Basketball nomad Kia Nurse tries to help Canada move a step closer to Tokyo

As a professional female athlete, Kia Nurse says she’s had to become a bit of a basketball nomad.

That’s why she traveled 20 hours across the globe from Australia to squeeze in a few days for an Olympic qualification tournament in Edmonton that begins Thursday. She’s trying to help Canada get a step closer to the Tokyo Olympics.

“You know these are cards that we are dealt. The life that we live as professional athletes on the female side,” the Hamilton, Ont.-born Nurse says. “You just make more money going overseas than you do being in North America.”

Nurse has racked up the air miles as well as the basketball miles this year. She played a full season in the WNBA with the New York Liberty from late May to early October, then flew to Australia to play professionally in Canberra over the winter.

“Our entire Olympic team does it,” she says of her Canadian teammates. “For us to make our livelihood we have to go overseas. For me, having two seasons is long but it is what it is. It’s just the way that female sports is right now.”

In the winter Nurse plays for Canberra in Australia, and in the summer for the New York Liberty of the WNBA. (Getty Images)

That’s why the day before she left to play in Australia, it was important for Nurse to be in Mississauga, Ont. to help announce food retailer Sobeys’ new partnership with the Canadian Olympic Committee as the official grocer for Team Canada. The company also has a sponsorship arrangement with the national women’s hockey team.

“It’s huge,” Nurse says of the sponsorship. “For us right now, especially in female sports, it’s a lot about visibility and representation. A young girl can’t be something she can’t see.”

She says a lot of people say all the right things about how they support women’s sports but there isn’t a lot of follow up.

“They love equality – they love it – they’ll say that, but they don’t put their money where their mouth is. So this [Sobeys’ announcement] is a prime example of doing that.”

Kia Nurse became a role model for female basketball in Canada after she helped the team win gold at the 2015 Pan American Games in Toronto.

“I think for us being able to play on home soil at the Pan Am Games and to be able to win and play as well as we did was a big opening for young people to see there’s a women’s side to our national team and they are really good,” she says. “It was great to see just how many young women were in the crowd and wanted to play basketball.”

Nurse is in Edmonton Nov. 14-17 for the Olympic qualification tournament. It is extra special because her brother, Darnell, plays hockey there for the NHL’s Edmonton Oilers.  (Her cousin, Sarah, also plays hockey for the national women’s team.)

“It’s pretty good that we are in Edmonton because obviously my brother will have games. My parents will come see both of us and we can kind of have our Christmas celebrations since I won’t be home for Christmas.”

Nurse says Darnell loves watching her play, like he did at the Pan Am Games.

“He’ll always joke and say I’m more famous than he is. But I don’t believe it,” she says. “For us it’s been a matter of so many years of growing up together and being competitive in absolutely everything that we do. It’s probably good we don’t play the same sports right now.”

Nurse, with trophy, celebrates her UConn Huskies’ national championship in 2016. (Getty Images)

Edmonton is step two of a new three-part Olympic qualification process for the Olympics. The top two teams in Edmonton move onto the final qualification tournament in February. Nurse will have to fly back and forth from Australia once again if Canada gets there. But she says its more than worth it.

The Olympics is something she has been thinking about for three years. At the Rio Games in 2016, Nurse was coming back from surgery and wasn’t in top shape. Team Canada’s loss in the quarter-finals still lingers for her.

Three years later she’s playing some of the best basketball of her career and was a WNBA all-star this past season. Nurse chalks it up to her experience at the University of Connecticut, one of the top teams in the U.S., and then playing day in and day out against the best players in the world in the WNBA.  

“Me from four years ago to me now is a completely different human being. Completely different person. I’m just more confident in everything that I’m doing,” she says.

Nurse is hoping to lead the women’s team this week and carry on the momentum for basketball in Canada. In June, the Toronto Raptors won the NBA title and many people went hoop crazy.

“Right now, I think basketball in Canada is continuing to grow. People are paying attention to it and that’s huge for us.”

With Canada ranked a program-best fourth in the world, not making the Olympics would be a major disappointment.

“I think we feel in our own hearts that we can play with any team in the world.”

She adds, “For us, we want to be more than fifth in the world. We want to get on the podium [in Tokyo] and that’s a big goal for us. But we’ve got to get there first.”

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