Steve Nash: “You Have to Say Goodbye to Your Former Self”


Steve Nash had a great career, just not a fair one. It happens sometimes. By the luck of the draw, some people get what they want. Others fall short, their dreams vaporized into dust. There is nothing new here, athletes age and become broken. Steve Nash is not an anomaly nor an exception. Like a host of others, he was once a spectacular player who had a lonely end to his brilliant career.

Perhaps if he had a NBA Finals ring, it might make all of this palatable, this dizzying look back at once upon a time. But Nash’s NBA Finals drought will be a recited passage of the Steve Nash Years, the roots that saturated his tree, another sports metaphor that says something remarkable about the enduring stain of failure.

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In the five seasons in which his team, the Phoenix Suns, won at least 54 games, Steve Nash could not lead them to the Finals. There was always a flaw, an explanation, some piece of deductive reasoning or intelligence for this underachievement. Or, maybe it’s just what happens to those who are unlucky.

Apr 8, 2014; Los Angeles, CA, USA; Los Angeles Lakers guard Steve Nash (10) acknowledges the crowd after passing Mark Jackson (not pictured) to move into third on the all-time NBA assist list in the second quarter against the Houston Rockets at Staples Center. Mandatory Credit: Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

The manner in which he saved the Suns- heroic, radiant, electric- was noticeably absent in Los Angeles. Nash was mostly lame, as if he had been the victim of a cruel hoax that demanded his attrition. Denied the opportunity to create his version of poetry on the basketball court, his fragile body became the punch line of a sad joke about gravity as he was blamed for his body’s descent into collapse. Reflexively, it gave him an edge and created a narrative no one had ever seen out of Steve Nash before, a little bit angry, a lot frustrated.

Every athlete lives on the margins of borrowed time and Nash has taken up residence there for three years. His health issues have been dissected and documented to the point that when he did play he was accompanied by nostalgia. The romance had more to do with what Steve Nash used to be than what was coming next.

Psychologists will tell you sadness comes when you can’t construct a future. Sadly, we knew the future, the only thing possible: retirement.

Once upon a time, Steve Nash was an underdog, an unimpressive looking guard who was a passing wizard. He was overwhelmed in a room of stars. Allen Iverson, Ray Allen, Marcus Camby, Stephon Marbury, Kerry Kittles, Antoine Walker all were college phenoms at schools like Georgetown and Kentucky and Connecticut. They sucked the oxygen out of the New Jersey draft room in 1996. The high school kid, Kobe Bryant, had more buzz surrounding him than Steve Nash.

Nevertheless, the skinny kid with the happy face was one of the others, a regular guy trying to make it in the hard and tumble world of the NBA.

Americans love underdogs, the ones who have been penciled in as having no chance. We love the powerless rising up and making themselves noticed in a world that is often unfair and unkind. There is something virtuous about the little guy that fights and refuses to quit, or the one that overcomes hellacious odds.

Steve Nash, the underdog, booed by the fans of the team that drafted him (Phoenix Suns), made it on the stage in East Rutherford, New Jersey on draft night with all those McDonald’s All Americans, the Kobe Bryant’s and Allen Iverson’s of the world. He was drafted with the 15th pick.

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In his NBA career, he dominated his era. For nine straight seasons he either led the league in assists or was second; once in 2008-09 he was third. Only two guards were more consistent than Steve Nash: John Stockton and Jason Kidd. 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 is the best free throw shooter in NBA history. He has two MVP trophies and was the runner-up for a third. He was an All-Star eight times.

But, because he never reached the glorious prosperity of being a champion or being a runner up, where there is either glory or suffering, his particular brand of athletic psychosis created an illusion than only his failing body could put to rest. He just cannot play anymore. The body is gone. He has no other choice but to quit.

Apr 4, 2014; Los Angeles, CA, USA; Los Angeles Lakers guard Steve Nash (10) during the game against the Dallas Mavericks at Staples Center. The Mavericks defeated the Lakers 107-95. Mandatory Credit: Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

Remembering Steve Nash is to see in your mind a baseline trap Steve Nash maneuvered through. Or, a Steve Nash deflected pass or back to back turnover that never, ever happened. What he lacked in the pure athletic model of the modern point guard, he made up for with a baffling skill set that was the predecessor of today’s agile point guard. Weave into the paint. Keep your dribble alive. Play the angles.

There is no way to describe everything Nash was as a player and not describe the paradox that made it possible, this quick white guard in this explosive black league and the way it divided the NBA into two spheres: the players who were skilled and the players who were one dimensional.

For as long as athletes have been playing sports for pay, they have had to live with the death of their career and the death of their talent and the death of their skill and the death of their athletic soul and the death of their heroism and the death of their invincibility. The stage and the world celebrates and highlights genius. And then the stage narrates mediocrity and descent. And finally, it pushes players into the solitary world of an exiled man.

The last time Nash breathed rare air was in 2010 when the Phoenix Suns were in the Western Conference Finals. Mike D’antoni and Seven Seconds or Less was long gone and the Suns were the underdogs to the Lakers who were the defending NBA Champions. It was the last noteworthy playoff appearance of Steve Nash, his last moment wearing the robe of hero and the crown of king. And then, of course, the familiar wreath of loser.

There was a moment at the very end of that series, when the Lakers wore Western Conference Champions t-shirts and the Suns were appropriately dejected, that history stood on center court. Steve Nash and Kobe Bryant were drafted together in 1996. In their 14 year careers, the pendulum had swung differently for the both of them. Bryant had been with one team, Nash with three. Bryant had been in 6 NBA Finals. Steve Nash had been in none.

Last year, Nash played a game against the Minnesota Timberwolves, facing Ricky Rubio who was 5 years old when Steve Nash was drafted. Nash was Nash. He passed and dished and ran the fast break and while the conscious brain saw one thing, the emotional brain saw another. Both parts of the brain were in agreement that his age was no longer a mystery; it was on public display.

Now there is just a door. It is the same door Steve Nash entered in 1996. It is the door that Steve Nash won’t hear shut as he walks away. Lakers fans aside, everyone else will remember Nash the way we remember those things we love that are no long here, a piece of our memory pressed into a snapshot: Phoenix, Dallas, back to Phoenix again. It is not an old Steve Nash in a young man’s game that drowns us in the past. It is a young Steve Nash in a young man’s game.

The youth was his. The brilliance was his. The gift was ours. Once upon a time.

Next: Lakers Draft: Is a Top Pick Worth the Humiliation?