Steve Nash retired from basketball on Saturday. He did it in a long letter listing the people who’d made it all possible. It’s a reminder that while talent is given, it takes a village to pull it out of someone.
Because of a back injury, he hadn’t played in nearly a year. It didn’t dim his star. At 41, Mr. Nash had fully inhabited his imaginative space in NBA history. He was the skinny kid from Nowheresville (i.e. anywhere in Canada) who’d willed himself to the very top. He was the guy who’d outsmarted the game.
For generations to come, every sneaky-good player, everyone who ages into his skin, every guy playing chess in a checkers world, will be compared to Mr. Nash.
He represents the most potent idea in sports – that anyone can be a rock star if they try hard enough. It’s the Protestant work ethic on acid.
Part of the allure is that it isn’t true. What he managed is unrepeatable. He was the exception that proved the rule.
He went to Santa Clara, because it was the only U.S. college that would have him.
When he was drafted by Phoenix, Suns fans booed the choice. He was given away to Dallas. He became a regular, but the Mavericks didn’t want to give him a deal when the time came to do that. They figured that, at 30, he was already too old.So he went back to Phoenix and started what we now mean when we talk about his “career.”
What Mr. Nash did in his prime – roughly 2005-10 – was marry the cerebral with the kinetic. His primary gift as a player was that he thought at speed. That’s what the best players do in any sport. They slow and then bend time.
Planted inside the overaspirated engine that was the Suns offence, Mr. Nash was the coolant. He was the guy circling back out of trouble to have a little think, then diving in again. You always knew what he was about to do. You just couldn’t stop him. Because he knew you knew. And then he knew that you knew that he knew … He could go on like that a lot longer than you could. His game was an endless series of no-look passes – whether or not he was passing.
First and foremost, he was a revolutionary. Mr. Nash reimagined what a point guard could do, but also what he should. Take not just control, but responsibility. Make his teammates not only better, but also better than they deserved to be. Make the game as fun to watch as it is to play.
Take all the people who rank highest on the current ‘Oh, He Just Did What?!’ Meter – your Steph Currys, Kyrie Irvings and Russell Westbrooks. They are more than Mr. Nash’s heirs. They’re his interpreters. If you enjoy watching professional basketball because you find it exciting, you have Steve Nash to thank for that.
By NBA standards, he was a little person. Six-two. Narrow shouldered. Gristly. There was nothing natural about his athleticism.
When we call someone “inspiring,” what we’re saying is that they do something we can’t imagine ourselves doing. Mr. Nash was inspiring in a dogged way, day-by-day, trying to keep his body able enough to perform amidst a bunch of people who were born to play.
Some players make it look easy. Mr. Nash made it look hard. He brought realism to the nightly fantasy. He was the NBA’s Tolstoy.
He leaves as the game’s model of efficiency. In total, there have been nine seasons in which a player has shot 40/50/90 (Three-point percentage/Field-goal percentage/Free-throw percentage). Mr. Nash had four of them. He was just a few buckets short a couple of other times. He was a metronome on legs.
Those are the superlatives. It feels good to finally get them out of the way. We’ve been writing and rewriting Mr. Nash’s professional obit for years. It’s a way of congratulating ourselves. It’s difficult to think of another athlete the country has spent so much time worrying about, hoping for, defending and lionizing. Mr. Nash was our unlikeliest child, and our not-so-secret favourite.
In leaving, he cited his career highlight as the 2000 Sydney Olympics, which is so goddamned Canadian it makes you want to cry. Mr. Nash did.
Now the obvious conversation – Where does he fit on the Big List? Is he the greatest Canadian athlete of all time?
Greatness has three broad components – innovation, excellence and achievement. He has the first two nailed. He didn’t win, though.
Winning isn’t a fair criterion. They don’t let you draft your teammates. That doesn’t make it less relevant. Because of that, in NBA terms, he will always be one of the “one of” guys. One of the best. One of the most exciting. One of the trailblazers.
That’s for them down there. Up here, we’re freed to think in more nuanced terms.
Is Mr. Nash on the same level as a Bobby Orr? Or a Wayne Gretzky? Or a Donovan Bailey?
Those competitors won. They have that on him.
But though he’s done playing, Mr. Nash’s legacy is still spinning out. He put the national program on his back and dragged it into relevance. He is the North Star for a golden generation. His absurd ascent made basketball possible in Canada.
In a year (or, more likely, five) we’ll be competing in men’s basketball at an Olympics. Not just playing, but competing.
A medal would be astounding. A gold might rank as the country’s most impressive team feat on any stage. If it happens, you can trace a straight line back to Mr. Nash.
You can’t argue that any hockey players or track stars changed their game in the way Mr. Nash defined basketball in this country. They had the advantage of standing on one another’s shoulders. Mr. Nash dug his own foundation, and created a tradition from nothing.
We don’t yet know how influential he will have proved to be. Like Mr. Nash’s career, anything is possible.
So, is he the best we’ve ever produced?
Close. Perhaps not yet. But he still may be.
The Globe and Mail
Published Sunday, Mar. 22 2015, 8:21 PM EDT
Last updated Sunday, Mar. 22 2015, 9:17 PM EDT