It was not the same imagery, he was not a reflection of his past glorious self, he was not the Steve Nash of 2006, he was not an artist with the ball, he was not dribbling in and out of the lane, in and around defenders, at the baseline and then into the paint, he even missed a free throw. No one can go back in time and recapture what once was, immortality does not exist in sports or anywhere else for that matter. But sometimes unexpected things happen. On Friday night in Philadelphia, on his birthday, the player with the ball, the one wearing jersey number 10, Steve Nash the myth and Steve Nash the legend and Steve Nash the All-Star and Steve Nash the 1996 overachiever exuded symmetry in his recovering body as he changed directions, he was fluid and crisp with his passes, he used screens to get his shot off and he made more shots than he missed. It wasn’t what he expected only because these days he cannot look too far ahead, he has to both savor the moment and live in the moment and accept everything that happens for what it is, one more day. Steve Nash only had five assists in the game against the 76ers mostly because Steve Blake ran the point and Steve Nash ran the offense, his own- 19 points- and everyone else’s. All of this when he turned the age of 40, the age athletes who play mourn, and athletes who cannot play wish they could, so in a way Steve Nash on Friday night, on his birthday, was a dreamer and a dream maker. And he was a winner, too.
Play eighteen years and you will know glory and joy, cruelty and punishment. So much happens to the body, to the back, to the nerves. 1200 games. 12,000 shots. 10,000 assists. 900 steals. All of that excellence for someone who was not supposed to be anything more than an above average player. And yet in his year and a half with the Lakers there has been little brilliance except for a game here and there but certainly nothing worth nine million dollars in value. To be blunt about it, the Lakers are worse with Steve Nash only because he has not played much. It is something Steve suffers through as if he did this terrible thing on purpose and let the Lakers down instead of the opposite, instead of it being the fault of nature, instead of the human body acting like a human body does every once in a while- it quits sometimes. But Steve is human. He knew what everyone was saying, what they were thinking. His pride would not let him do anything but approach all of this as if it was a fight. Determined and driven partly because this is a business in which loyalty is for sale and partly because the Lakers stuck with him through all of his injury devastation, they never wavered in their commitment to him, they still believed the original hypothesis, Steve Nash makes us a better team.
A vocal minority introduced the subject of retirement and the effect of it was like saying to Steve Nash he was not a patriot, he was a player who no longer belonged. Besides, Steve Nash’s entire life was about competition, not quitting and there was something strange about the theory he should just let it all go. The reason he is in the NBA in the first place was because he refused to quit, not in high school, not in college, not when he was overmatched, not when he played against more athletic players, quicker players, not when so much seemed against him. But he is supposed to quit now? After everything?
On his birthday Steve played hard in the first half but he was a forty year old who was testing where his body was and what his limitations were going to be and how long would any of it last. Still there was a joyous presence to his game even as his legs were shaking during halftime. That is the reality of it, the nuts and bolts of a 40 year old body playing competitive basketball for 18 years and it is what no one talks about when they see Ray Allen and Kobe Bryant and Derek Fisher and Steve Nash, all drafted in 1996. Because they are great they make it all seem so magical and not what it really is, a test against nature because what they have to do to their bodies, how they have to get ready, the pain of it, the sacrifice it takes, one day at a time, one practice, one workout is antithetical to how the human body was designed to function at that age. But all the great players will tell you. The pain you forget- this is how you honor your career.
Everyone knew it was Steve’s birthday, it was not a secret and there were a variety of opinions ranging from curiosity to dread to let’s see how it is all going to look as he was going up against the probable Rookie of the Year. The secret, if there was one, was the game itself and how fluid it all was and how, even though Steve Nash is a descending player, an old one, Steve still is his biography, he is a playmaker and a shot maker, maybe that will never change. Being 40 did not alter the basic reality of him, of who he was in 1996 and who he is in 2014 because the greatest skill is mental and then it is making shots and then it is making players better and then it is being a great teammate and then it is impacting games and then it is winning games.
There have been layers upon layers of disappointment and second guessing and frustration as the hours of waiting for the career of Steve Nash to go ahead and die hung like a bloated cloud of rain. We are not patient consumers, memories slip away, we get twisted when we think of what could have happened if not for that freak contact with Damien Lillard last November. Before that, in the summer, the acquisition and then the arrival of Steve Nash ushered in hopefulness but sometimes what is waiting around the corner is fate. Was Steve Nash damaged goods, were the Lakers finally getting their share of bad luck, was it buyers remorse being stuck with his contract that would never have value? The hardest part in all of this hand wringing was Steve Nash himself. He was so well loved it all sounded hateful, the deafening cry from fans that the Lakers made a mistake, that Steve was selfish for wanting to come back when there was no reason to play anymore. Except for this. The reason Steve entered the NBA in the first place. He loves to play.
He is proud. Despite the season and all of the optics and all of the one year deals and all of the injuries, the team could have started a war among itself, man vs. man, player vs. coach, owner vs. coach, but through it all the team has stayed attached to one another, supportive, helpful, embracing. Aside from the incident in Phoenix and even that was nothing major, not once this year has there been a grenade with the locker room blowing up. It made it easier to go through all of the rehab, to try to recover and get back because his teammates badly wanted him back and the organization did too and of course D’antoni who has seen the best of Steve Nash and the suffering of Steve Nash is expectant and hopeful. “One of the best players to ever play the game”, D’antoni said.
Soon it will happen. His career is no longer going to hold his body up. His body will simply disintegrate and not let him do this any longer. But when something is taken away it leaves a certain mark- you just have to get that thing back even if it is for a game or two. Even if you are 40. Even if in the long run it only means you reminded everyone that once upon a time there was a player named Steve Nash. He won two MVP’s. He is fourth all time in assists. He is the best free throw shooter in NBA history. He entered the NBA in 1996 with no expectations and in 2014 it is the same, he has no expectations. But on Friday night he played better then the star rookie. Will it last? No one knows, no one can know, not even Steve Nash. But sometimes not knowing is believing.