Mystery Mav

Nov. 13, 2002

By Ric Bucher
ESPN The Magazine

The labels are everywhere, lurking in his books, his clothes, his CDs, even in his shoulder-length shag. By now Steve Nash knows that anything he does will morph into something of greater significance. He chats up Elizabeth Hurley at a party, and he's a jet-setter. He takes up guitar to go with the mop, he's a grunger. He reads The Catcher in the Rye, and he's Holden Caulfield. He steers clear of NBA couture, and GQ still comes knocking, trumpeting his T-shirt-and-jeans ensemble as a style all his own.

The premise in every case: Nash is purposely downplaying his fame. For some reason, living in a townhouse with no furniture and hanging with his buddies or dressing in a corduroy jacket is seen as some sort of statement, not simply the life of your average twentysomething from Victoria, British Columbia. "GQ thought it strange that I had six or seven pairs of jeans," Nash says. "They made me out to be a minimalist. I just don't see why it's calling all cars that I'm a white guy who doesn't wear FUBU."

Well, mostly because not too many guys of any color reference minimalism, hip-hop clothing and Dick Tracy imagery in one sound bite. So here's another shot at extrapolating greater meaning from the latest happenings in Nash's never-dull life: He's Cupid's-full-quiver in love, and that's why the Mavericks are finally on their way to legitimate title contention.

Hold the yeah-rights. Granted, Shawn Bradley remains their most imposing interior presence, and the team's new emphasis on defense, demanded by owner Mark Cuban, will require Coach/GM Don Nelson to drop his infatuation with self-aggrandizing gimmicks. But scoff that a white, 6'3" nondunking Canadian can't possibly overcome all that at your peril. Skeptics also couldn't see Nash landing a D1 scholarship, much less surviving in the NBA. Yet last season he was an All-Star and an All-NBA third-teamer. He was also generally recognized as one of the top three point guards in the league, next to Jason Kidd and Gary Payton.

"If we're analogous to Steve, it's that we don't care what people are saying about us," says Cuban. "We're going to have that Steve Nash mental toughness and just get it done."

Steve Nash is one of the top players in international basketball circles.


Having a brand of mental toughness named after him is a little much for Nash. "It's simply a matter of creating habits we didn't have," he says. "We're building them, but talking about it is pointless."

He will talk about it, of course, just as he'll sign every autograph and shake every hand in the middle of any meal. Just as he'll insist on flying coach and having a roommate the way every other Canadian national team player does, while dropping $1,500 on each player to sweeten the per diem during the 2000 Olympics. Or just as he'll answer questions and pose for a magazine shoot, even if he believes the interview and images capture a moment in time that won't apply by the time they appear.

Not to talk or pose or sign would mean allowing fame to affect him. Some guys talk about being true to who they are even as they check their iced-out Rolex or gripe that the limo is late or disappear into the VIP section of the club. Maybe that truly is who they are, but it's not Nash. He rolls his eyes upon hearing they now call him Stevie Wonder on the American Airlines Center scoreboard or upon discovering his girlfriend, Alejandra, has a tote bag with his image on it. "Half of it," says his lifelong friend, Chris "Duck" Isherwood, "is that he can't believe the position he's in. He doesn't think he's anything different or special."

Which is precisely why he is.

***

The one place Nash has been monotonous over the years has been in his devotion to the Canadian national team. But this summer, the Willard of all gym rats looked at his country's roster for the World Championships, saw Jamaal Magloire and Todd MacCulloch were missing, remembered how draining it had been to qualify for the tournament even with them around, and opted not to play in Indianapolis. That ended 10 straight summers of international competition. He told the team of his decision face-to-face after a week of training and then announced it before an exhibition crowd, promising to be back for next summer's Olympic qualifying.

Cuban's much-publicized concerns about injury insurance weren't a factor. The Mavs' first back-to-back 50-win seasons since '86-87 and '87-88 and their march into the second round had drained Nash. He needed a break, so he decided to immerse himself in a different culture, which for Steve meant getting an apartment in an exotic city. After mulling over Barcelona and Bangkok, he decided the distance might defeat the purpose and instead settled on the Soho neighborhood of Manhattan.

He had met Alejandra, a Paraguayan personal trainer -- think Minnie Driver with a splash of Catherine Zeta-Jones -- in Manhattan last season, but swears that hooking up with her wasn't his motivation. Hook up they did, though, and Steve stayed almost the entire summer, even though he let the Soho pad go after a month. You do the math.

Mavs shooting guard Michael Finley sensed right away this was more than the wildly overblown dalliances with Hurley or Geri Halliwell, the Spice Girl, neither of whom qualified for an official date. Yes, he had met both Hurley and Halliwell, but things never went any farther. This was different.

"Three things," Finley says. "We go out, and he's bringing the lady with the fellas. Get on the plane, and he's reading something in Spanish. Call his cell phone, and she answers. The first time, I thought I had the wrong number. I said, 'Is, uh, Steven there?' But I told him if he's happy, I'm happy."

Nash also showed up for training camp in the best shape of his life, finishing first in the team's treadmill stress test, measuring best in lung capacity. He blanches, though, at the "Girlfriend/Trainer Provides Fitness Key for NBA Star" storyline. Too linear. "Did yoga twice, hiked twice, snowboarded once," he says. "No secret workout routines, nothing crazy. She inspired me to do my best, but it's not like she gave me training tips for basketball. Alejandra doesn't know what a traveling violation is."

Credit his fitness, then, to what he didn't do. He didn't get pounded in international competition. He didn't have as many beer-and-pizza nights with the boys. Result: He dropped eight pounds, lifted weights and added muscle.

Nash can't remember being so pain-free. "When I come off the floor now, I'm not dying for ice," he says. "If I soak in the cold tub, it's just so I'll feel fresh the next day. Not playing was better for me than playing. The time off means I'll struggle early, but that doesn't matter if it also means feeling fresher at the end of the season."

Some struggle. Nash guided the Mavs to a 4-0 start -- the best in franchise history -- averaging 19.8 points and 8.0 assists a game. He hit six of his first nine three-pointers and shot 48% overall. But Nash's biggest contribution in the first few games won't be felt until May. In the opener, the Grizzlies threatened to make a fourth-quarter comeback, trimming a 20-point lead to 10, when assistant Del Harris (filling in for the suspended Nelson) used a timeout to suggest a zone. Nash vowed to get the man-to-man D working. Threat averted, vital dose of confidence in closing a game gained.

Nash then spent most of the second game against the Suns pumping up Bradley, who is vital to any Mavs hopes of an improved D -- especially with Raef LaFrentz out until at least December with a sprained left ankle. Bradley responded with 11 points, eight boards and three steals, including a dive for a loose ball and a subsequent dish to Nash for a breakaway layup.

Nash is not blessed with overwhelming size, speed or hops -- Mavs assistant equipment manager and high school buddy Al Whitley has vowed to streak down Vancouver's biggest boulevard if Nash dunks in an NBA game. But he has developed a game built on being ready to strike the second an opponent's concentration lapses. "Most of the guys in the league have been born with great athleticism," says Whitley. "He's trained to get it."

Over the years, that has meant long off-season hours in the gym, erasing every technical weakness. Take you off the dribble with either hand, either direction? Check. Finish with both hands, taking off on the proper foot? Got it. Three-point range? Try a team-high 45.5%, quite an accomplishment sharing the floor with Dirk Nowitzki, LaFrentz and Finley. He also may be the only guy who actually gets lower going to the basket, hunkering down cheetah-style to get there and flip the ball off the glass rather than leap over anybody.

"I call him Nasty Nash," says Rockets guard Steve Francis. "He can shoot it from anywhere and he never picks up his dribble, so you can't relax against him."

Even if he's not on the floor. Nash, inbounding the ball against the Suns under his own basket after a Phoenix substitution, caught rookie Casey Jacobsen a half-second late finding his assignment, Finley. Nash fed Finley in the corner for a 3.

"I rely on resiliency," Nash says. "I hang on for the ride, probably to a fault." Case in point: his arrival in Dallas. Traded by Phoenix in the summer of '98, he couldn't run for six months because of a sore heel. That led to a back injury, probably spurred by his attempts to practice through the heel problem. All this after signing a six-year, $33 million extension. A month after the lockout season started, he missed his first eight shots in a loss to the Rockets, and the home crowd booed him every time he touched the ball. "It was a unique experience," Nash says. "Not that many people get to be booed by 18,000 people."

The Mavs were willing to give him away, but the contract discouraged any takers. "When I got here," says Cuban, who bought the team 10 months after the booing, "Nashy wasn't a valuable commodity."

Nash broke out in injuries every time he put on a Mavs jersey. He demonstrated his potential by winning MVP honors in the '99 Olympic qualifying tournament, but his back problem flared up once he returned to Dallas. It wasn't until the season after taking Canada within a game of the 2000 Olympic medal round that he proved Dallas could count on him, averaging 30-plus minutes in 70 games, contributing 15.6 points and 7.3 assists. The floor generalship needed to get the most out of his Canadian teammates tempered his wilder one-on-one forays. He still buzzes nonstop around the floor, but it's a pace that allows him to dissect opposing defenses. And no one has a better grasp of his opponents' tendencies or his teammates' preferences, earning him the freedom to take the occasional 360 runner from 15 feet or drive hard away from the basket to flip a pass to a teammate cutting toward it. "He knows when to go and when not to go," says Suns coach Frank Johnson. "As far as doing what they need, he's the best."

Teammate Nick Van Exel also disputes the notion that Nash isn't athletic, particularly after watching him win a bet by juggling a basketball in the air 400 times with his feet. It's a family trait -- his brother Martin followed their father, John, into English professional soccer. "I didn't know he was so damn quick, either," says Nick the Quick. "I'm just glad I don't have to play against him anymore."

Stephon Marbury does. No one is more stubborn or competitive than Marbury, but you could see Steph mentally wear down in their Nov. 2 matchup as Nash exploited the smallest opportunity. Marbury leaned left, and Nash crossed him over right to deliver a shovel pass to LaFrentz for a dunk. Marbury fell down in transition, and Nash went coast-to-coast for a layup. Steph drove the lane, spinning and twisting, and Nash magically appeared at every turn until Steph dribbled the ball off his foot. When it was over, Marbury had missed 12 of 17 shots and committed five turnovers.

"Maybe my talent lies more in my creativity than my athleticism," Nash says. "But this isn't the NFL Combine. It's a game."

And life is one big esoteric adventure. For those keeping track, The Catcher in the Rye has given way to Oscar Wilde's The Picture of Dorian Gray. The favorite T-shirt is now plain white rather than emblazoned with Maradona. The CD of choice is by Cesaria Evora, a sixtysomething Portuguese-Creole diva, instead of indy rock's Turin Brakes. Just to really throw everyone off the scent, he says his favorite color is now orange instead of blue, and his favorite meal is Pad Thai over sushi.

His basketball sights have shifted as well. Making All-NBA and playing in an All-Star Game last season was gratifying, but, at age 28, he doesn't need to do it again. "I could care less about that stuff," he says. "Now I just want to win a championship. Fall short, but don't sell yourself short." He repeats the last line under his breath, savoring it. It's a nice line, something you might see on a banner or a T-shirt.

Not by Nash, of course. He's already working on the next one.

This article will appear in the November 25 issue of ESPN The Magazine.