From Dime #69: Steve Nash – The Lone Ranger

Now that Steve Nash has been formally introduced as a Laker, his time in Phoenix has finally closed its final chapter. Luckily, we had the chance to hang with Nash in the desert during his final year with the Suns and get a glimpse into how he plans to keep going as a player. The following story was printed in Dime #69

Steve Nash was never just a basketball player. Back-to-back NBA MVPs didn’t make him different. A cultured, spirited, hockey-loving Canadian in an American-dominated game made him different. Now at 38 years old in a young man’s world, Nash is again unique. He’s still dominating when everyone thought it was impossible.

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White walls and the forest of bright lights hit like a car’s high beams. But there is one giant green screen, red and black cables snaking along the floor, a dirt-colored carpet and one black stool. Outside, it’s one of those early January Arizona days where the sun burns but it feels only 50 degrees in the shade.

Inside, nearly the only sound comes from the humming computers. “Throw a pen at me if you need something,” a woman tells me.

In the center of it all is a regular guy with celebrity hair. He has on dark blue jeans and an unbuttoned black polo shirt. A makeup artist parts that famous long black hair down the middle. This regular dude might tell you he was still wide-eyed seeing Robert De Niro and Harvey Keitel walk into a restaurant once, too nervous to go introduce himself. But he’ll also tell you fans need limits. Asking for autographs at dinner is always a bad time. But gawking for a signature while someone is in a bathroom stall getting their business done is even worse. He knows.

“I don’t think of myself as a celebrity,” the two-time NBA Most Valuable Player will say later. “It doesn’t sound right to think in those terms.”

The world of Steve Nash, sitting in a room with dozens of people; filming a commercial for the Dove Men Plus Care “Journey To Comfort” campaign that eventually airs during March Madness; on a resort aptly called The Sanctuary Hotel, which sits in the belly of one of Scottsdale’s sun-kissed mountains; in the opening weeks of his 16th NBA season; a man who went from unwanted in Victoria, British Columbia to undervalued in Dallas to beloved and finally to deserted in Phoenix, who tried ballet twice this summer just because he can, is trying to explain the unexplainable. He’s trying to explain his life.

Nash’s unlikely basketball story was never just about the accolades (eight All-Star selections) or the numbers (closing in on 10,000 career assists). As he heads into the summer of free agency that may define his final years in the NBA, we’re left to pick up the pieces and determine how this all happened.

A man with dreadlocks and a small notepad in hand tweaks his interviewee’s interest by asking how insanely, incredibly, unexpectedly crazy it was that the kid who didn’t even get ESPN growing up in Canada led the world’s greatest basketball league in total assists last season at 38 years old.

Nash chuckles at the man and says, “Is it really that crazy?”

Eli Pasquale might think so. He was Nash before Nash, a 6-1, superstar Canadian point guard who dominated at the University of Victoria. Drafted by the Seattle SuperSonics in 1984, he lasted only three preseason games.

One year during Pasquale’s summer basketball camp, the Canadian legend was giving the teenager Nash a ride home, eventually blurting out, “If you wanna play in the NBA, you need to decide right now.”

Really? Right now? But I’m not even the best athlete in my family. It’s true. Ask Steve and he’ll even admit it. His brother Martin was the better athlete, more gifted, quicker, faster, and stronger. He’s only 5-10 but damn, he could score. Five times as a high school senior, the gunner broke 50 points. But he marched to his own beat. Nash compares him to Allen Iverson.

Nash worshipped Pasquale, and so he couldn’t do anything but listen. Still, ever since he began playing with his hands instead of his feet, and on the hardwood instead of the ice, his goal had always been to play in the NCAA Tournament, to “become a real college basketball player someday.” This all started in the eighth grade. Nash’s friends played basketball so he decided to try it too.

He had seen his father’s athletic dreams die, the man who used to come to Nash’s games and stand on the sideline, busting out in his deep British accent, “C’mon ref, you must be joking!” John played semi-pro – “conference football” – in England, earning $100 every Saturday. Yet even though father and son still meet for spirited games of tennis, John wasn’t a crazy competitor or stubborn to the core. That was more like Nash’s mother, Jean.

So it wasn’t until after his sophomore year at Santa Clara College that Nash truly believed he could go where Pasquale never could. Playing in the World Championships for Canada, he left such an impression that people started talking. Scouts started calling. When Nash got back to campus, one of the assistant coaches started repeating what others were saying: Steve Nash was a future pro.

“I realized with two more years left in college, I was like ‘I’m really think I’m gonna be able to do this,'” says Nash. “That was the point.”

It boiled over on a plane ride back to Santa Clara after a pre-draft workout in 1996. Nash had worked out for 12 teams, and had impressed enough that the Phoenix Suns would eventually select him with the No. 15 pick in one of the most loaded draft classes of the last 25 years.

And yet on the back of that plane, Nash wasn’t thinking about what was to come. The tears flowed as he remembered the daily grind, from his first word, “Goal!” with his arms raised, to the 30 colleges who never responded when his high school coach sent tapes, to just a few months previously when he vanished from the basketball team’s apartment at Santa Clara on Selection Sunday, sprinting four blocks because he had just found out the Broncos would be in the NCAA Tournament. He didn’t know why he was running, was simply high on adrenaline and didn’t know what else to do.

“It was an emotional process every day to get to the top,” Nash says.

It still is. As part of the star-studded ’96 Draft class, Nash has seen players like Antoine Walker, Stephon Marbury and Peja Stojakovic come and go, and yet he’s averaged at least 9.7 assists a game in every season since 2004. Even with an ailment like spondylolisthesis, where a vertebra slips out of place, he’s found a perfect balance between improvement and sustaining what he already has. Nash first hurt his back in Dallas, and actually credits it with making him take better care of his body.

Now he doesn’t eat any processed or synthetic sugars. He eats fruits, vegetables and fish. No bread. No pasta. No wheat. Barely any dairy. Nash jokes he’ll have Mexican food, “just no tortillas and cheese. Still got my avocadoes, my black beans, my eggs, my salsa. It’s still pretty good.”

“At the end of the day, he’s worked for everything he has,” teammate Jared Dudley adds. “He’s in the gym. He works on soccer when he goes to aerobics. He’s probably in the best shape out of anyone on our team.”

Nash survived by evolving. Even his celebrated hair has transformed over the years. Long locks past his chin. Grotesque sideburns. It was bleached for a time. Growing up, he was a big Kid N’ Play fan, and for a while even tried a high and tight cut.

“I’ve had a lot of pretty bad looks over the years,” he jokes, “but you gotta embrace it.”

It didn’t surprise anyone that when last summer’s lockout hit, Nash didn’t really play basketball. He tried ballet twice instead. With so many NBA players defining themselves through a ball and a hoop, the time off killed them. But for Nash, it was a welcomed break.

He went to music concerts. At a stop on the Rock the Bells tour, he found himself on stage with Nas. Another time at a Lil Wayne concert, Nicki Minaj was performing and was in the midst of picking someone from the crowd to join her onstage. Wayne jumped up right away, pointing feverishly at Nash, who was brought out from the side of the stage to enjoy a lap dance from the hip-hop queen.

“When basketball becomes your job,” Nash says, “you don’t need your friends to like basketball.”

Nash traveled. He spent time with his children. And he worked with his film production company. The plan is to ultimately become an agency that writes, shoots and edits spots themselves. They’ve already done a documentary – “Into The Wind” – for ESPN’s acclaimed 30 for 30 series. For Nash, filmmaking won’t be some post-retirement hobby. It already is a part of his life.

“I do thrive off it,” he says of his unique schedule. “I enjoy lots of different things, and I enjoy the diversity of doing different things so I don’t get stale.”

As always, he played soccer in New York City, and of course a little hockey. Back when they were both in Phoenix, Nash constantly amazed his former teammate Joe Johnson. The Atlanta All-Star remembers Nash dribbling with his feet from one end of the court to the other before kicking the ball into the hoop. Sometimes before practice, they would go out to the court and find the hockey ice still there. With the training staff freaking out, Nash would start skating around, hitting the puck and pulling off tricks.

“That’s something that I’ve never seen before,” Johnson says. “His coordination is crazy good.”

Eventually, as Halloween turned to Thanksgiving and there was still no NBA basketball outside of the occasional summer league showcase, Nash’s itch returned. While Phoenix stumbled out of the blocks once the season began on Christmas, working newcomers like Shannon Brown and rookies like Markieff Morris into the rotation, the point guard was still masterful.

In January, he averaged 16.1 points on an incredible 58 percent from the field. But for the first half of the season, the on-court product felt inconsequential, and was overshadowed by the future. Where would Nash be traded? The Free Steve Nash movement became an Internet phenomenon, for as great a year as Nash had, many expected him to leave by the trade deadline.

The Suns are in transition. Even at their best, no one could expect more than a quick, first-round exit next season. Whereas players like Johnson, Amar’e Stoudemire and Shawn Marion once flanked him, last year Nash played the godfather role for a group of guys who had yet to find their niche.

Some think New York is a possible destination. They desperately need a floor general, and it’s a summer home to Nash. Dallas is rumored. He has roots there. Perhaps even Miami. Nash has maintained he would listen to any pitches coming from South Beach.

“You’re talking about a two-time MVP,” Johnson says. “Wherever he could go, I’m sure he could have an amazing impact right now and help turn something around.”

But as Dwight Howard flip-flopped and Carmelo Anthony coach-swapped, Nash stayed eerily quiet, content to play out the season in Phoenix and make a decision on his future this summer as an unrestricted free agent.

“I owe a lot to my teammates,” Nash says. “I’d hate to say, ‘I don’t want to play here anymore. I don’t want to play with you guys anymore. I wanna go to a contender.’ That doesn’t… feel right with me.”

Towards the end of March, Nash did finally admit the obvious on “The Dan Patrick Show”: the Suns would have to upgrade their roster to keep him around. But at this point, Nash’s future is still too cloudy to predict.

“That summertime is a long summer,” says TNT’s Kenny Smith. “It’s a long summer. It’s hard to project what franchises are thinking or who wants to bring him in. It depends on what happens in the playoffs.”

Sometimes, as Nash says, you have to take your “medicine” during a down year, and for the three-time All-NBA first Teamer, it’s not even about the comfort of Phoenix. It’s about loyalty. Nash is really the only link left from the glory years, and even with the once formidable “Seven Seconds Or Less” offense treading water, just eighth in the league in scoring this season, the Suns still nearly made the playoffs. After being blown out by the Lakers in mid-February despite Nash’s 17 assists, Phoenix sat at a disappointing 12-19. They finished a surging 33-33 with castoffs like Dudley, Channing Frye and the former Olympian Michael Redd.

“I think they do a great job of putting the right players around him,” the Clippers’ Chris Paul says. “He’s one of the great probers in the league in finding guys.”

It will always revolve around Nash. When he was on the court in 2011-12, the Suns scored nearly eight more points every 100 possessions, and he’s helped turn 6-11 Marcin Gortat, a career backup, into one of the NBA’s best young centers.

“He makes winning plays out there and doesn’t care if he scores,” Minnesota’s Kevin Love says. “A selfless player. He’s been around – I don’t even know how many years now – but he continues to set up guys, making scoring passes and a guy that is the leader.”

Nash finished second in the NBA in assists at 10.7 a night, and scored 12.5 points a game on a blistering 53 percent from the field, tying the highest of his career. At 38, Magic Johnson, Oscar Robertson, Isiah Thomas and Clyde Frazier were all retired. Gary Payton was a ring-chasing backup shooting 39 percent.

Yet Nash is so good at this age that Portland’s LaMarcus Aldridge admits you might know what’s coming, but you still can’t stop it. The league’s reining MVP Derrick Rose, says with a chuckle, “I don’t even think I’ll be able to play at the age of 38.”

“It’s unprecedented really,” adds Oklahoma City’s Derek Fisher. “Maybe John Stockton is one of the few guys in history I can remember that was able to do it for so long for so great.”

But Stockton never won an MVP, much less two. And he wasn’t pacing the NBA in assists while approaching 40 years of age. While the former Jazz point guard was credited with dictating Utah’s style of play for nearly two decades, Nash helped change the culture of the entire league.

“He’s the type of guy where he plays basketball for everybody,” says former Knick and current free agent Renaldo Balkman. “He gives you all he’s got. He’s one of those guys who plays until he can’t stand no more, until he’s out of breath.”

But what’ll last won’t be the shots, the games or the awards. Nash will remember the relationships, the people. He’ll remember Raja Bell, Leandro Barbosa and Grant Hill, his three favorite teammates. He’ll remember the contenders he nearly quarterbacked to championships in the desert.

“It was the best time of basketball in my life,” says his former teammate, Boris Diaw. “It was so easy to play with Steve. He just makes the game so easy.”

He’ll remember the embarrassing first moments in Dallas. Nash was traded to Texas in 1998, signed a big contract, and everyone there wanted to know, who is this little Canadian?

Early in his opening season as a Maverick, Nash missed his first eight shots in a game against Houston. After that, every time he touched the ball – which as a point guard is every trip up the floor – the fans booed relentlessly.

Nash glanced into the stands and spotted his brother Martin, the same guy who grew up carefree and easy, cocky almost to a fault. Martin was laughing his ass off.

“He showed me this was no big deal,” recalls Nash. “Nobody’s hurt. Nobody’s dying.”

Three seasons later, Nash was an All-Star averaging 17.9 points and 7.7 assists, and the Mavs were a perennial playoff team.

He’ll remember arriving on Santa Clara’s campus in 1992, and promptly getting destroyed every day in practice by junior point guard John Woolery. Nash couldn’t bring the ball up court, couldn’t even get it past midcourt, and was getting ripped like someone had a personal vendetta against him.

“Was I absolutely crazy to think I could play in the NBA?” Nash remembers thinking.

Later that season, he became the MVP of the West Coast Conference tournament, and helped clinch one of the biggest victories in school history, an upset in the NCAA Tournament’s first round over No. 2 seed Arizona.

But speaking on a journey as if it’s over, even if it is closer to the end than the beginning, is still somewhat condescending. Even in 2012, Nash’s influence is so large that after Jeremy Lin hung 28 points and 14 assists on the Mavericks in a mid-February Sunday matinee, Jason Kidd admitted later the Knick point guard, “looks a little bit like Steve Nash out there.”

“That says a lot about someone’s legacy,” Fisher says. “It’s not only what their accolades are and what their success is individually but what is it they leave behind or pass to other people. That’s what a great legacy is about and I think that’s what he’s done.”

Above the rust-colored hills, the light drains. The once blue sky is now graying. Soon it turns black. But the NBA’s best actor is inside belching out fake laughs, and it seems 10 times harder than knifing through a trap off the pick-n-roll and hitting a floater off one leg over a seven-footer. Maybe that’s the point. Soon, Nash is hooting at his own fake laughs and soon the people at Dove Men tell him they got it perfectly.

“What would this guy tell the guy back at Santa Clara?” someone finally asks Nash as the camera crew starts rounding up their gear.

It doesn’t take him long to answer.

“Just keep going.”

How long can Nash stay at an elite level in L.A.?

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