New York Liberty shooter Kia Nurse has struggled in the bubble, but the 2019 All-Star is finding exercises both familiar and fresh to combat those concerns.
Science has proven that bubble procedures are the optimal method for North America’s professional sports to navigate their way through the ongoing health crisis. Data from the WNBA, NWSL, NHL, and NBA enclosures have only served to prove this point. Side effects ensue nonetheless, primarily the isolation that comes along with it.
The WNBA’s 2020 endeavor, for example, has completely shrunk the world of Kia Nurse. A Hamilton, Ontario native that has made a name for herself in New York City’s crowded sports scene, Nurse expanded her reach to a new continent with a breakout year in Australia’s WNBL. Not only did she sink the game-winning basket in her Canberra Capitals’ title run, but she also became the first international visitor to capture the league’s MVP award (the local list of winners includes Liz Cambage, Lauren Jackson, Penny Taylor, and Sandy Brondello).
Nurse also combated one of the year’s first crises by donating to Australian wildfire relief in her own unique way, contributing five dollars for every point her Capitals tallied. She has continued to use her platform of professional basketball for non-round ball endeavors, spending the 2020 season opener’s postponement to call for social change in both the United States and Canada.
Locally, Nurse is well-known for her national endeavors on Team Canada as well as her first All-Star campaign last season. She is also one of the hardwood-based faces of the renowned Jordan Brand with fellow New Yorker and first-round pick Asia Durr.
Yet, Nurse’s livelihood has shrunk to IMG Academy’s mere 72,000 square feet in Bradenton. That’s a dramatic reduction for any player, but it becomes even more drastic when your residency normally encompasses three continents.
The struggles and frustration have been present over the first half of the Liberty’s 22-game slate. Nurse hurt her ankle in the bubble’s premiere against Seattle, an injury that led to her first missed game. Entering Tuesday’s rematch with the Storm, the game that concluded the first half of the 2020 season, Nurse was shooting circa 20 percent from both the field and the three-point range.
Nurse has turned to a new route of coping, one that perfectly adheres to the Bradenton restrictions: meditation. The concept was previously embraced by league legend and defending champion Elena Delle Donne en route to her consecutive runs to the WNBA Finals. Nurse, who served under Delle Donne’s captaincy in Las Vegas’ All-Star Game last year, is the latest to embrace the method.
“I’ve used a lot of meditation over the last 20 days…just to kind of get away from where I am right now,” she said. “When I’m usually not here in the bubble, I usually just go and do something else. I hang out with my family, I hang out with my boyfriend and his family. I step away from basketball so I don’t have to think about it and it’s not the only thing on my mind.”
Nurse enjoys waking up to daily breakfast with her roommates and fellow New York veterans Kiah Stokes and Amanda Zahui B. But the bubble’s setup and health procedures have rendered her normal slump-coping methods temporarily extinct.
Health and safety protocols, well-intentioned as they may be, have forced an exclusive focus on basketball. It’s gotten to the point where Nurse said her dreams centered on going to the mall and getting her eyebrows done (though she reported that she was indeed able to get that done in reality).
Nurse has thus praised a healthy itinerary of meditation and reading, particularly the mystery genre, for helping her refocus and avoid the potential toxicity of social media, which contains “a lot of performance reports from people that don’t know anything about your game”.
“There’s no place for me to step away from (basketball) and be somewhere else,” Nurse said. “I’ve turned to meditation. I do it before the games, I do it when I’m sitting around doing nothing.”
Her method has the approval of Liberty head coach Walt Hopkins.
“If somebody’s struggling with the mental aspect of the game, and, as we know, shooting is a very mental component of basketball, I think meditation makes a ton of sense,” Hopkins said of Nurse’s strategy. “I think clearing your mind is key. She’s taken thousands and thousands of shots. Her body knows how to do it. Right now, I think it’s very possible that meditation is a perfect response. She really, really wants to contribute in (shooting) consistently. She’s contributing in other ways, but this is one she really holds her hat on. I’m proud of her.”
The more things changed for Nurse, though, the more they stayed the same. As the shots have struggled to fall, Nurse has created new ways to contribute on the floor. In a close loss to Indiana last week, she managed to post Kia Nurse numbers on a very un-Kia Nurse day. She shot 4-of-15 from the field but reached 21 points through a dozen visits to the foul line, sinking all but one attempt. It marked the third time this season that Nurse shot at least eight freebies. Her 83 percent conversion rate is third amongst foul shooters who average at least five a game.
Nurse also grabbed a season-best six rebounds and dished out three assists in the Fever match-up.
“She’s still getting in her shooting in the gym. Every time we have option shooting, she’s there. She’s doing that work. The best in the world go through slumps. She’s still putting in the work,” fellow veteran Layshia Clarendon said of Nurse’s ability to impact the game in new ways. “She had a conversation with coach Walt on what else she can be doing when her shots aren’t falling. I think you saw it tonight, she had six rebounds, she had three assists, she got other people going…she just played with a lot of energy and hustle…she’s finding other ways to impact the game.”
Additionally, Nurse has turned to familiar faces from her sports-centric inner circle. Her parents, Richard and Cathy, played in the CFL and Canadian college basketball, respectively, while her siblings Tamika and Darnell have also made marks on hardwood and the ice (the latter is a defenseman for the NHL’s Edmonton Oilers). Nurse’s cousin Sarah is also a hockey player and her boyfriend John was a fellow University of Connecticut Husky, partaking in the team’s football endeavors.
One of the innumerable WNBA players representing Storrs, Nurse experienced just three losses in college. It took only six games to break that tally in the pros, as her rookie season saw the Liberty commence an active rebuild project. In a process made all the sourer by the costly injury to Sabrina Ionescu, the Liberty sit in the Bradenton cellar at 1-10. Tuesday’s matchup might’ve been seen as unfair by some standards, as a team consisting of six rookies had to battle the Seattle Storm juggernaut. The discrepancy was apparent in a 105-64 final score in Seattle’s favor.
Liberty brass has repeatedly stated that wins and losses will not be the ultimate barometer in 2020’s growth process. But repeated shellackings…six of their losses have come by double-figures…can take its toll on anyone.
That’s why Nurse has not only embraced meditation…but volunteered to reenter a game that was beyond saving.
As the Storm’s healthy lead only seemed to grow, the Liberty emptied their bench to allow various rookies and reserves some extra minutes during the fourth quarter. When the final frame moved past its midway mark, Nurse approached assistant coach Dustin Gray and asked for reinstatement.
While most of New York slept, Nurse officially cemented her role, and perhaps formed an undeniable legacy, as anything but a “baby” vet, the term she has used to describe herself as the one with experience in a roster full of rookies. The self-imposed reinsertion made her purely a veteran leader, plain and simple.
Over the final four minutes, Nurse tallied 12 points, nine of which came on a trio of triples. She also grabbed three rebounds to close things out. Nurse tallied 21 points overall, and her 6-of-12 performance from the field was her best shooting output of the season to date.
“It’s good to see her put up these numbers,” Leaonna Odom, one of the rookies, said. “I keep telling her every day that it’s going to come. I’m glad she got some balls to fall today and hopefully it continues into the next games.”
“At that point, it was just that you could go down fighting or you could go down not fighting. I knew that I had a lot of energy and that I could play as hard as I could,” Nurse said of her request for reinsertion. “I know it’s tough, especially as a rookie, to be on the court at that time and try to find something, something that works. I told Dustin that I wanted to go back in, I wanted to help (the rookies) out. I think, for me, it was just about being able to continue to impact the game. Tonight, it was trying to play as hard as possible.
“I think, by that point in the game, you’re showing your character, showing what you’re made of.”
Through peaceful and outspoken methods, Nurse is slowly starting to find her form and footing. It’s the type of excitement that can propel not only the Liberty’s second half in the bubble but their future prospects in 2021 and beyond as well.
If such a clobbering is the price to pay for the respective emergence and resurgence of Nurse as both a leader and a deep shooter, it may well be the most productive 41-point loss in the history of the WNBA.
“The one thing I love about this team from the beginning is how hard we fight,” Nurse said. “That’s to the very last buzzer.”
Geoff Magliocchetti is on Twitter @GeoffJMags