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Nick Nurse, who coached the Toronto Raptors to last year’s NBA title, loves Memojis

Nick Nurse says it didn't take him long to create his personalized Memoji, which he often uses in text messages. (Ben Margot/AP Photo)

As a championship-winning NBA coach, Nick Nurse knows how to communicate. Years ago while working in the minor leagues, Nurse took an online college course on interpersonal communication. Now, in his second year leading the Toronto Raptors, Nurse uses those lessons to reach his players.

He also occasionally uses Memojis.

“Yeah, I’ve gotten that before,” Raptors guard Fred VanVleet said about receiving a text message that displayed a cartoonlike version of his coach. “It’s funny and it’s weird all at the same time, once you start to peel the layers back.”

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The layers — and there are so many here — begin with these facts: Nurse is a serious and accomplished professional, the only coach in history to win a D-League title (now the G League) as well as an NBA championship.

He’s grown passionate about absentee voting and has recorded public service announcements that will air in Canada, urging American expats to register for the upcoming November presidential election.

He’s 53 years old.

And yet, Nurse likes to respond to lame jokes by texting back a customized snoring emoji.

“When you say something you think is funny, I just fall asleep on you,” said Nurse, whose Raptors face the Los Angeles Lakers on Saturday in their first game of the NBA restart in Florida. “Or I’m just confirming something with the thumb-up one. Those are the two I use the most.”

As the NBA season returns under a cloud of seriousness — coaches and players wearing face masks on the sidelines as well as using their platforms to spotlight social justice issues — there are reminders that this league is still an island of quirky individuals. Memoji Nick Nurse is one of them.

Much like anyone else with a newer iPhone — and a little too much free time on their hands — Nurse created an animated alter ego. He leaned into his casual off-the-court look, which includes the signature black Nike hat with his initials branded on the front. As a joke, one of Nurse’s former high school teammates airbrushed the “NN” logo onto his snoring Memoji.

How much time did he spend trying to perfect a virtual mini-me? Nurse says it took less than a minute.

“So when it first came out, I somehow got it up on the screen and I just [chose], you know: black hat, black glasses, goatee, you know, big ears,” Nurse said, laughing. “And I was there! That was it!”

During the novel coronavirus pandemic, when the league screeched to a halt, NBA coaches could no longer connect with their players on the sideline or in the locker room. So while in quarantine, cellphones replaced clip boards as their most important instrument.

Back in April, Orlando Magic Coach Steve Clifford described the “texts and calls” to players while socially distancing. However, Washington Wizards Coach Scott Brooks said he would text rather than place the infrequent call — because, well, good luck in getting a player to answer his phone. Same goes for Utah Jazz Coach Quin Snyder who said he uses the Tapback feature of an exclamation point as a quick reply to acknowledge a message.

But these 50-somethings aren’t exactly the emoji type.

“If I want to irritate my daughter, I will send her some emojis,” Brooks said, employing dad joke humor. “She thinks I’m too old for those.”

“I’m still trying to figure out email,” Clifford said, exaggerating the breadth of his tech illiteracy.

Nurse, however, is the exception.

An examination of his text thread with Raptors swingman OG Anunoby would yield evidence of his Memoji usage. He also prefers to send his personalized thumbs up Memoji as a response to messages from team president Masai Ujiri and General Manager Bobby Webster. VanVleet says he received one of those on Father’s Day.

Still, the coach of multimillionaire stars can read a room.

“I’ve probably sent a few of my players one, but I don’t see any on Kyle’s here,” Nurse said while scrolling through exchanges with veteran point guard Kyle Lowry. “Me and Kyle are like all business. We talk about what we need to talk about and we move on.”

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Emoji users like Nurse tend to be agreeable, sociable and emotionally intelligent, displaying the ability to understand their own emotions and express them appropriately while also understanding other people and how they respond, according to Amanda Gesselman, associate director for research at the Kinsey Institute.

In 2019, Gesselman and a team of researchers published a study on emoji and human connection, particularly as it relates to courtship. Since texting limits sensory information, communicators use emoji to express affect — anyone who watches Nurse’s facial expressions on the sidelines knows just how colorful he can be. Furthermore, Gesselman discovered underlying traits in all people who frequently send emoji, whether it is a Romeo looking for love on a dating app or an NBA head coach who simply wants to connect with his players or team management.

“People who are using emojis more often do understand emotions better, they do understand how to connect with people better,” Gesselman said. “Consciously or otherwise, they’re using them in sort of strategic way.”

To VanVleet, his coach’s texting patterns make sense once you begin to understand Nurse.

Last summer, he jammed with a Canadian band during his post-championship victory tour.

When Kawhi Leonard announced his intention to leave Toronto and sign with the Los Angeles Clippers, Nurse was busy watching the performance of a Prince impersonator in Las Vegas, and he didn’t leave his seat even after the news broke.

One of the crimson-colored suits he has worn on the sidelines has the name “Thelonious Monk,” a personal favorite of his, stitched inside the jacket.

For all of his basketball gravitas and beneath the layers of what you’d might expect in an NBA head coach, Nurse remains a free spirit.

“Nick is an older guy. He doesn’t act like it, he doesn’t look like it, but when you really start to get into it, it’s funny. He plays the piano. He plays the guitar. He sings. He likes art,” VanVleet said. “He’s just trying to become this Renaissance man and he’s still cool enough to use a Memoji and take the time out to make it look like himself and all of that weird stuff. He’s not out of touch.”

Although Nurse grew a beard during quarantine, he didn’t update his Memoji to reflect the new look. Just like other things, Nurse doesn’t take his animated self too seriously.

“It’s supposed to make you smile, man. Hopefully,” Nurse said.

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