nationwide crew, touring across the globe to compete in locations comparable to China, Turkey and Mexico to signify her nation on the courtroom.

As each excelled of their sports activities, it was clear to Kia that there was a cap on her journey that merely didn’t exist for her brother. A high prospect, he was on his technique to a profession as an NHL defenseman. Her aim was a free schooling — no small feat in a household that prizes teachers. Nurse dreamed of the Final Four and world championships, however she knew a profession in basketball would require monumental private sacrifice.

Kia Nurse drives to the basket in opposition to Puerto Rico in the course of the world championships in September. (Yukihito Taguchi / USA Today)

Donovan McNabb was driving to apply for the women’ softball crew he coaches in Arizona when he answered a involved name from a good friend.

“Is Kia all right?”

McNabb had missed the beginning of his niece’s playoff recreation with the Phoenix Mercury in opposition to the Las Vegas Aces and hadn’t seen her land awkwardly on a layup try and fall to the bottom 40 seconds into the primary quarter, clutching her proper knee. The recreation broadcast lower to business as Kia was helped off the courtroom. McNabb’s spouse, Raquel — a former star level guard with the Syracuse Orange and Richard Nurse’s sister — was within the stands. She and Nurse’s boyfriend, John Robinson, relayed no matter data they discovered about her scenario to McNabb and different relations.

As involved faces hovered over her within the Mercury locker room, Nurse already knew that she’d torn her ACL.

Based on what he’d heard, McNabb knew it too — and he knew what it meant. The six-time NFL Pro-Bowl quarterback tore his ACL midway by way of the Philadelphia Eagles’ 2006 season. He knew the combination of anger and concern that may devour Nurse in these helpless moments because the gravity of her harm set in. Nurse was terse when she answered the decision from Uncle Don, as she calls McNabb. She lower him off instantly, saying she simply needed to go to mattress.

“It was a quick conversation,” McNabb says. “I knew emotionally where she would be.”

Nurse had come a protracted technique to attain that semifinal collection with the Mercury. She represented Canada on the 2016 Rio Olympics and have become a star at UConn. The Huskies received two nationwide titles and reached the Final Four in every of her 4 seasons with a crew that included Gabby Williams and Napheesa Collier and was a part of a 111-game successful streak. Nurse tied the NCAA single-game match file with 9 3-pointers in opposition to Syracuse en path to the 2017 Final Four.

Nurse’s time as a Huskie would have been sufficient to fulfill her childhood objectives. But after watching a number of of her Huskies teammates get drafted, the WNBA turned a extra interesting vacation spot submit school, if coupled with extra profitable alternatives to play basketball abroad within the offseason. She noticed a path. The New York Liberty chosen Nurse tenth within the 2018 draft. She break up the subsequent two years between the Liberty and the Canberra Capitals of the Women’s National Basketball League in Australia. Nurse was named a WNBA All-Star in 2019 and signed a cope with Jordan Brand the identical yr.

She was traded to the Mercury earlier than the 2021 season, a transfer that introduced her near her aunt, uncle and 4 cousins — two women and two boys. In Phoenix, Nurse turned like an enormous sister to the youngsters. They’d battle on the courtroom on the McNabb family, carrying Jordan gear offered by Nurse. They’d attend Mercury video games carrying their Nurse jerseys. Lexi McNabb, the eldest, is a degree guard like her cousin — and is now enjoying in her first season at Syracuse University.

“It’s the successful big sis that every kid needs for motivation and drive,” McNabb says. “Her path was very similar to where their path is now. I told my oldest that she needs to follow Kia … because (she’s) the bar. Kia had Tamika — and now Lexi has Kia.”

The household help in Phoenix additionally offered the identical values present in Richard and Cathy’s residence in Hamilton. The McNabbs used the identical tell-it-like-it-is mentality because the Nurses, so the Mercury level guard usually acquired sincere assessments of her recreation from her uncle (who was a walk-on reserve for the Syracuse Orange basketball crew whereas turning into a finalist for the Heisman Trophy within the different sport he performed).

“She understands my true love for her because I’m always up front with her,” McNabb says.

The torn ACL was devastating for Nurse, however McNabb did his greatest to offer steering by way of the unsure months after surgical procedure. “I tried to help her to understand who she is and her worth,” he says. McNabb advised her to give attention to understanding the progress of her restoration — and that the highway she was going to need to journey won’t lead her again to the place she was earlier than the harm.

Nurse bends to clutch a lure bar carrying 275 kilos. She exhales sharply.

“Crush the grip,” says Matt Nichol, the famend strength-and-conditioning coach Nurse has labored with for a number of years.

She lifts and squats, thrice in a row, with ease.

The exercise — in an previous airport hangar in north Toronto that Nichol transformed into an enormous coaching facility — is concentrated on constructing stability and explosive power in Nurse’s legs. She wears blue Canberra Capitals shorts that disguise a protracted scar above her proper knee.

“My legs never looked like this,” she says, noting the sculpted bulk of her quads.

Nurse is stronger than she’s ever been. During her year-long restoration from the torn ACL, she labored out in Nichol’s health club alongside domestically based mostly professional athletes just like the Dallas Stars’ Tyler Seguin and the Golden State Warriors’ Andrew Wiggins. She’s packed on muscle to verify her knee has the steadiness to endure a precarious fall or twist.

Nichol places extra weight on the bar: 315 kilos.

“Strong legs. Strong grip,” he says. “Easy. One rep.”

Nurse, 165 kilos, rises rapidly and units the weights again on the bottom gently.

“Easy! Look at that,” Nichol says, as Nurse steps up onto a three-foot field, jumps down with two ft and explodes up like she is grabbing a rebound. Students from the Blyth Academy, an athletics-focused personal college that shares the power, stare over at Nurse as she works out.

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Kia Nurse places in work at a health club in Phoenix in April. (Barry Gossage / NBAE by way of Getty Images)

It’s been greater than a yr since Nurse performed in a WNBA recreation. The Mercury prolonged her deal, paying her the identical $73,500 wage she’d earned on her preliminary four-year rookie contract, hopeful that she would possibly return to play. But she wasn’t in a position to get well in time and missed your complete 2022 season. In October, Nurse made her return with the Canadian crew on the FIBA Women’s Basketball World Cup in Australia, alongside veteran nationwide crew stars Natalie Achonwa and Bridget Carleton, who each play for the Minnesota Lynx. On her first possession again, Nurse drew a foul on a basket off a back-cut, turned to her teammates and let loose an emotional roar.

Nurse lives about an hour west in Hamilton, simply down the highway from the home the place she grew up. At 26, she bought her first residence, the place she lives along with her boyfriend and Prim, their German shorthaired pointer. Tamika lives across the block, which permits her sister to be “Aunt Kiki” to her 2 1/2-year-old son, Jaxson.

Though she spent months in Phoenix throughout her rehab and stayed near the Mercury when she was in a position, Nurse has settled into life again residence. The location is necessary, not solely due to Nurse’s shut ties to household but additionally due to what it permits her to do for basketball in Canada.

In mid-November, she ran the primary basketball clinic for the Kia Nurse Basketball Academy, a program she developed along with her father to offer alternatives within the recreation to younger gamers within the area. The Kia Nurse Elite program — a journey crew within the Nike Elite Youth Basketball League  — has run for a number of years and is the one Jordan-sponsored crew in Canada.

Unlike many WNBA gamers who’ve gone abroad to earn a residing, Nurse has discovered a technique to stay in North America in the course of the WNBA offseason. In 2019, TSN — one in every of Canada’s two main sports activities broadcasters — employed her as a commentator for the lads’s NCAA Tournament. Nervous forward of her first look, she memorized particular particulars about each single crew in March Madness.

Producer Michael Tawfik Hamarneh advised her to chill out and draw on her experiences. Nurse was, in spite of everything, the one individual within the studio who had been to 4 Final Fours and received two nationwide championships. After just a few broadcasts, she leaned into that wealth of expertise.

As a WNBA free agent, she remains to be unsure the place she is going to play subsequent season, however Nurse is assured she’ll be a stronger and smarter participant than when she left.

Nurse’s brother has little question she is going to.

“I’m very proud to see her growth, obviously as a basketball player, but as a person to be able to capitalize on the skills that she’s used to build out a life that a lot of young female athletes can look to and be like, ‘Hey, this is attainable. This is achievable,’” says Darnell. “It’s a very cool thing to see.”

For now, the staggered WNBA and NBA seasons permit her to proceed her enjoying profession whereas incomes a residing and constructing a future in broadcasting. Instead of spending her time enjoying abroad, carrying down her physique in a relentless cycle of seasons, Nurse is ready to apply in a basketball facility within the previous hangar subsequent to Nichol’s health club earlier than hitting the weights. The cycle of relaxation and focused coaching — she additionally works with a coach in Hamilton — has allowed her to benefit from the comforts of residence.

“In a world full of uncertainty … I like to control things,” Nurse says. “Now I have control of where my path is. I know what I’m doing. I know where my home is. … I can train as hard as I ever have (and) I can still play for the national team. They always say you can’t have it all — but I’ve got a pretty good hold on what is all for me right now.”

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The Nurse siblings, Kia, Darnell and Tamika. (Photo courtesy of the Nurse household)

As a trailblazer for ladies in Canadian basketball, Nurse has used her profile to attempt to create higher alternatives for the subsequent generations studying the sport in Canada.

Nurse and her teammates pushed for higher assets for the Canadian girls’s nationwide crew. Players now fly first-class to worldwide occasions and don’t need to share lodge rooms. A brand new collective settlement between gamers and the WNBA in 2020 improved salaries, journey situations and offered full pay for gamers on maternity depart.

When she was younger, she couldn’t even watch her sister’s NCAA Tournament video games on tv. But all of Nurse’s appearances within the Final Four with UConn aired in Canada. “The next generation is going to be able to see their colleges. I couldn’t see it,” says Nurse.  “They need to see it or they won’t understand.”

Toronto has overtly sought a WNBA franchise — and the third-largest market between the U.S. and Canada is extensively thought of a frontrunner to land a crew when the WNBA expands with two extra franchises by 2025. Nurse could be thrilled to see the growth north.

“It opens up the core of these fans to see women’s basketball at the highest level, which is huge,” Nurse says. “Hockey’s not on when we play. (The Raptors) aren’t on when we play — so you can a get a live basketball fix in the summer time.”

It would additionally push ahead grassroots packages throughout the nation, creating more room for individuals to play, Nurse says.

There’s already a passionate WNBA fanbase within the nation and the ladies’s nationwide crew,  at the moment ranked fifth on the planet by FIBA,  has a loyal following. The WNBA is planning exhibition video games in Canada subsequent summer time, which Nurse says might be a very good indicator of what the fan base is like. Nurse says she hopes no matter crew she indicators with subsequent will get to play north of the border.

Nurse is one in every of solely three Canadian WNBA gamers, together with Achonwa and Carleton. But that quantity is more likely to rise. This yr there are greater than 100 Canadians enjoying within the NCAA. Laeticia Amihere, a 6-4 senior at South Carolina, is anticipated to be chosen within the WNBA draft subsequent April. Aaliyah Edwards, a junior at UConn, is anticipated to be drafted the next yr. Amihere and Edwards confronted one another in final yr’s NCAA ultimate, received by South Carolina. Shayeann Day-Wilson is a standout guard at Duke and was the ACC freshman of the yr final season.

Nurse is hopeful that this technology is simply the beginning of what’s to come back.

Nurse stands on a courtroom surrounded by dozens of middle-school women who’ve spent a Sunday afternoon working drills on the University of Toronto and attempting to glean any recommendation they’ll get from her. She’s joined by WNBA commissioner Cathy Engelbert, who has made the journey to Toronto for the league’s Her Time to Play occasion, supposed to champion girls’s sports activities at an age the place many gamers give up sports activities.

It’s a problem Nurse studied for a thesis she wrote at UConn and has underpinned her efforts to point out others that there’s a method for women to search out pleasure and success by way of basketball, whatever the degree they attain.

As gamers take their seats within the bleachers and dig by way of boxed lunches, Nurse stands on the hardwood, like a professor wanting up at her keen college students. She’s requested them to share their basketball tales and goals and he or she sees her journey mirrored in them.

One of the gamers raises her hand and asks in regards to the pursuit of goals — about making it work, as a lady in a recreation.

“I promise you,” Nurse tells her. “This is something you can do long-term. You can make a living playing basketball.”

Before lengthy, the gamers are known as again for one more spherical of drills.

“All right, ladies,” an teacher says, hustling them to the courtroom. They every choose up an orange and white ball from a rack. The women unfold out throughout the baselines. On the whistle, they cost — every controlling a ball as they run, creating area and discovering their method by way of a transferring maze as Nurse weaves amongst them.

(Illustration: Sean Reilly / The Athletic; Photos: Barry Gossage / NBAE by way of Getty Images, Kelly Defina / Getty Images)

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