Low Profile At High Speed

Feb. 13, 2005

By Mark Emmons
San Jose Mercury News

Yes, Steve Nash will admit, there are moments when the magnitude of what has happened will hit him. The improbability that he, of all people, would come this far.

Once upon a time, he practically had to beg for a college scholarship, and found Santa Clara as the only taker.

Now? He's all the NBA rage. The fashionable discussion is whether Nash might be worthy of this season's MVP award, potentially elbowing aside the usual suspects like Shaq, Duncan and Iverson. He's even credited with helping make fast-break basketball trendy again.

``Let's face it, I weigh 175 pounds,'' Nash said. ``Nobody could have predicted this with a guy like me.''

But we haven't reached the best part of The Nash Story.

He hasn't changed.

Growing fame, and a fat contract, haven't gone to his head -- and who could blame him if it did? But friends say the guy who leads the streaking Phoenix Suns into the Oakland Coliseum Arena tonight against the Warriors is the same person they knew in college. Right down to the thrift-shop wardrobe.

``The word I use a lot when I'm describing Steve is genuine,'' said Drew Zurek, a former Santa Clara teammate. ``He's stayed true to himself, and that basically tells you everything you need to know about him.''

In a league chock-full of image problems, Nash is an unpretentious superstar. He would rather talk about his twin baby daughters than being chosen to play in next weekend's All-Star Game. And a conversation with Nash includes words that are rare in the typical pro athlete's vocabulary -- such as ``thank you'' and ``please.''

Yet Nash is bemused by the notion he deserves high praise simply because he hasn't morphed into a jerk.

``I don't think it would be fun to go through life and not be yourself, not be nice to people and forget about friendships you've had forever,'' Nash said before scoring 33 points and handing out 17 assists in a 125-123 victory over Sacramento on Tuesday. ``I know my friends and family would still treat me the same, regardless of any success or failures I had.''

It has been mostly success.

And Nash is reaching new heights this season as the catalyst and leader of a run-and-gun Suns team that tops the league in scoring (109.7 points) and pure fun. The Suns' rise from just 29 wins last season to a 39-12 mark coincides with Nash's arrival from Dallas as a free agent.

So the point guard with the wet mop of hair just might fit the definition of most valuable player even if his numbers -- 16.3 points and a league-high 11.3 assists a game -- aren't those of a traditional MVP.

If you're surprised by any of this, take a number. The line forms right behind Nash.

To thine ownself be true

His tale is well-chronicled in these parts. Santa Clara Coach Dick Davey getting the grainy videotape of a skinny guard from Victoria, British Columbia. The clutch free throws in the NCAA tournament upset of Arizona as a freshman. Becoming only the third Bronco to be an NBA first-round selection.

But while Nash left campus in 1996, he has stayed part of the Santa Clara family. He remains in touch with Davey, has met with the current team twice in the past year and is tight with former teammates.

``Who can go through what he has, with everybody telling him how great he is, and not have it change you?'' asked Santa Clara teammate Kevin Dunne. ``But if anything, he's more humble. Steve spends more time talking about you and your life than talking about himself.''

In college he shared a house with five athletes, including current Seattle Mariner Randy Winn. The car-less Nash was infamous for bumming rides and scamming ways into the school cafeteria.

``He went from this situation of having nothing to having a lot almost overnight,'' Zurek said. ``Yet it's not like the guy has gone out and spent hundreds of thousands on a Bentley or Rolls-Royce.''

Or stopped thinking. At the All-Star Game two years ago, before the Iraq war, Nash created a mild stir by wearing a shirt that read: ``No War: Shoot for Peace.'' Just Steve voicing his honest opinion, friends say. A recent New York Times story that said Nash was reading ``The Communist Manifesto'' so he could better understand a biography of Che Guevara doesn't surprise them, either. Nash, who has a sociology degree, always was a voracious reader of wide topics.

One other thing: Those who knew him at Santa Clara always thought he would be a good NBA player. Davey said he could have been a pro athlete in several sports. (Nash captivated Phoenix teammates at a recent shootaround by performing soccer-style juggling tricks with a basketball.)

But possible MVP?

``That's a stretch even from what I expected,'' Davey said.

Big D now stands for Dad

Nash had intended to remain in Dallas, where he had developed into a star after being traded by the Suns in 1998. But the day the free-agent period began last summer, a contingent from the rebuilding Suns delivered a full-court press. Coach Mike D'Antoni, the guy Kobe Bryant idolized while growing up in Italy, wanted the Suns to run. Nash was a perfect fit for a young, athletic team.

The last word belonged to Amare Stoudemire.

``Consider me the closer as far as sales pitches go,'' said Stoudemire, who will join Nash and Shawn Marion in the All-Star Game. ``We needed him. If you've got a legit point guard, you can turn around a franchise.''

The Suns gave Nash a deal that could be worth almost $66 million over six years. Sentiment around the league was that the Suns overpaid for somebody going on 31 and perhaps vulnerable to break down, considering his racehorse mentality. Free-spending Dallas owner Mark Cuban must have agreed. He let Nash walk.

``I'm not really sure what happened between Mark and me,'' Nash said. ``He underestimated how hard I work.''

The way Nash has played, he might be underpaid. Give him too much space, and he'll unleash a deadly stop-and-pop jumper or penetrate to the basket. But his real gift is an uncanny knack for finding the open man. Davey said it's as if Nash has eight eyes.

``Steve knows where everybody is on the court,'' added the Suns' Quentin Richardson. ``It's just a sense of calm when he's out there controlling the team. Just look at what happened when we didn't have him.''

When the Suns recently went on a six-game skid, Nash was missing from three of them, and part of a fourth, because of thigh and back injuries. Even during the 10 minutes Nash rested against Sacramento last week, the Suns' sports-car offense became a gear-grinding jalopy.

There's a reason teammates love him.

``He tell you about how he spent his childhood in that wild 'hood of his?'' teased Richardson.

Even D'Antoni can't resist giving Nash a hard time, noting that he clearly isn't wasting money on clothes.

``Steve carries himself like a grunge rocker,'' said David Griffin, the Suns' director of player personnel. ``In his heart of hearts, Steve wishes he was a Eurotrash soccer player who was a complete unknown on his team. He's all about the game. He's not about the show. He just wants to be in the real world.''

Celebrity tends to blur reality. It's hard for Nash not to be recognized anymore.

``Because he's pretty low-key in the way he dresses and carries himself, it's hard for people to spot him,'' said Lloyd Pierce, a former teammate and current Santa Clara assistant. ``But when they do, it becomes a big issue and I know he guards himself.''

Or he doesn't even put himself in that position.

``I don't get to go out very much anymore,'' Nash said. ``I can't act like a goofball with my friends as much as I would like. Sometimes you can sense how many eyes are on you. But overall, I have nothing to complain about.''

Especially since his longtime girlfriend Alejandra Amarilla, a Paraguay native, gave birth to twins in October.

``I don't know what to say that wouldn't be a cliche, but being a father is so much more a source of pride than making the All-Star team,'' Nash said. ``There's no comparison.''

In the cramped locker room after the Kings game, Nash was explaining that he's not above material stuff. He drives a Range Rover. And you should see my house, he added. But Nash also had just changed into faded jeans and what appeared to be a long-sleeved thermal underwear beneath a T-shirt.

In his case, maybe clothes really do make the man.