February 10, 2002

Nash Has Made His Point

Feb. 10, 2002

By Gary West
The Dallas Morning News

When Steve Nash's eighth shot of the first half proved as pointless as the first seven, fans at Reunion Arena booed him. Throughout the 1990s, the Mavericks had been the worst team in the NBA, arguably the worst team in professional sports, and near the decade's conclusion, in March 1999, fans' frustration rained down on the high-energy Canadian with the low-maintenance hairstyle.

A recent arrival in Dallas, Nash hardly deserved such treatment. He had been in high school in Victoria, B.C., and in classes at Santa Clara during most of the Mavericks' embarrassments. But in the second half of that game, whenever he touched the ball, he heard the boo birds, loud and unforgiving. Initially, he responded to them with a shrug and a hapless grin. But later, in the locker room after the 88-78 loss to the Rockets, he responded with a comment that retrospect might interpret as a vow: "I'll face it with a smile on my face, and I'll be a winner one of these days."

Since then, of course, the Mavericks have become the leader of the Midwest Division, changing the jeers into cheers and the frustration into pride. And Nash has become not only a winner but also a Western Conference All-Star. Along with Dirk Nowitzki and the team's coaching staff, Nash will represent the Mavericks at Sunday's NBA All-Star Game in Philadelphia.

The transformations all intertwine. The Mavericks probably wouldn't be sitting atop the Midwest if Nash had not developed into one of the premier point guards in the NBA. And that's exactly what he has become, according to some of the game's more astute observers.

"I rank him with the top point guards in the league," said Mavericks assistant coach Donnie Nelson. "The top point guards are all about winning and leadership and making a team better. I think the success of the Mavericks is the ultimate proof."

But how could the young man from Canada become such a player? As Nash himself says, with characteristic forthrightness, he's not a great athlete - good, but not great. He can't leap over buildings or outrun locomotives. Nor is he as tall, at a generously measured 6-3, as many other NBA guards.

"There were always people telling him he wasn't good enough or wasn't fast enough or wasn't big enough," recalled Martin Nash, Steve's brother.

There were people telling him he couldn't play college basketball, and people telling him he couldn't play in the NBA and boo birds telling him he couldn't be - what? - an All-Star maybe.

Proving doubters wrong

Nash didn't ignore the skeptics. He drew strength from their doubt and proved them wrong, not for some I-told-you-so vanity, he said, but simply for the satisfaction of accomplishing the improbable. It's as though he values what others say he can't do simply as a measure of amazement.

Already his story is probably sounding familiar, for indeed it's a classic story of perseverance and determination: An athlete sidesteps critics and skeptics, overcomes obstacles and limitations and achieves, if not greatness, a certain celebrated status. Becomes an All-Star.

High hopes realized through hard work - it's one of sport's most inspiring and enduring story lines. And it's a story Nash makes vivid whenever he steps onto the court. But he gives his personal rendition a couple twists.

Nash's arena didn't have to be basketball. It could have been soccer, lacrosse or hockey. Or maybe even chess - as a youngster, he was a chess champion, too. Basketball was simply a convenient metaphor for self-fulfillment. His passion isn't so much basketball as it is progress, forward movement. Push the ball, push yourself, push forward and, above all, assault complacency.

And if Nash ever discovers how good a basketball player he is or can become, if he ever pushes the boulder all the way to the top of the mountain, will he be able to play with the same intensity?

"When there's no more potential for growth, would I still have a passion to play? I predict I'll face that question someday," Nash said, his manner of talking, unlike his manner of play, slow and deliberate, his voice like some late-night radio announcer's. "That'll probably be the debate that ends my career. But there would still be my teammates. Without a team to plug into, I might as well play golf."

A team man

And there's the second twist. Nash's friends and teammates are the mirror in which he views his success. At 13, Nash took up basketball for one reason: to be with his friends who played the game. Two years ago, when he arrived in Australia with the Canadian national team for the Olympics, Nash slipped the coach, Jay Triano, $25,000 to be spread anonymously among the team's 10 non-NBA players so that they, too, could indulge in some down-under recreation.

"He's the ultimate team guy," said Todd MacCulloch of the New Jersey Nets, who played with Nash on the Canadian Olympic team. "He always gets everybody involved. . . . You can definitely compare him to Jason Kidd. I must be the luckiest center in the world to play with Jason in my day job and with Steve in the summer."

By nature, Nash would rather pass than score, rather focus the spotlight than step into it. Such unselfishness is, of course, an admirable quality in a point guard, whose foremost responsibility is to distribute the ball as though it's junk mail and set up teammates for easy baskets. But Nash has a deadly eye and a feathery touch, and his reluctance to shoot has been a frustration for his coaches.

For two seasons, Mavericks coach Don Nelson urged Nash to shoot more, even to the point of threatening to sit him on the bench. For some, scoring is the champagne, the fun, maybe even the easy and natural part of the game. Not for Nash. He said it was a challenge for him to develop an ego and to think about scoring.

But, of course, he was always the guy to accept a challenge. For Nash, it was a challenge just to get an opportunity to play at the college level. He had sent out letters of inquiry to various U.S. colleges. But Santa Clara, which had an enrollment of about 4,000, was the only one to offer him a scholarship, and, he said, he was glad to have it.

Santa Clara coach Dick Davey recalled that when he went to see Nash play in Canada, he wasn't permitted by NCAA rules to speak directly to the recruit. After the game, Davey told the high school coach that the player's defense was terrible, and he intentionally spoke loud enough so Nash, standing nearby, might hear. The comment was meant as a challenge.

Nash accepted it as such. When he arrived at Santa Clara, one of his first moves was to correct Davey's assessment of his defense.

"In my 25 years of coaching, I've never seen a player spend more time trying to make himself better," Davey said of Nash. "We would practice for two hours, and he would come back to the gym at 11 o'clock that night - he (found) a key to the gym - and practice until one o'clock in the morning. He's one of those few players who would make more demands on himself than a coach would, and he made the other players work harder. Other players were embarrassed if they didn't work, and they got caught up in his enthusiasm."

Another challenge

Halfway through his freshman season, Nash moved into the Broncos' starting lineup. He would often take only one or two shots in the first half of a game, and so Davey would have to challenge his point guard at halftime to go out and score. And Nash did.

In the NCAA Tournament his freshman year, Nash scored six points in the final minute to lead Santa Clara to an upset of Arizona. During Nash's four years, Santa Clara earned three NCAA bids.

"And I guarantee you we wouldn't have gone to the tournament if not for him," Davey said.

While an assistant at Golden State, Donnie Nelson had heard from a Canadian friend about the hard-working, sharpshooting point guard playing ball in the Silicon Valley. Nelson closely watched Nash's progress, seeing him play not just at Santa Clara but in summer league games against Tim Hardaway and Kidd.

Then as an assistant in Phoenix, Nelson recommended Nash to Suns coach Danny Ainge. Phoenix selected Nash in the first round of the 1996 draft, fifteenth overall. But with Kevin Johnson and Sam Cassell and, later, Kidd, Phoenix was rich in point guards. And so in 1998, again on Nelson's recommendation, Dallas traded for Nash and promptly signed him to a six-year, $33 million deal.

Injury problems

When Nash joined the Mavericks, he was just recovering from a severe case of plantar fasciatis, a painful foot ailment that, he said, left him feeling as though he always had a rock in his shoe. To allow for healing, he had stayed away from basketball for six months and so "wasn't in great shape," he explained. The bad situation tumbled toward disaster when he strained his back.

At one point, the back pain became so severe that for two days he couldn't even roll out of bed. Knowing Nash's physical problems, Donnie Nelson said he was sometimes shocked just to see him on the court - doubly shocked when he would find Nash and Nowitzki, who was struggling through his rookie season, practicing at the gym late at night.

As Nash hobbled through his first season as a Maverick, shooting 37.4 percent and averaging 7.9 points, the critics, skeptics and boo birds all sang their discordant song. Nash was a bust, they chimed, he couldn't take the pressure of being the No. 1 guy and of the big contract.

Nash, booed when he first joined the Mavs, is now a fan favorite.

"I never heard anything so asinine," Donnie Nelson said, as though still bristling about the criticism. "Steve isn't driven by money. Money-driven people get lazy, but that's not Steve Nash. I knew it was just a matter of time before things worked out."

And work out they did. Because of injuries, Nash missed 26 games in his second Mavericks season, but he offered glimpses, hints, of what might happen. And last year it did: Heeding his coach's imperative to shoot more, he averaged 15.6 points and 7.3 assists as the Mavericks made the playoffs for the first time since 1990. And this year he's an All-Star, averaging 19.7 points and eight assists.

His offensive numbers sparkle, but there's more. Nash regularly draws the toughest defensive assignment and consistently "out-thinks" and "out-anticipates" opponents, said Donnie Nelson, who compares Nash to John Stockton, the great Utah point guard.

"He never stops, he's always learning, always trying hard," said teammate Hardaway, himself a five-time All-Star, about Nash. "A great point guard makes his team win. He does that. He's put us on his shoulders some games and carried us."

A star turn

Nash might have seemed a little bent-over indeed after a recent 95-91 victory over Houston. On a night when most Mavericks couldn't have tossed a coin in a fountain, Nash tossed in 33 points, including 15 in the final period. With the Mavericks trailing, he quickly parlayed a steal into two points. A moment later, he knifed between defenders, angled, leaned and tossed up what looked like an improvised prayer but was actually a little delicacy he had practiced for hours, sometimes late at night, in the gym. Two more jump shots by Nash, and the Mavericks were suddenly in control.

"There are a lot of guys in this league whose athleticism will take over," Nash said. "But that's a rarity for me. I've always had to figure out ways to succeed."

Nash has what Bob Ortegel, the former Drake head coach who works as analyst on Mavericks broadcasts, calls "quarterback eyes." They're always darting, right to left, back and forth. It's as though Nash is mind-wired to everything and everybody on the floor - players, officials, coaches, even possibilities that might otherwise pass unperceived.

But, of course, he has been himself a possibility for much of his career - possible college player, NBA player, All-Star. And somehow, despite some distractions, he always kept the possibilities in view.

STEVE NASH QUICK FACTS
Full name: Steven John Nash
Age: 28 (birthday was Thursday)
Ht./Wt.: 6-3, 195
NBA experience: 6th year
Drafted: First round (15th overall) by Phoenix, 1996
College: Santa Clara
Hometown: Victoria, British Columbia
Personal: Single ... Purchases a block of tickets (Nash-ville) each game to be distributed to local charities ... Played hockey, lacrosse and soccer growing up ... An avid English soccer fan, his favorite club is Tottenham ... Loves to read and is learning to play guitar.