January 2, 2006

Nash Named Canada's Top Athlete

Jan. 2, 2006

Toronto Star

It was a rather emphatic slam dunk for a guy who's not known for his play around the rim.

Steve Nash, the Victoria-raised basketball star who became the first Canadian to win the NBA's most valuable player title, was yesterday honoured with the Lou Marsh Award as this country's top athlete for 2005. He was the unanimous choice of the panel of writers, editors and broadcasters - which isn't surprising, given his year, but which is unusual in that the voters are often reluctant to reveal how the voting went. Past winners of the trophy include Mike Weir, Nancy Greene and Wayne Gretzky.

"It's cool, amazing," Nash said yesterday in a telephone interview. "Any time you can share an award like this with athletes like The Great One and all the other great athletes who've won it, it's a really great feeling.

"Part of me wants to share this with all the other nominees because I'm sure they had great years, too."

A panel of sports editors, writers and broadcasters decides the trophy, which is awarded annually. Silken Laumann, the 1991 winner, chaired this year's panel, which included representatives from the Star, the Toronto Sun, the Globe and Mail, Canadian Press, Montreal's La Presse, the National Post and the Edmonton Journal, as well as CTV, Sportsnet, FAN590-PrimeTime Sports, and the CBC.

The trophy is named after Lou Marsh, a former Star sports editor. Along with Nash, this year's finalists included diver Alexandre Despatie, speed skater Cindy Klassen, hockey's Sidney Crosby, curler Randy Ferbey and soccer's Christine Sinclair.

Though he was born in South Africa and now lives in the United States, Nash is undeniably Canadian Unfailingly polite, self-deprecating and with a dry sense of humour, he's not your typical NBA star.

When the Raptors were in Phoenix to play Nash's Suns, a reporter ran into his parents, John and Jean, in the press room. John Nash said the family was looking forward to the game - but there was something else they were anticipating.

"It'll be good for us and Steve to hear the national anthem," he said. "Our national anthem - it means a lot."

After graduating from St. Michael's University School in Victoria, Nash attended Santa Clara University in California on a basketball scholarship. No other American schools were interested in him, but he went on to be a college standout, and was taken 15th overall by the Phoenix Suns in the 1996 NBA draft.

It wasn't really until the 2000 Olympics that Nash became a household name in his own country. The team didn't come home with a medal, but Nash's determined and joyful play won the hearts of Canadians. When his team - staffed almost entirely by underdogs - was finally knocked out in the quarter-finals, Nash was caught by photographers crying as he walked off the court.

"He's probably the most deserving athlete or person for an award that honours Canadian athletes," Jay Triano, who coached the 2000 Olympic team, said yesterday.

"The most significant thing for me was not only was he dedicated to his sport and playing for his country, but the way he handled himself. He came in with no sense of entitlement around him where he had to be catered to or anything. He came in and wanted to fit in like everyone else and that's what made it special."

In the NBA, Nash spent two seasons in Phoenix before being traded to Dallas in 1998, and in 2002, became an all-star for the first time. The war in Iraq had just begun and at the all-star media conference that year, he wore a T-shirt that proclaimed "No war Shoot for peace."

"He's intelligent, compassionate and has an understanding of the positive role sport can play in personal development," said Dr. Andrew Pipe, a long-time physician with the Canadian men's basketball team. "His social conscience is as developed as his three-point shot."

Nash's contract with the Mavericks ended after the 2004 season, and he was a highly sought-after free agent. He ended up resigning with the Suns in a six-year, $63 million (U.S.) deal that some saw as risky.

But last season, he had his best year ever, leading a vaunted run-and-gun offence that saw the moribund Suns transformed from a plodding, 29-win, no-playoffs team to a squad that won an NBA-best 62 games, and who made it all the way to the Western Conference final.

He led the league in assists per game - a defining characteristic for a point guard, whose job is to find open teammates - with 11.2 helpers an outing. He became only the fourth point guard in NBA history to take the top honours; Bob Cousy, Oscar Robertson and Magic Johnson are the other three, all members of the Basketball Hall of Fame.

Nash lives in Phoenix now with his wife, Alejandra, and their year-old twins, Lola and Bella. While he loves his adopted home, he misses Canada.

"It's home, it's where I'm from. It'll always represent home for me," he said. "I don't know when the next time will be that I live there - you can't have everything, I guess - but it's my home and I hold it close to my heart. I just love everything about it."