When he was no longer great and no longer magical with the ball Steve Nash came to the Lakers for twenty seven million dollars. By then his game was separate from the self. He was not unique in this. Every single athlete experiences a progression. They come face to face with the end. In the fall of 2012 it was Steve Nash’s turn. He was an aging presence being dominated by younger, more explosive players who left him in the dust; they circled him, their talent overwhelming his attrition. Steve lost his velocity, he lost his vision, he lost what made him Steve Nash the dribbler and passer extraordinaire. He could no longer see the open angles and lanes as he moved with the ball around the court. He played like an old man, he turned the ball over, he had it stripped. And so it was the definition of gravity. A pebble floats but a rock sinks; Steve was the rock. He struggled in the preseason with the new offense and at the start of the regular season he appeared confused. Desperate, the Lakers tried to salvage something out of his career and they thought they were doing the right thing but it turned out to be the wrong thing, the Steve Nash years were over. He could not be rescued. Still they tried. But every parent knows you cannot choose one son over the other; that breeds chaos. The Lakers alienated Dwight Howard. Perhaps if it had worked, things might have turned out differently, Dwight, Pau and Steve could have been saved. In the end no one was redeemed. D’antoni may have energized Steve Nash but he enraged Pau, alienated Dwight, and Kobe kept his feelings to himself until he couldn’t any longer. So when people say Jim Buss chose Mike D’antoni, they are wrong. It was Steve Nash who chose Mike D’antoni.
Today he is 40. He is selfless and selfish, he is someone who wants to play and someone who wants to confirm a truth. Say what you want. He just can’t let it end like this, he won’t. Looking at him three days before he was to become 40 was to be reminded of a photograph, one of those pictures someone in your family takes and they catch you at just the right angle so you look a little different than usual. That was Steve Nash against the Minnesota Timberwolves. He looked like Steve Nash, older, but still everything was as it always was. And yet he was trying to do something so physically impossible there was a part of him that appeared courageous. An almost 40 year old playing point guard. But there he was against Ricky Rubio. He made shots, he passed the ball, he led the fast break and if you squinted hard enough you thought maybe it was true, maybe there is some sort of magic juice old people can drink and they are young again. But then the Lakers trailed by twenty five points only to lose by ten. Whatever Steve Nash is anymore, does it even really matter?
There is a lot about Steve Nash’s career that is cautionary: life is not fair. He was drafted in 1996 without much fanfare, actually the Phoenix fans booed his selection. Jerry Colangelo was hoping Kobe would fall in the draft; he didn’t so he selected Steve Nash. 1996 was a particularly glamorous draft with MVP’s and future Hall of Famers and NBA champions. Many had long careers, four are still playing: Steve, Kobe, Ray Allen, Derek Fisher. But this is the thing about Steve Nash and that draft. Every future Hall of Fame player who started out as Steve Nash did, as someone with potential in 1996, everyone of them has been to the NBA Finals. Ray Allen and Kobe Bryant have been to the finals multiple times. But Steve Nash who was drafted 15th is the only future Hall of Famer from that draft class never to have made it that far.
The late Chuck Daly always used say: you are your record. It is another way of saying you cannot escape from your past, from what is written down in ink. Okay then. Steve Nash is one of the greatest point guards in NBA history. For nine straight years he was either first or second in the league in assists. He is fourth all time in assists, behind John Stockton, Magic Johnson, and Mark Jackson. He was a four time member of the 50-40-90 shot making club- 50% from the field, 40% from three, 90% from the line. He won two MVP awards in 2005 and 2006 and finished second in 2007. He is the best free throw shooter in NBA history.
But Steve Nash has never been a good defender, he has always played smaller than his size. But you can forgive that because of what he did with the ball. In his first year with Mike D’antoni Steve played in 59 games in which he had ten or more assists. He shot 50% from the field and 43% from three. The Suns won their division but met the Spurs in the Western Conference Finals. In four of the five games Steve had over 20 points. In four of the five games he had double digit assists. In every game he played over forty minutes; he was 31 years old then. But the Suns lost because they struggled defending Tim Duncan in the paint and Robert Horry on the perimeter. Amare Stoudamire was brilliant but his offense was not enough. The Suns could not get stops in the fourth quarter. This would be the theme of Steve Nash’s playoff runs. He never played with an on the ball defender who could stop the other team’s best player. Subsequently his team finished first in the regular season but lost in the playoffs, either in the semi final round or the final round.
In 2007 the Suns played the Spurs in the semi final round of the playoffs. What happened to the Suns and Steve Nash is basketball conspiracy lore. In game 5 Robert Horry hip checked Nash into the scorer’s table. Amare came off the bench to intervene and was suspended by rule for the next game. Suns apologists believed this was all part of David Stern’s methodical plan to subvert the Suns, to deny Steve Nash. But lost in all of the conspiracy talk was what happened in the next game, the game Stoudamire was not allowed to play in. Phoenix had an eight point lead with five minutes left. They then missed 10 of their next 12 shots. Steve Nash missed five of the ten shots. The Spurs won by three. In game 6 Steve Nash had 15 points in the fourth quarter but the Suns just did not have enough defense; the Spurs had built an eighteen point lead. Once again, Steve Nash was eliminated from the playoffs. He would get to the playoffs three more times. Once he lost in the first round. Once he lost to the Lakers in the Western Conference Finals. Last year he lost in the first round.
When Steve Nash was a rookie in 1996 he played behind Kevin Johnson and Jason Kidd. Kevin Johnson is the mayor of Sacramento. Jason Kidd is the coach of the Brooklyn Nets. But here Steve Nash is, still trying to play, to convince himself and everyone else he can fulfill what is left of a two year contract. And so on a Friday night in Philadelphia Steve Nash will play. He will go up against Michael Carter Williams. Steve Nash was 17 when Michael Carter Williams was born. When Steve Nash scored 39 points, shot 75% as a member of the Dallas Mavericks, Michael Carter Williams was 10 years old. When Steve Nash had a triple double against the 76ers in 2005 Michael Carter Williams was 13. These two, the rookie and the 40 year old, will face each other on Steve Nash’s birthday. Michael Carter Williams leads all rookies in steals and is second overall in steals. The last time Steve Nash faced a dynamic young rookie it was the second game of the season last year and he broke his leg while guarding Damian Lillard.
He has been here, he has been to the place in the road in which there is a fork. Does he keep on playing, keep on trying or does he just accept what his body, his nerve damage, his bad back, his weary legs, what the silent message is: call it a career. No one expected the South African born with the soccer player father, this kid from Santa Clara to do this much, to write his name in ink in the ledgers of the NBA and no one expects much of him now besides to play a few games, reaggravate his injury and then quietly leave his career behind. Athletes of his age operate on a principle of self delusion, they have to. There is no such thing as before and after. It is all after at this age. Eighteen years ago it started for Steve Nash. From Phoenix to Dallas back to Phoenix now in Los Angeles. He is 40, an age very few athletes reach as active players. Perhaps he realizes the rarity of it, of what he is doing. Or maybe he doesn’t as he waits for the end even as the end might not wait for him. The end, well that might already be here.