November 3, 2022 

What Kia Nurse learned about herself on the long road back to basketball

A catharsis in one on-court scream

357 days. 8,568 hours. 514,080 minutes. That’s how long it took for Phoenix Mercury guard Kia Nurse to return to the hardwood.

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Since exiting game four of the 2021 Western Conference Semifinals against the Las Vegas Aces with a torn ACL, the road to recovery was tempestuous. Nurse did not suit up for the Mercury during the 2022 season. This was despite the Mercury never ruling out the possibility of her playing.

Let’s fast forward to September. The Mercury season ended and Nurse traveled to Australia with Team Canada for the FIBA World Cup games. Her first time in the gym was riddled with anxiety and uncertainty.

“Not having the opportunity to play because that was my goal was to come back and play in the WNBA season. That was difficult,” Nurse told The Next in a phone interview last month. “But I had to change gears mentally and say, this is now what you have to look forward to.”

Nurse then took me into her mindset as she braced herself for something very rudimentary for basketball players. “I think the big thing was like contact at first. I was really used to contact that I knew was coming right? One of the coaches was going to hit me when I was gonna go from my layup,” Nurse said. But in the game, everything is so unpredictable so I was a little bit more worried about that.”

The unpredictability loomed over Nurse as she stepped into Team Canada’s practice facility. She still wasn’t cleared for three on three basketball by the Mercury trainers and doctors. Luckily, the team had about 40 days to prepare for the first round of games. The work was about to get real.

“We took the first two weeks to kind of get into the places where we needed to to get cleared,” Nurse said. “First it was contact in the halfcourt, then we moved into three-on-three, four-on-four, then five-on-five. And you know, I think that was always interesting. So I would jump into practice on the five-on-five things, then I would learn the offense with my team.”

Learning the offense came with some hurdles, as Nurse needed to knock off some rust. Luckily, the University of Alberta in Edmonton basketball team allowed her to practice with them.

“So instead of my team practicing, they were off that day, I went into the gym, I played with the University team,” Nurse said. “It was really great to kind of just get my feel and get my flow back in. And then that night, I would go back and I would play three on three with people who came in and decided that they were willing to play with us. So my preparation was with the team, but at the same time it wasn’t. Once I got cleared for that, I jumped in with them in practice, then five and five in practice.”

After many games with the University of Alberta basketball team, along with Team Canada, Nurse made rapid progress to play in Australia. She was on a minutes restriction by the team and would be throughout the entire tournament. The restriction appeared to block her ability to catch up to game speed. Luckily, the two exhibition matches provided useful for ridding those in-game jitters.

“We had two exhibition games in Australia before the tournament started. And those were really for me, they helped me mentally kind of get back into the swing of the game,” Nurse said. “I thought it was a good, terrible tournament. Because those two games I could not hit a wide open layup, I was just thinking about everything too much.”

As the beginning of the tournament approached, her confidence garnered more and more traction. In her first official game against Serbia, she played 19 minutes and put up nine points on 4-for-9 shooting from the field.

During the game, she hit a shot that gave her that swagger.

“I hit it early in the game, it was an and-one and I kind of got a little bit undercut, and I landed and I was fine,” Nurse said. “And I like, hit the ground. And I just kind of screamed and I felt like that was like all of my bad days and all of the pain and all of the anger and the frustration that comes along with a rehab, like in one scream.”

The games rolled on and on throughout the tournament but a match against Puerto Rico told the basketball world that Nurse is indeed that player. The 2018 first round pick scored a team-high 17 points on 6-of-12 shooting, while knocking down four three pointers. On the other side of the globe sat Mercury head coach Vanessa Nygaard in her Scottsdale home. She was in pure elation over Nurse’s performance.

“I was watching that game. I was so happy I was jumping up and down and I touched [base with] her after the game. It was just so great to see her back on the court,” Nygaard said.

If we think about the game of basketball, it’s pretty simple. Put a round ball in a round hoop. In the middle of the quarterfinal match, the Canadian pro rediscovered her love for the game.

“After those first two exhibition games, I thought it was gonna take a while. But in all honesty, like, I just started to feel really good out there, I stopped thinking, I was just enjoying my time,” Nurse said. “And I think that was the big difference for me. And to see how I have gotten better as the games have gone on, and more comfortable just in my movements as the games have gone on.”

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Nurse brings many of the intangibles to the basketball court. Hard defense, grit and a physical presence force teams to never take their eyes off of her. Nygaard had a front-row seat to Nurse’s play style during the regular season when she was recovering from her ACL tear. Through the uncertainty, Nygaard provided the former all-star with some advice.

“I did give her the book ‘Atomic Habits’, because I do think our success is based on our habits. And I think it’s a great book. So I did give her that and said, you know, this, this is something I think could help you,” Nygaard said.

While continuing to explain more about the book, Nygaard reflected on her injuries during her collegiate and professional career. She suffered an ACL tear while on Stanford University’s college basketball team in 1998. Nothing can compare to the feeling of bracing the floor once again.

“It’s just a blessing to see her back out there, right? Good things happen to good people and I’m just so happy to see her back out there doing what she loves,” Nygaard said.

Written by Hayden Cilley

Hayden Cilley covers the Phoenix Mercury for The Next. He is currently pursuing a bachelors degree in Sports Journalism at the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism at Arizona State University.

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