Dec. 26, 2002
By Neil Davidson
The Canadian Press
In 2002, Steve Nash was invited to the NBA all-star game, rubbed shoulders with the likes of David Letterman and took the Dallas Mavericks to the top of the NBA standings.
The star point guard ends the year on another memorable note, by becoming the first basketball player to claim the Lionel Conacher Award as Canada's male athlete of the year.
In balloting of sports editors and broadcasters conducted by The Canadian Press and Broadcast News, the 28-year-old from Victoria finished with 130 points. Calgary Flames forward Jarome Iginla was second with 83 points, ahead of Olympic champion short-track speed skater Marc Gagnon (80), Pittsburgh Penguins star Mario Lemieux (70) and Los Angeles Dodgers reliever Eric Gagne (64).
Nash received 23 of 111 first-place votes in a wide-open vote.
In addition to Iginla, Gagnon, Lemieux and Gagne, first-place ballots also went to diver Alexandre Despatie, tennis player Daniel Nestor, boxer Eric Lucas, triathlete Simon Whitfield, baseball's Corey Koskie and Larry Walker, and hockey's Joe Sakic, Jose Theodore and Steve Yzerman.
"I'm sure I never really envisioned a basketball player being athlete of the year over a hockey player, that's for sure," Nash said from Dallas. "I'm very proud of our Canadian hockey players and very proud that hockey is such a big part of our culture in Canada.
"I think it's something we need to preserve. Unfortunately we're not preserving our organizations the best we can, as far as the NHL goes. I think that it's a very valuable, important part of our communities and society.
"To be athlete of the year over all those great hockey players ... is really a big thrill for me."
The award is named after the late Lionel Conacher, a multi-sports star who was voted CP's male athlete of the first half of the 20th century.
The winner of the Bobbie Rosenfeld Award, honouring Canada's female athlete of the year, is to be announced Friday.
"Finest group of athletes, male or female, that I have seen in 14 years as sports editor at two Canadian newspapers," said David Langford of the London Free Press.
Nash was actually born in South Africa, where his father played pro soccer, but he grew up in Victoria where he played soccer, hockey and lacrosse before eventually settling on basketball.
As a kid he collected hockey cards. And hockey is still in his blood. He was on hand in Salt Lake City to see Canada win Olympic hockey gold.
While hockey and the Olympics dominated sports headlines this year, Nash's star has continued to rise.
He has also won kudos for, well, just being Steve Nash.
"Steve is first class on the court and off," Dallas owner Mark Cuban said. "He is emblematic of everything that is good in sports.
"He works hard, is professional, he cares about those around him and, whenever he can, he finds a way to help those less fortunate than himself. He has remained amazingly humble through all the accolades, and more than everything else, is someone I truly consider a friend."
Nash says he knew the Mavericks could do some damage this season.
"Of course. We definitely had dreams and aspirations of winning a championship immediately. We want to win this year, we don't want to wait and waste an opportunity."
Nash took the summer off, rather than play for Canada at the world basketball championships. His body needed the break.
"It was just really necessary. I've played for the national team I think 11 of 12 summers. It just takes its toll when you play 82 regular-season games in the NBA, plus pre-season and the playoffs. The amount of minutes that I've been playing the last few years, it's been something that's really unmanageable if I played every summer for the national team.
"So this was my summer off so that I could play in the Olympic qualifying (tournament) this summer coming and I think the dividends are being seen and will hopefully be seen for the rest of the season."
Nash spent his summer in New York.
On the court, Nash is a bundle of energy who averaged a career-best 18.9 points a game this season going into Thursday's game against New Orleans. He ranked in the league's top 10 in assists and was No. 1 in free throw percentage (92.4).
He was the first Canadian to be picked for the NBA all-star game.
Throw away the numbers and Nash is just an exciting player to watch. Given his creative court vision, and his ability to trigger the talent around him in Dallas, he is worth the price of admission.
He has also become one of Canada's most prominent athletes south of the border, pictured on the cover of ESPN The Magazine and featured in Sports Illustrated.
And just as he has turned heads south of the border, he has helped further establish basketball in Canada.
"Although hockey is really part of our cultural fabric, basketball has definitely grown and has a place in our society now that it has never had with such strength before," Nash said.
While Nash's fame comes with a multimillion-dollar contract, it also carries attention off the court that is often unwelcome.
"I guess you do, to some extent, get used to it but on the other hand you'll probably never be completely comfortable with it," he explained.
"Yes, life has changed to some extent. But I'm an optimist and I feel pretty fortunate for everything that I've had and everything I've had an opportunity to work towards. So although my lifestyle continues to change with, I guess, my success, it's something that I think I can make the most of and won't let bring me down."
Being a Big Brother no doubt helps keep his feet on the ground.
Nash, part of the Dallas-area Big Brothers/Big Sisters program, was introduced to his video game alter ego recently when his Little Brother showed him.
Anyone who has played the new crop of NBA games knows what Nash's opponents already know. The Canadian can kill you.
Still, his Little Brother has to work on Big Brother's game.
"He was me and he wasn't as good as me as maybe the computer is as me," Nash related.
Of course, Nash himself remains the real thing.