It helps to be 26 years old. It helps that Phil Jackson was your mentor. It helps to leave the country and live in the rest of the world. It helps to be a champion. It helps to be a ball handler who can maneuver through screens, direct traffic, fire passes, facilitate ball movement. It helps to watch Steve Nash, his poetry and brilliance and dribbling around men, and to ignore the rest, the Steve who gets the ball taken away, who creates turnovers, who lacks velocity and leg quickness and who, in a few months, will turn 40.
The Steve Nash you remember is no longer the Steve Nash that is here. He is a capable point guard in spurts, in segments, but not one who can survive the athleticism of a Russell Westbrook or a Damian Lilliard for thirty minutes a night as they hawk the ball and pressure his body and interrupt his timing and his passes. At the age of 39 Steve Nash is the oldest player in the NBA. At any age it is hard to dig in and compete and achieve from the point guard position but when one hundred percent of the league and ninety percent of players at your position are younger than you are and quicker than you are and stronger than you are then it is the team’s obligation to recognize these are the end days.
This is a divided conflict within Mike D’Antoni’s soul. Steve Nash saved his career; the 7 seconds or less offense D’Antoni designed was with Steve in mind. Steve executed it flawlessly and if life was fair they may have indeed become champions. But life is not fair and D’Antoni’s nostalgia and romance of it, the memory he clings to, and Steve’s desperation not to let go of the Steve Nash years is a blinding white light for all of us. Objects are always closer than they appear. The truth is the Lakers need a point guard who can compete at the level Jordan Farmar is able to display: weaving in and out of the lane, vision matched by velocity, in the pick and roll, high assists, few turnovers, opposing guards not cheating off of you or taking the ball from you because of the reflexive nature of their hands, they are quick, you no longer are but it’s no reason for tears, it is how life works; there is a time for everything, for everyone.
I suppose this is profane to the legion of Steve Nash disciples who believe glory is glory regardless of the age but extract everything the brain knows and think about what you see, the baseline traps that he used to dribble out of that are turnovers, the deflected passes that lead to the other team’s fast breaks. Do the match ups or the math. Who is capable of making the most plays in a game over a thirty minute span, Steve or Jordan? And then consider the age of the Western Conference point guards: 22 years old, Ricky Rubio; 23 years old, Jrue Holliday and Damian Lilliard; 24 years old, Russell Westbrook; 25 years old, Steph Curry and Ty Lawson and Jeremy Lin; 26 years old, Mike Conley; 28 years old, Chris Paul; 31 years old, Tony Parker.
The NBA was a different place when Steve Nash entered eighteen years ago. Athleticism was just beginning to cling to the league in a death grip of potential. The drafting of Kevin Garnett and Kobe Bryant and Allen Iverson ushered in a new era of open court explosiveness that has been both the Madonna and the whore of the league for the past eighteen years. Steve Nash who was never athletic but was a gifted passer, an efficient shooter and an intelligent thinker, his very presence was a contradiction in terms, a white guard inhabiting a very black world, a genius with the basketball who unlike a lot of his peers understood the nuances of how to play the angles, the seams, the margins. But despite how smart he is and despite his efficiency as a shooter, the legs are old, the hands are not what they used to be, the velocity and the hesitation are a little delayed, it is difficult to do what he wants to do with the dribble, the way he used to do it, he just gets beat up out there; yes his brain is intact but the rest of him is in athletic seven stages of hell, able to still give something but not with the same ferocity, not for the same period of time, not with the same results.
Despite what you may believe about what legendary players are owed, this is not a shame. There is geography here, a longitudinal view of the season to come and in it Steve Nash and his healing legs and bad back are spared the cruelty inflicted by quicker players who froth at the mouth when Steve is in the game. Besides, it is hardly an original thought to have an All Star player come off the bench, it is the way of Manu Ginobili who is 36, and last year 40-year old Jason Kidd and 40-year old Grant Hill who had to preserve their legs for the entire season and playoffs, they came off the bench as well. But I get why it sounds so wrong, this sort of deductive reasoning, why it feels traitorous, as if I am trying to hack away at the legacy and brilliance of Steve. It is a stunning world. Athletic men have what they love ripped away from them for good, partly because they are what they do, and the rest of us luxuriate in the length of our careers. But sports reflect glory and sports reflect absence and the two exist opposite one another, like water and wine. Players are beloved and then players are descending and then players are tarnished and then players are just exiled.
Men believe about themselves they are rational beings but they are not, they like their myths, they like their heroes and their silent seasons, they like the telling of the old stories about how things used to be, they like the idea that sports were better when they were better, they love to argue about decades and greats of all time and it is indisputable that once upon a time Nash’s game was the most stirring thing to witness on a court, the passing, the selflessness, the weaving in traffic, he was perfection the same way the moon was round and he led Phoenix to dizzying heights. But four champions have been crowned since his last remarkable season; he was thirty six years old then.
Only in basketball is youth more than a concept, youth is not wasted on the young; youth is everything. Entry into the league and exit out of the league are the same thing just upside down, you leave through the same door. There is no handbook for making it fair; no one gets what they deserve. There is a turning of the wheel, there is a life goes on reality. And yet the eye plays these illusive tricks when you least expect it, marring common sense. Steve looks fluid and there are glimpses of his younger self, a cross court pass he darts past defenders, a dribble and shoot. It seems okay, Steve as the starting point, it is familiar and not distracting. But the ball does not care about Steve Nash the way you do. Lurking like an unwanted stranger in the dark is the truth of what happens when you are an old man in a young man’s game. Steve Nash is suddenly hounded by some twenty five year old who hooks the ball away from him, contemptuously runs by and proudly slams it through the hoop. It is then that it becomes clear that what Steve Nash has accomplished in his career no longer matters because what matters is magic, strip it away and there is human frailty. In February Steve will be 40. An artist and brilliant. But slow and perpetually injured and a little worn down.