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The Iowa Reporter Working the Nick Nurse Beat at the NBA Finals

The whole world is covering Warriors-Raptors. The New York Times. ESPN. And … the Carroll Times Herald? Here’s why these Finals are so important to a small burg in Iowa.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

At the NBA Finals, coaches often find themselves answering to reporters they’ve never met. Take the curly-haired reporter who asked Steve Kerr a question after Game 5. “Steve,” the man said, introducing himself into a microphone. “Brandon Hurley with the Carroll Times Herald …”

Carroll, Iowa, is the 10,000-resident hometown of Raptors coach Nick Nurse. Hurley is one of the Times Herald’s two sportswriters. The paper doesn’t cover many international events, but Hurley convinced his editor to let him hop in his Honda Civic and drive 14 hours to Toronto. Hurley felt he had to. No member of the NBA press corps has been working the Nurse story as hard as he has. Before this season, few writers knew there was a Nurse story. “You can basically call me the Nick Nurse beat reporter,” Hurley said.

When I called Hurley on Wednesday afternoon, I thought he’d be back at his desk in Iowa. He was still in Toronto. If the Raptors win Game 6, he’s planning to write a piece for the Times Herald about the victory celebration. “If they don’t,” Hurley said, “I’ll try to get another Airbnb and stay for Game 7.”

Hurley, who is 30, started working at the Times Herald in 2016 after stints at newspapers in Boone and Spirit Lake. Someone mentioned to him that a former Carroll high school star had become an NBA assistant coach. Hurley got in a car and drove six hours to Indianapolis to write a feature.

Thereafter, Hurley became the world’s foremost Nick Nurse evangelist. “It’s just a tremendous story that definitely needs to be heard,” Hurley said. “That’s why I’ve been pushing it a lot.”

Aside from the story’s obvious local appeal—Area Man Employs Box-and-One Defense—Hurley liked that Nurse treated the press better than other coaches. “I notice it at the high school level,” he said. “You’ll see coaches go straight into coachspeak. Their eyes will glaze over. They’ll just look through the wall. I’m like, ‘I’m right here—look at me.’ Nick doesn’t do any of that. … He’s got that Iowa Nice personality.”

Last June, when Nurse replaced Dwane Casey, Hurley called up Nurse’s mom, Marcella, for an interview. When Nurse brought his Raptors assistants to town to play golf at the Carroll Country Club, Hurley tagged along. (He couldn’t play because he forgot his clubs.) In December, Marcella Nurse died while the Raptors were on a West Coast road swing. “The late Marcella Nurse’s angelic hand guided the Canadian ball club to a dominant road victory in the city of Angels,” Hurley wrote in the Times Herald.

As Nurse morphed from obscure assistant to someone whose timeouts were scrutinized by Stephen A. Smith, Hurley felt a gentle, I-got-there-first sort of journalistic pride. His beat was now the world’s. After Kawhi Leonard’s buzzer-beater bounced in against the Sixers, Hurley tweeted: “Nick Nurse has the freaking Toronto Raptors into the Eastern Conference Finals. A dude from Carroll freaking Iowa… think about that for a moment.” When the Raptors beat the Bucks, Hurley switched to all caps: “HOLY EFFING CRAP.”

Hurley drove six-plus hours in his Civic to Milwaukee to cover games 1 and 2 of the Eastern Conference finals. After sitting next to Stephen A. and Michael Wilbon, he was relieved of whatever nervousness he might have had about being around big-name basketball writers. “I’d got the stars shocked out of me,” he said. At the Finals, Hurley sounded like a veteran: He was complaining about reporters asking multiple questions.

Hurley’s road trip to Toronto was semi-arduous. The odometer on his Civic passed the 100,000-mile mark. At the Canadian border, he was forced to get out and submit to a background check. He observed that southern Canada’s hinterlands were as featureless as Iowa’s. He thought the Tim Hortons chicken sandwich was disgusting.

Before Game 5, Hurley walked around the court at Scotiabank Arena to get a sense of the atmosphere. He spotted Frank Molak, one of Nurse’s high school basketball teammates, wearing a replica Kuemper Catholic jersey and chatting with Drake. That’s what you call an extremely good local angle.

After Leonard scored 10 points in a fourth-quarter flurry, Hurley ran from his upper-deck press seat toward the tunnel. This was going to be the biggest sports moment in Carroll sports history since the Lakers team plane got lost in a snowstorm and landed in a local cornfield in 1960. Hurley barely registered the fact that Nurse had just called a timeout that might have stopped the Raptors’ rally cold. When Nurse was denied an NBA title by one point, Hurley decided to stay in Toronto and cover the eventual victory party—hopefully.

In Iowa, Hurley works for three newspapers at the same time. He is assistant sports editor of the Times Herald and sports editor of the Jefferson Herald and Guthrie County Times Vedette. That means he’s responsible for a large, triangular chunk of Western Iowa, where it can take an hour to drive between high school games, most of which Hurley is obliged to cover himself. One day last month, the Jefferson Herald’s sports page had three bylines. All of them were Hurley’s.

“It’s an absolute grind,” Hurley said. “Especially in spring. Spring in Iowa is brutal. We have track, golf, tennis, soccer—and every school has that. All the state tournaments seem to happen back to back to back to back. You don’t get a break.”

When covering preps, Hurley faces way tougher press critics than Russell Westbrook. “Ooh, the parents,” he said. “I don’t want to get into too much detail.” Well, maybe just a little: Last fall, Hurley wrote a story picking the football team at Greene County High School to win five games. They won eight. “I got attacked for being wrong,” Hurley said. “I’m like, isn’t that a good thing I was wrong?”

A couple of high school kids who follow Hurley on Twitter have trolled him for his devotion to the Nurse beat. “They’re like, ‘Oh, another Nick Nurse tweet,’” he said. “I haven’t said it, because it would be really petty on Twitter. But I almost want to be like, ‘Hey, look at this now. There’s a reason I’ve been pushing this story.’”

Hurley is missing some regular-season high school baseball and softball to cover the Finals. “If anybody complains, I’ll be like: There will always be high school sports,” he said. “There may not always be an Iowan in the NBA Finals.”

Whether Nurse wins or loses, Hurley is already planning his post-Finals content hits. In an ideal world, Hurley would love to reboot the Nursing School podcast they recorded when Nurse was still an assistant. If Nurse returns to Carroll this summer, Hurley is thinking of a Rachel Nichols–level sit-down. “Blow it out of the water,” he said. “Just have crazy videos and all this sort of stuff. Just make a huge hoopla about it.”

Hurley plans to watch Game 6 in Jurassic Park outside Scotiabank Arena. Though he’s pro-Raptors, he understands that seeing the series ender in person would reward his time on the Nurse beat. “I don’t think I want them to lose tomorrow night,” Hurley said. “But at the same time, how many people get the opportunity to cover a Game 7 in the NBA Finals?”