May 8, 2006

Nash's Team-First Attitude Solves MVP Case

May 8, 2006

By Dan Bickley
Arizona Republic

Thirteen is supposed to be an unlucky number.

Not in Phoenix.

Here, it's the number of years since the Suns last played for an NBA championship, and the same kind of buzz is beginning to percolate.

Here, it's the number worn by Steve Nash, who picked up his second consecutive Most Valuable Player trophy Sunday, joining the company of basketball immortals.

"It's thrilling. It's comedic. It's unbelievable," Nash said.

It's perfect.

When Nash wins a championship for the Suns, he will pass Randy Johnson as the best free-agent acquisition in local history. On my calendar, that will occur in June 2007, when Amaré Stoudemire is back in uniform.

Yet it's the journey that's remarkable, and here is Nash, changing perceptions in the NBA, and literally changing the way the game is played on a grass-roots level.

Next time you watch the Suns play, count how many young kids are wearing his uniform number. But bring a calculator because, in some ways, Phoenix has become Nashville, and a new generation of young basketball fans has a new hero.

"He proves you don't have to jump high and dunk," Suns managing partner Robert Sarver said.

Funny how, as Nash runs full throttle down the court, dissecting defenses and draining jump shots, he is pulling the game back in time, to when the game was about the team and not the player.

Back then, point guards used to make their teammates better. They used to pass and think and create. They were the extension of the coach. And that was before the evolution of the shooting point guard, which is really just a euphemism for ball hog.

But then Nash came along, and now he's making everyone look good. In two years at the helm in Phoenix, 11 teammates have posted career years. Think that's a coincidence?

Meanwhile, other NBA teams can't copycat the Suns' style because no other point guard in basketball can do the things as well or as quickly as Nash does them. And as much talent as Nash may have around him, you might have noticed how his teammates can't tie their shoes without him directing traffic.

"Very few players have the ability to direct and control the flow of the game, and he does it as well as anyone ever has," Suns Chairman and CEO Jerry Colangelo said.

Incredibly, two MVP voters left Nash off the ballot entirely. Nevertheless, Nash received 57 first-place votes, easily outpacing every contender on the list. This surely will spark controversy in other cities, the ones that don't see Nash on a nightly basis and have no clue how he can shape a collection of unrefined talent. But it's also affirmation of Nash's growing status in America.

"It's a little uncomfortable being singled out from the group," Nash said.

Which is exactly the attitude that makes him the MVP in the first place.

The Suns' brilliant comeback against the Lakers has raised the stakes in the Valley, and it surely saved the NBA from terrific embarrassment. You can only imagine how hollow Sunday's trophy presentation would've been had the Lakers pulled off the first-round upset. You can imagine the uproar had Kobe Bryant made one last buzzer-beater, like that last-second shot in Game 6.

You can almost hear Nash having to defend his wonderful new trophy, and that would've been a shame.

Instead, there is local giddiness and a growing sense of national appreciation for the gifts Nash brings to his sport.

"He's found the perfect balance between being a scorer, taking the open shot and getting the ball to his teammates," said Giants outfielder Randy Winn, Nash's former college roommate at Santa Clara. "He does a great job of getting people the ball in a place where they can be successful. . . . He may look like he's running around like crazy, but he knows exactly what he's doing."

While the Clippers might be favored to beat the Suns in the second round, who is going to bet against this team, with this MVP? Already, there is a strange connection to that opening-round series against the Lakers 13 years ago (there's that number again).

That year, the Suns rallied with three consecutive victories. The postseason became one massive party, and already, the Valley is growing all shades of orange. Most of them can be seen on the shirt Sarver's been wearing lately, one that came straight from the Liberace collection.

"We were doing the 'orange out,' and I had to get something," Sarver said. "There were two on the rack at the Phoenician gift shop, and I guarantee you the other one is still there."

Given the circumstances, the shirt looks just fine on Sarver.

Just not as good as the trophy looks on Nash, the little engine that could.