Steve Nash doesn’t believe in war. But if he did, if he saw the merit in sacrifice and duty and violence, he would appreciate a soldier named Hiroo Onoda. Onoda was an Imperial Japanese Army intelligence officer who stayed at his post for 29 years after the war was over. He would not move. He would not walk away. He would not accept defeat or the idea that the world had changed because World War II had ended. Onoda refused to accept that something outside his specific orders had been altered. And so there he was on Lubang Island in the Philippines, deep into the jungle, preparing for an invasion, one that never came.
Steve Nash, the one who does not believe in war but believes in grace, will have 41 candles on his birthday cake before this season is over. His story these last two years is familiar territory for men of a certain age. Forced to accept a world they did not prepare for they accidentally turn into the Japanese soldier with the withered face standing in the dark. These last moments are a sacred mission of holding on and waiting for something that won’t ever come.
In a little over a month Steve Nash will be where he has always been since 1996. He will start a training camp expecting his body not to betray him, expecting his basketball intelligence and experience to guide him. In 1996 he was drafted in the same draft class as Allen Iverson, Marcus Camby, Stephon Marbury, Ray Allen, Antoine Walker, Kobe Bryant, Peja Stojakavic, Jermaine O’Neal. He was not the best player in that draft nor was he the most athletically gifted.
He was booed on draft day because he was a Canadian who played college ball in Santa Clara, a quiet hamlet up the northern coast. His college team had a brilliant moment in the NCAA tournament. They shocked the 2nd ranked Arizona Wildcats in the tournament’s first round. Steve was a freshman; he had a miserable game shooting, he was 1-7. But he made 80% of his free throws. In the second round Santa Clara played a Temple team that had two future NBA players: Aaron McKie and Eddie Jones. They made life miserable for Santa Clara. Steve Nash went 1-9, had 3 points, 3 assists and 5 personal fouls.
Three years later Santa Clara was the #10 seed and they beat Maryland. But in the next round, facing Paul Pierce and Kansas, Steve Nash, the senior point guard, was 1-11 and Santa Clara lost by 25.
On draft night he had no particular insight into his future. He had no clue that he would play 38,000 minutes and 1,200 games. Or that those fans who once looked upon him with cynicism and doubt in 1996 now have children who love Steve Nash. Come winter they will scramble to get a glimpse of the 40 year old as he walks across the Phoenix Suns court for the last time, heroic and proud.
What makes a great player is the ability to dominate his position in his era, to leave both a mark and footprints. For Nash it was unselfishness as much as it was artistry that distinguished him above all others, and it was also the magical things he did with the ball.
He always absorbed contact, even when he was a young player, and it was only a matter of time before all those hits in the lane and around the perimeter were going to be absorbed deep beneath the skin where his structural system functions. His back didn’t care that he won the MVP twice. His nerves didn’t care that he was in the Western Conference Finals. Slowly and surely, the body of Steve Nash the pacifist turned into the prisoner of Steve Nash the aging veteran. Everything began to break apart.
After 18 years in the league 24 minutes a game is probably his max as Steve Nash is no more than a back-up off the bench. He was a back-up his rookie year. And his second year. Until he was traded to the Dallas Mavericks and teamed with Dirk Nowitzki and coached by Don Nelson. There he developed his point guard great teammate identity.
It was in Dallas that he expressed to the world how much he disliked war. He once said: I’m embarrassed by humanity. More than embarrassed, I think it’s really unfortunate in the year 2003 that we’re still using violence as a means of conflict resolution.
He left Dallas the following season. In Phoenix, Steve Nash the NBA point guard transformed into Steve Nash the phenomenal player when Mike D’antoni instituted a fast paced system that changed basketball in a revolutionary way. Only Steve Nash could execute it and in Phoenix he changed the careers of Shawn Marion, Amare Stouamire, Joe Johnson, Leandro Barbosa, Raja Bell. None have had the same careers without Steve Nash and frankly Nash has seemed lonely without them as well.
It was not that long ago when Steve Nash, in a playoff game, had his nose cut open. Angry blood gushed all over his face, an image replayed on the television screen over and over, bleeding the way Joe Frazier would bleed. Bandages could not sop up the excess and he had to go in and out of the game as the blood became a side show and the Suns lost. Three games later more Nash violence and the irony was special. Non-violent Steve the object of hostility. This time he was checked into the scorer’s table by Robert Horry of the San Antonio Spurs, a flagrant foul. It led to players leaving the bench and being suspended and the Suns were shorthanded in the next game. They lost the series to the Spurs and were instant martyrs in a punitive league.
Punishment goes hand and hand with war; it just does. Hiroo Onoda who knew nothing about basketball and who knew everything about being a loyal soldier was trained to embrace and live out absolute loyalty. Punishment did not matter. Being alone for 30 years in a jungle while guarding his post did not matter. He was ordered to never surrender and to never take his own life.
So after the war when Onoda’s family came to search for him and begged him to surrender he ignored them. They begged him to surrender on four separate occasions. But he refused. He just would not give up.
After 30 years in the jungle he turned over his sword, his rifle, 500 pounds of ammunition, hand grenades, a weapon his mother had given him to kill himself with if he was ever captured. He paid homage to his country with a salute. At the same time he wept. Later he said, “I don’t consider those years a waste of time. I wouldn’t have my life today.”
The life of Steve Nash today is far removed and considerably detached from his past. His time in Los Angeles is one in which he has been injured and broken and carrying around his neck a $27 million dollar price tag. He seems to hurt himself every time he breathes. His Lakers tenure has provided very little by way of achievement except he climbed up the leader board, now he is third in NBA history in assists.
If he takes the court on opening night as a backup to Jeremy Lin, Steve Nash’s career will have come full circle. He started in California as a college kid; he will end there as a NBA legend, admired and emulated by the next generation. It reminds you that in sports there are trophies and titles and awards and fame. There is idolatry and passion. But the basic question is: will they remember your name?
His last season and Steve Nash is pain free. He is determined to prove it was not a mistake nor a waste. Mitch Kupchak did the right thing in 2012 when he brought him here. By virtue of his game Steve Nash wants to show it was really worth it. Yes, his body let people down, himself included. But he did not fail here. So he will not lay down his sword and weep.