Before the cheap shot that sent Steve Nash flying into the scorers' table; before the ensuing scrum, which featured lots of hard looks and hold-me-back theatrics but no actual punches thrown, or absorbed, in anger; and before the tone-deaf ruling by National Basketball Association commissioner David Stern to suspend two stars of the Phoenix Suns (a decision that cost the Suns a playoff series and a possible title) – before all of that there was this: Steve Nash, roughed up for 16 quarters by the San Antonio Spurs, had the ball in the final minute of game four, the score 104–98.
Guarded by Bruce Bowen, the great lockdown defender who'd kneed him in the groin in game three, Nash broke toward the baseline, Bowen chasing. Underneath the bucket Nash made the mistake of stopping his dribble, and San Antonio's big men sealed him off. He couldn't get a shot up, and his passing lanes were swarmed; the crowd boiled to its feet, sensing a turnover. But wait: Through the thicket of arms and legs Nash somehow spotted a blur at the free-throw line and delivered a behind-the-back, left-hand darter to the oncoming Amaré Stoudemire for a layin.
For an instant the world stopped dead on its axis, as it will to register astonishment. None of the nearly 19,000 on hand, or the millions more watching on TNT, could quite credit what had just happened.
Then life resumed, and on the very next possession, Nash outdid himself. He charged down the wing and passed behind his back through a maze of bodies. Once more the ball found Stoudemire in stride for a layup that helped seal the victory. The Spurs and their stunned fans sagged as if punched. How the hell? Fair question, and one that anybody who has had the pleasure of watching the two-time MVP in action asks himself, or the person nearest him, sooner or later. Time and place may change, but the outcome is usually the same: another play daunting for both its beauty and daring that no one in his right mind saw coming.
It has been this way for at least three years now, during which neither fans nor fellow players have been able to get their heads around the fact that Nash has been transforming their sport. Booed by Phoenix hoopheads as a "wasted" draft pick his first two years in the league, he has revived the NBA, morphing it from a walk-it-up, half-court grind to a fast-break air show with speed and meet-me-at-the-rim precision.
Indeed, for all Nash has accomplished as a paradigm-shifter, his reward is another round of questions. Will he ever win a championship with the deft but smallish Suns or get muscled out again in this big-man league? Did he make his move too late (Nash is 33 years old now), or is there enough in the tank for a title run?
Before you place your bets, consider two things: One, he wasn't supposed to be here in the first place, and two, he's made an art form of confounding expectations, seeing what will happen next before we do.