STORRS - Kia Nurse was born into an athletic family of competitors.
“If you ever sat at the dinner table in the Nurse household you would think that all of us were insane,” the UConn women’s basketball team’s senior guard said.
Any discussion of the most competitive players to come through coach Geno Auriemma’s program would include Nurse. And it’s doubtful that Auriemma has ever asked the Hamilton, Ontario, native for extra effort because she has been invested 100 percent since day one.
UConn’s thank you to the Canadian Olympian for her efforts came last night as the top-ranked Huskies traveled to Toronto - about an hour from Hamilton - to face Duquesne in a homecoming game for Nurse at the sold-out Mattamy Athletic Centre.
“Ryerson University and their coach have done a tremendous amount of work to try to make it something special and Canada Basketball is in on it as well,” Nurse said before the game. “I’m excited to see my family and friends that will come out to support me. But I’m also excited for the kids that will come that get to see UConn play in person.”
Among her family expected to be at the game were her father Richard, who played football in the CFL for the Hamilton Tiger-Cats; mother Kathy, who played college basketball at McMaster in Canada; and older sister Tamika, who started her college career at Oregon before finishing and graduating from Bowling Green.
Her older brother Darnell was not be able to make it, as the NHL defenseman was in Edmonton as he and the Oilers hosted the St. Louis Blues.
The friends included a crowd of 2,500, which is capacity for the basketball arena in the old building once called Maple Leaf Gardens and the site of one of Nurse’s greatest triumphs, when she led Team Canada to the gold medal - its first - at the 2015 Pan American Games.
“To go home and see everyone and to be in a place where there is a Tim Horton’s, I’m excited for that,” Nurse said. “The reaction from the people at home has been amazing.”
She returns to the area where she got her start playing basketball on a team coached by her father.
Her sister, who is nine years older, was her role model growing up. Her admiration for her brother, who is 12 months older, grew through the years as he made his way up the ranks of youth hockey in Canada en route to becoming the first-round pick by the Oilers in the 2013 NHL Entry Draft.
Her growth as a player and person has been a total family affair.
“My sister had the attitude that every time she walked into the gym, you thought there was no one that was going to stop her,” Nurse said. “She had a competitive mentality and winner’s attitude of, ‘I’m going to do everything I can to help my team win today.’ I always looked up to that and wanted that.
“My brother was always absolutely incredible. He would be on the ice twice a day, in the gym twice a day, and he never looked tired. To see him achieving his dreams right now, the way he holds himself and the way he carries himself on a day-to-day basis is incredible. He’s a better person than hockey player. That says a lot for him.
“My mom is competitive, but the IQ part is from her. My dad is straight toughness, in your face There’s a competitive edge from them like, ‘Someone will to catch up to you if you don’t keep working, so compete.’”
Nurse went to high school at St. Thomas More Catholic. At 15, she debuted for Team Canada at the 2011 FIBA Americas U-16 event. She was 17 when she took part in an exhibition tour with the senior national team.
And it was in that summer of 2013 that the Huskies’ coaching staff found her, though Nurse had written on a seventh-grade “dream chart” that she wanted to go to UConn.
“I was down to a short list by the time they recruited me and I was with our senior national team for the first time,” Nurse said. “My dad called me and asked if I wanted to play in a tournament in Washington when I got home. I told him I wasn’t sure about that but he said, ‘Your friends are playing.’ OK, let’s go. They called so I thought, ‘I have to give them a chance because their track record speaks for itself.’ The Olympics was a big goal of mine and they produce Olympians.
“UConn was my third official visit and I had five planned. I cancelled the last two after I left here. I loved it here.”
She quickly connected with Auriemma, who, the previous summer, had coached the United States to Olympic gold in London.
“I think I was scared of him back when I was being recruited,” Nurse said with a laugh. “But hearing what he had to say and hearing how genuine he was, that was a big thing for me.
“He is always honest with you and is somebody that has an open-door policy. He genuinely cares about developing you not only as a player but as a person. The life lessons he would teach us on the court would translate to things that would help us in life.”
Last night’s game was her 120th played (she missed four a season ago with an ankle injury) at UConn. The Huskies’ record since her arrival is 121-2 with two national championships, three Final Four bids and three American Athletic Conference regular season and tournament titles.
A year ago, she reached the 1,000-point plateau and this season set a school record by making 12 straight 3-point shots. Through the first nine games she was averaging 15.6 points on 57.1 percent shooting from the floor and 54.3 percent from 3-point land, all career bests.
“I have grown so much here as a player and a person,” Nurse said. “All those people who saw me in high school are going to be really confused.”
But they’ll remember what she did at the Mattamy Athletic Centre on July 20, 2015.
Nurse torched a United States team led by her UConn teammates Breanna Stewart and Moriah Jefferson for 33 points in an 81-73 win in the Pan Am final. The Summer of Kia continued a month later when she led the Canadians to the gold medal and was the MVP of the FIBA Americas tournament in Edmonton, a victory that gave Team Canada its berth in the 2016 Olympic Games.
Her trip with the Huskies was her first time back to Mattamy since that magic night.
“So much happened that summer,” Nurse said with a smile. “For the first time, people in Canada were talking about women’s basketball. It was in the headlines, on social media. People were interested in us.”