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.
The NBA is known, fairly or not, for superstars who roll five deep; 20-something moguls in tint-glass Maybachs who travel with handlers and hangers-on. But when Nash shows up for a meal in Manhattan, he arrives on foot and on his own at a diner he selected. Clad in his permanent off-the-court ensemble – baggy gym shorts and a sleeveless tee – Nash is unadorned by tattoos or diamonds or even a watch.
The effect is austere, even by Canadian standards. Nash is entirely in character. At the press conference to announce his return to Phoenix as a free agent in 2004, he wore a pair of golf shoes, the only non-sneakers he owned.
"Sorry if I kept you," he begins (he is three minutes late), "but I've got two babies at home I have to deal with." He laughs. "Just try getting anywhere on time."
That this on-court assassin is a nice guy off the floor is common knowledge. Still, the sudden sense of him as a stay-at-home dad puts me on my heels. He has jogged here from Tribeca, the Manhattan neighborhood where he spends summers with his wife Alejandra and their three-year-olds Bella and Lola. Sightings of Nash pushing the twins' double stroller are as common as delays at the Holland Tunnel.
He has taught himself Spanish and speaks it fluently at home; Alejandra, who's from Paraguay, came to New York as a teen and had no idea who Nash was when they met in 2001. Before and after they hooked up, the tabloids had their sights on Nash's romantic life, connecting him to Elizabeth Hurley and singer Nelly Furtado (he met Furtado once; she included him in a lyric). He dismissed the gossip curtly, and you have no trouble believing him. Nash loathes celebrity, calling it something "to distract the bored from their nothingness."
In person Nash is fine-boned, even delicate, and seems shorter than his listed six-three. At rest his feet tap, his fingers drum lightly, and his eyes, deep-set opals, sweep the room.
Though he opted not to join the Canadian national team for their qualifying tourney for the 2008 Olympics (he is still a folk hero for leading his country to the quarter-final round in 2000), Nash has had a busy summer. In July he opened a $5 million, 38,500-square-foot gym in Vancouver in partnership with Leonard Schlemm, a co-founder of 24 Hour Fitness. He staged his third annual Steve Nash Charity Classic in Vancouver, a two-day event that raised hundreds of thousands of dollars for children's health and after-school programs, and through the foundation his sister helps run, he contributed to a pediatric wing for a hospital in his wife's native Paraguay.
He is intellectually curious and broadly read, and he's unafraid to speak his piece. He was the first NBA star to oppose the Iraq invasion, wearing a shirt to the 2003 All-Star Game that read NO WAR – SHOOT FOR PEACE. "We were heading off to fight, and Bush hadn't made his case. I thought that was something worth pointing out," he says now. "I took a lot of shit for it but got 10 times more feedback from people who were glad someone said it."
Above all, Nash feels strongly about addressing global warming; in fact, his interest in opening the Vancouver gym rested largely on it becoming LEED-certified. (The Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design certification reflects the most rigorous eco review in North America.) "We can't wait for science to bail us out," he says of climate change. "We have to do the little things every day."
When he's not playing soccer with pros in Central Park or flying to the U.K. to cheer on his favorite club, Tottenham Hotspur, he travels the world broadly, alone or with friends, to ground himself in cultures. But ask him about his accomplishments on the court, and he's less forthcoming.
"All I've done is rush the ball up and try to make it fun for the guys I play with," he says. "Any credit goes to them and Coach [Mike] D'Antoni, who believed in this style of play and never wavered."
I try again. The beauty of the game had dimmed since the heyday of 'Showtime' in the '80s, when Magic ran the fast break. Then Nash signed with Phoenix as a free agent in '04, and suddenly the Suns were posting 60, 70 points by halftime and taking back cuts from Picasso's playbook. (Phoenix is 177–69 since Nash signed and has led the league in scoring each of the past three years.)
"Oh, well, if you're asking how I see things, um, actually, the truth is, I don't know. It's mostly instinctive." This, of course, is nonsense: Nash knows exactly what he's doing, having worked so hard to make the risky look routine.
Nash was raised in Victoria, British Columbia, the oldest child of two ex-athletes. His father John, a retired marketing manager for a credit union, had played semi-pro soccer, first in England and then in South Africa. Jean, a former special-ed teacher, was a first-rate netball player who gave birth to three soccer players. Nash's sister Joann grew up to be the captain of the women's team at the University of Victoria, and his brother Martin is a star midfielder with the Vancouver Whitecaps in the United Soccer Leagues. But none of them worked as slavishly at it as Steve.
"I remember him almost fainting on the grass in our yard after juggling a soccer ball with his feet 625 times," says John. "At 10 years old he drilled harder than the pros do. Steve just had this drive that didn't switch off."
Nash learned, at a tender age, that it's more fun to set up goals than to score them. Even in club soccer he was bending the ball wildly to get it through or around defenders and training himself to think one play ahead rather than chase down the ball with other players.
"I got that from Gretzky, who never fought for the puck because he knew where it would bounce off the boards," says Nash. "It's almost metaphysical: The ball finds the best player, partly because the other players want him to have it."
By 13 he was brilliant at both soccer and hockey and positioning himself for a lucrative career at either. (Bruce Arena, the coach of the New York Red Bulls, says that Nash could play right now in Major League Soccer.) But then Nash discovered the NBA on Canadian TV and fell hard for Magic and Jordan, though the player he locked in on was Isiah Thomas.
"He was the smallest guy out there," says Nash, "but wasn't afraid to take on big men, and he had eyes in the back of his head." Nash, who didn't grow much till he turned 15, cut back on his two best sports to take hundreds of jumpers a night in the school yard next door. "He dribbled a ball everywhere he went," says John, "even a tennis ball." "Nothing he does athletically is all that extraordinary," says Martin of his brother. "What's extraordinary is how hard he worked to get it down."
His high school coach sent 30 letters and tapes to recruiters at U.S. universities, but the only Division-1 school to offer him a scholarship was tiny Santa Clara, in northern California. Nash returned the kindness by putting the Broncos on the map, taking the fly-speck program to March Madness in the spring of 1993 and shocking top-ranked Arizona. Despite rewriting the school's record book, Nash was chosen 15th by the Phoenix Suns in the 1996 NBA draft, which makes him the lowest-drafted MVP winner in the history of the NBA.
But the Suns, a muddled team that could not scout its own talent, traded Nash off to Dallas two years later. There he connected with another marked-down import, a gawky German beanpole named Dirk Nowitzki. Bonding over soccer and their 'Dumb and Dumber' haircuts, Nash and Nowitzki revived the dreadful Mavs with the nastiest pick-and-rolls this side of Utah. They led the team to the playoffs regularly, became All-Stars together, and might, with some tweaking, have racked up a title or two. But Mark Cuban, the self-styled genius who bought the club in 2000, blogged that he knew better, letting Nash, whose greatest weakness was his "kamikaze spirit," hit the free-agent market. Three years, two Division titles and a few team scoring titles later, and the only thing that Nash lacks has also eluded Cuban: the NBA championship.
It's 3 AM after a tough, tough loss, and we're on the team bus. Suddenly Steve's belting Motown songs to pick the team up," says Suns coach D'Antoni. "He doesn't raise his voice or jump in guys' faces, but boy, he gets 'em ready to play. He's out there every day, doing extra shooting and running himself ragged to get guys the ball. When your superstar's your hardest-working guy – by far – well, then you've got a chance to do something special." As far as D'Antoni is concerned, if the Suns can't bring the championship to Phoenix, it won't be because Nash loses velocity. D'Antoni, who says Nash has "at least five or six years left," is sanguine about their title chances. "The escalator's still going up for us, and no one's earned a title more than Steve."
In retrospect Nash and D'Antoni were a movement waiting to happen, a pairing of contrarian minds ready to shake things up. D'Antoni, an ex-NBA point guard who traveled to Italy to keep playing, got his shot at coaching in Milan and was later hired by the Suns seven months before Nash signed on.
"I say this with the utmost respect for Mike, but he let it happen more than he made it happen; he allowed me to run the show," says Nash. "Most coaches haven't got the guts for that, or they try it for a week, and it looks ugly, so they scrap it. But I can't help it. I have to run, and Mike, to his credit, said, 'Faster.'"
D'Antoni chuckles when I quote Nash back to him. "Well, I did have my style, and we were going to play it, but I got the best guy on the planet to run it for me. As for who's the brains here, hell, I'm retiring the day Steve does, so no one figures out if it was him or me."