The Greater One: Steve Nash
September 22nd, 2012
Victoria’s Steve Nash is one of only ten NBS players who have won the league’s MVP award back-to-back – but there’s much more to him than that.
Novelist and ardent sports fan Mordecai Richler once described Wayne Gretzky as the dullest man he ever met. No one could say the same thing about Steve Nash.
While literally looking up to 95% of the players in the National Basketball Association, Victoria’s Steve Nash — Canada’s other “great one”—has ascended to almost unimaginable heights as the thinking man’s basketballer.
Last season Nash, at six-feet-three-inches, became only the third guard in NBA history to win the league’s Most Valuable Player Award in two successive seasons, in the company of Michael Jordan and Magic Johnson. Now having his best statistical season, Nash is on track to win his third consecutive MVP award.
The third coming of Steve Nash, the man sometimes called Hair Canada, has resulted in two new books, Jeff Rud’s Steve Nash: The Making of an MVP (Penguin Puffin) and Steve Nash (Heritage), a photo-laden tribute by Paul Arsenault and Peter Assaff.
Based on the latter, here are some of the highlights from Steve Nash’s remarkable rise to fortune, fame, respect, family life and philanthropy.
Born in Johannesburg on February 7, 1974, Steve Nash and his younger brother Martin Nash—a starting midfielder for the league champion Vancouver Whitecaps—were raised in the Gordon Head area of Victoria along with their sister Joann, captain of the UVic women’s soccer squad for three seasons. John and Jean Nash originally immigrated with Steve Nash to Regina because they didn’t want their children to be raised in a racist society fractured by apartheid.
Sports was in the genes. Before marrying John Nash, Steve Nash’s mother Jean had played netball at the national level in England. John Nash played professional soccer in South Africa. Idolizing Wayne Gretzky as a boy, Steve Nash initially excelled in hockey, lacrosse, rugby and soccer. John Nash recalls finding his ten-year-old son Steve in the backyard, exhausted after juggling a soccer ball more than 600 times with his feet.
At Mount Douglas High School, Steve Nash led his soccer team to a provincial championship and was named the most valuable player. “I’ve always thought soccer was a good explanation of who he is as a basketballer,” says Martin Nash. “Soccer is not a sport where you can be an individual. The role he played in soccer, playmaker, basically the point guard, is the kind of role he played in every sport, from rugby to lacrosse to hockey.”
The man who first placed a basketball in Steve Nash’s hands, Steve Gallo, was a Hillcrest Elementary vice-principal who ran a Wednesday evening league for 12-and-13-year-olds. “Within a month at fundamental basketball practice, you knew he was something special,” Gallo says, “[because] he got his biggest thrill setting up the other kids.” Whichever side Steve Nash played on usually built up a big lead, so Gallo would have to call a time out. “I’d switch him to the other side until they caught up, which they always did.”
At 13, when Steve Nash began playing basketball, he told his mother he planned to play professionally in the NBA. “I didn’t doubt him,” she says. Nash proceeded to lead Arbutus Junior Secondary to the provincial junior high championship in 1990; then led St. Michael’s University School to the senior high championship in 1992. For good measure, he also won his school’s chess championship.
Toronto Raptors’ commentator Jack Armstrong would later credit Nash with a “huge basketball I.Q., the type of genius-claim often made of Gretzky.” But Nash is clearly more sophisticated than Gretzky outside of sports, having earned a sociology degree at Santa Clara University.
New York Times writer Liz Robbins once asked Steve Nash why he was bothering to read Communist Manifesto by Karl Marx. “Nash explained,” she wrote, “as he picked up the manifesto, ‘only because I was reading the autobiography of Che Guevara and I wanted to get a better perspective.’”
After attending Santa Clara University in California on a scholarship, Nash was selected 15th overall in the first round of the NBA’s entry draft on June 26, 1996, becoming the second Canadian (after Leo Rautens, drafted 17th in 1983) to be selected during the first round. Others drafted before Nash that year were 18-year-old Kobe Bryant, Allen Iverson, Marcus Camby, Ray Allen and Stephon Marbury.
As only one of twelve Canadian players to make it to the NBA level, the little-known white kid from the Great White North was booed by Phoenix Suns’ fans from his draft day onward. “I was … well, I wouldn’t say maligned in my first year there,” he says, “but I was booed at home in my second year. That was a pretty amazing place to be in your career, to be booed at home as a young player, someone who is just trying to figure out what they can be. In some ways, it was great for me because it motivated me and taught me a lot about pro sports: Keep fighting and don’t take things so seriously.”
Although his playing time was limited— just ten minutes per game in his rookie season— Nash used adversity as grist for his competitive mill, improving in his second season prior to being traded to the Dallas Stars where the fans didn’t like him either.
After two seasons with a struggling Dallas team, Steve Nash didn’t realize his leadership potential until he played for Canada at the Sydney Olympics in 2000. Having earned a silver medal at the World University Games in 1991 when he was seventeen, Nash was primed to catch world attention when Canada met world champion Yugoslavia in its final game of the round-robin.
Having beaten Australia, Angola and Spain, but losing to Russia, Nash and his low profile teammates were not expected to outdo Yugoslavia, the odds-on favourite to meet the United States for the gold medal. Nash became a national hero, scoring a team-high 26 points, stunning the Yugoslavians for an 83-75 win, finishing at the top of Group B. Four days later, when Canada lost a heartbreaker to France in the semi-finals, Nash left the court in tears but he came home a winner.
Having amazed the basketball world with his tenacity and creativity, Nash was also inspirational behind the scenes. He had anonymously distributed three thousand dollars spending money for each of his teammates, via Olympic coach Jay Triano, and he had declined the Olympic organizers’ plan to have him fly first class. “If you have to buy a first class ticket,” he told Triano, “give it to one of the big guys.” Despite being a multimillionaire, Nash chose to sit in an economy seat for the duration of the 17-hour journey to Australia.
In 2002-2003, Nash established a new franchise record for free throws, sinking 49 consecutive attempts. After forming an important fraternal relationship with rising German-born star Dirk Nowitzki, Nash transformed the attack of the Phoenix Suns and became an NBA All-Star. He led the league in assists and was named the league’s Most Valuable Player for 2004-2005 as his team reached the NBA finals.
Having led the once-lowly Suns to the third-largest turnaround in league history, he became just the second MVP in the history of the franchise (after Charles Barkley, 1992-93). He was also the first point guard to win the award since Magic Johnson in 1990.
The following year Nash shot better than 40% from three-point range, better than 50% from the field, and he led the league in free throw percentages, shooting more than 92%. He won his second MVP award by a comfortable margin.
Steve Nash was for real. He didn’t win his first MVP because he was a white guy or because his main rival, Kobe Bryant, had been accused of sodomy and rape. For five years in a row, the team that had Steve Nash on it—whether it was Dallas or Phoenix—led the NBA in scoring.
Married in 2005 to his Paraguayan-born wife Alejandra (“Ale” to her friends), who formerly worked as a personal trainer in New York, Steve Nash is now the father of twin daughters, Lourdes and Isabella (“Lola” and “Bella”).
Although he once posed for GQ magazine, Nash is the antithesis of glam and he finds comments about his shaggy appearance absurd. He wore his hair long last year simply because his wife liked it that way. “I really don’t care about the response to my hair,” he says. “This is just how my hair is. I don’t take care of it, or comb it, or put anything in it …. When people comment on it, it is funny to me that it draws such attention. It makes me realize how insignificant that sort of thing is.”
Nash reputedly reads Dostoevsky and remains unusually candid, humble and free-thinking for a professional athlete. At the 2002 NBA all-star game he took a lot of heat for wearing a t-shirt with the slogan, “No war. Shoot for peace.” He is on record for opposing the American invasion of Iraq because no evidence of nuclear weapons was ever found.
When the B.C. youth basketball program was in trouble, following the transfer of the Vancouver Grizzlies franchise to Nashville, the Steve Nash Foundation, managed by Steve Nash’s sister, came to the rescue. Now the Steve Nash Youth Basketball League supports 8,000 young players in B.C.
As the host of an annual charity basketball fundraising game, held first in Toronto, then in Vancouver, Steve Nash and his foundation have raised more than one million dollars for charitable projects. Recently he and his wife succeeded in supplying modern medical equipment to Paraguay’s oldest teaching hospital, the Hospital of the Poor, in Asuncion, where a new post-operative pediatric cardiology ward has been created.
“We all love kids,” he says, “and feel their human potential and human resource is invaluable to society.” If any other sports superstar said that, cynics along the lines of Mordecai Richler would suspect it’s pure balderdash. But so far, we can believe everything that Steve Nash says. Off the court and on it, he has become, without intending it, one of the best ambassadors that Canada has ever had.
About the authors:
As a Times Colonist sports reporter, Jeff Rud wrote the first book about Steve Nash, Long Shot (Polestar, 1996; Raincoast 2002). Rud has also produced a basketball novel for middle-grade readers, In the Paint: South Side Sports (Orca 2005), and Canucks Legends (Raincoast) containing profiles of 75 players. Essays by journalists Archie McDonald, Tony Gallagher, Iain MacIntyre and Kevin Woodley accompany more than 300 photos.
Paul Arsenault previously wrote Sidney Crosby: A Hockey Story; Peter Assaff is a Rogers television talk-show host and play-by-play announcer.
Essay Date: 2007