Aug. 30, 2003
New York Times News Service
SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico - At tip-off on Thursday afternoon, barely two dozen fans sat sprinkled throughout Roberto Clemente Stadium to watch Canada and Venezuela play a meaningless second-round game in the Americas Olympic qualifying tournament.
But suddenly, after the game, nearly four dozen fans materialized outside Canada's locker room, all waiting for the team's unassuming superstar, (former Santa Clara star) Steve Nash.
Emerging with his signature wet hair hanging in his face, Nash signed autographs or smiled for pictures, arm-in-arm with the fans, for more than 15 minutes.
"I don't see anybody else doing this," said Canada's coach, Jay Triano. "He's not afraid to give his time, he knows what it means to people. I haven't heard him say no to anybody all week."
Nash, the Mavericks' All-Star point guard, has spent more time posing for pictures at the arena and in the team hotel than he has playing on the court in the tournament's preliminary rounds.
Though he yearns for privacy, he seems swept up in the idealism of international basketball. "It's not that big of a deal," Nash said of the impromptu appearances. "It makes people excited and happy. They don't get NBA players around here all the time."
He is the only NBA player on a Canadian squad that is mostly composed of professional journeymen. The team hopes to finish among the tournament's top three and qualify for the Olympics for the second time in a row.
Canada will play Argentina in Saturday's first semifinal. In the late semifinal, the United States will again play Puerto Rico. The winners meet in the gold medal game Sunday; the losers battle for the bronze medal and the final Olympic spot.
"I like my team, we have a great chance," Nash said, adding that the Argentine team was "the second-most talented here, but I think our group is capable of beating them."
Nash thrives in this arena, perhaps because he has blended international boundaries in his life and career with the ease he has shown mixing with fans in Puerto Rico.
Born in Johannesburg, South Africa, he moved with his family as a baby to British Columbia. He starred at Santa Clara University in California before going to the multinational Mavericks from Phoenix in a trade. He also happens to be dating a woman from Paraguay.
"It's a beautiful thing, international sports," Nash said. "It's tremendous competition. People are out here playing because they love to play and they have a chance to represent their country, instead of playing this for the dollars. Not that there's anything wrong with that."
Since he joined the Canadian national team in 1993, Nash, 29, has missed only two summers of competition, because of an injury in the 1998 world championships and last year when he chose to rest for this summer and, he hopes, the next one.
While he calls this tournament "the essence of sport," he admits that the grinding schedule, combined with lax officiating and rough play, has been far from idyllic for the NBA players.
Canada was the only team required to play eight games in eight days, and Triano tried to save Nash for the medal rounds. He played the first quarter against the United States and led Canada to a 9-point lead but sat out the rest of the game, which became a United States rout. Later, Nash said it would have been a fantasy to think that Canada could have beaten the United States.
The next night, against Brazil, Nash played 36 minutes and led his team to a close victory. He did the same the next day against the Dominican Republic in a victory that qualified Canada for the semifinals. In the loss against Venezuela, Nash played only the first quarter because the game was meaningless.
Nash, who is averaging 11.1 points and 7 assists, is by far the best player on the team; he is also the hardest worker, Triano said. "He looks up to people like Wayne Gretzky, who played in every Canada Cup he could, even after a grueling NHL season," Triano said. "He looks on himself as a role model to a lot of Canadian kids. He's refreshing, period."
Nash and then started playing basketball, not only follows Gretzky's example, but he also tries to embody a national spirit. Canadians, Nash said, pride themselves on "being nice, reasonable people."
"I think that all feeds into our sense of patriotism," he said.