Despite the fact that his Phoenix Suns â€“ who are trailing the experienced San Antonio Spurs 3 games to 1 in the Western Conference finals — appear destined to be eliminated from the NBA Playoffs this week, Steve Nash has nevertheless put together a truly remarkable season. The Victoria-raised point guard has reached the pinnacle of the basketball world and the height of Canadian sports fame.
Having already become the first player from north of America to win the Most Valuable Player award, Nashâ€™s playoff performance â€“ especially his superlative play in eliminating his former team, the Dallas Mavericks â€“ evoked only slightly hyperbolic comparisons to the likes of Michael Jordan and Oscar Robertson. In Canadian sports, Nash now stands alone, aided by the NHL season having been put on ice.
In fact, perhaps only retired hockey star Wayne Gretzky eclipses Steve Nashâ€™s fame in Canadaâ€™s sports world today. And while there are some striking parallels between these two compelling athletes, one hopes that they will end when Nashâ€™s career does. The Great One, now president and part owner of the NHL’s Phoenix Coyotes, has maintained his post-career profile as a shameless corporate shill, pitching every product imaginable and never missing a shot at self-promotion.
Nash, like Gretzky did during his prime, dominates his sport with unequalled play-making, passing, and vision — and in spite of his lack of size and power. He also — like the hockey legend during his Edmonton years — is the centre-piece of an exciting, young, offensive-minded team. A final similarity is that Nash checks in at a playing weight well under 200 lbs. (though he’s listed at a generous 195 lbs.), which can lead to rather absurd and metaphysical explanations for his greatness, while adding to his underdog mystique.
The boisterous colour commentator Bill Walton, for instance, interjected during a recent virtuoso performance against Dallas that Nash was â€œone of the least athleticâ€ players in the league. Quickness, balance and stamina, of course, are less glamorous skills than the leaping ability of a Dwayne Wade or the sheer poundage of a Shaquille Oâ€™Neal, the runner-up for this yearâ€™s MVP. (Similarly, for years early in his career, the moronic assertion that Gretzky â€œcouldnâ€™t skateâ€ passed for astute observation).
But the analogies to Gretzkyâ€™s career only go so far, and that could bode well for Nashâ€™s performance off the court, which has thus far been pretty exemplary, as much as anyone in the hyper-egomaniacal greed-driven world of professional sports can approximate a normal human being.
While Gretzky was coddled from the age of 11 because of his prodigious talents, Nash only took up basketball at the age of 13. His progress has been gradual, and forged through relentless hard work. He was under the radar of all but a few college recruiters, ending up on a scholarship at Santa Clara. His first years in the NBA were largely disappointing, or at least unspectacular. A handful of average years, mostly as a back-up point guard, first in Phoenix (where he was originally drafted) and then in Dallas, preceded his emergence as an all-star.
This late blooming might be part of the reason Nash appears to have some depth and breadth of character and intellect. During his 2002-2003 season with Dallas, he had the temerity to question the motives for Bushâ€™s war with Iraq.
Breaking sharply from tradition, Nash actually used the occasion of the 2003 All-Star Game media session to expound on his criticism of U.S. foreign policy:
I believe that us going to war would be a mistake. Being a humanitarian, I think that war is wrong in 99.9 percent of all cases. I think it has much more to do with oil or some sort of distraction, because I don’t feel as though we should be worrying about Iraq. (â€˜Steve speaks out,â€™ SI.com, February 7, 2003)
Gretzky, on the other hand, interviewed a week after the launching of the invasion, showed himself entirely out of sync with public opinion in Canada and Quebec, while promoting the most servile faith in the president and his motives:
I live in the United States right now. I elected the president. I happen to think he’s a great leader and a wonderful president, and if he believes that we need to be where we are right now, for the freedom of the world, I back him 100 per cent.
No one likes war, no one wants to see casualties, no one wants to see POWs. Unfortunately, that’s a part of war, but we’ve got to believe in our president and I happen to think he’s a great leader. (â€˜Gretzky says he backs Bush on Iraq war,â€™ CTV.ca, March 25, 2003)
Nash refused to back off his opposition to the U.S. war even after being criticized by his owner and other star players. This, remember, from a Canadian playing in Texas.
Now playing in the decidedly Republican state of Arizona, Nash nevertheless felt comfortable mentioning, in a recent interview, that he was reading the Communist Manifesto in order â€œto get a better perspectiveâ€ on the biography of Ernesto Che Guevara he had been reading. (â€˜The hectic eclectic,â€™ The San Diego Union-Tribune, January 31, 2005)
Steve Nash, even at the slightly advanced basketball age of 31, seems determined to continue improving himself on and off the court. Surrounded by gifted young players, like his supremely talented 22 year-old pick-and-roll partner Amare Stoudemire, Nash may yet have his best years and even some championships in his future.
Given his performance off the court in the growing spotlight, one might just be forgiven for believing — amidst all the well-founded cynicism about todayâ€™s pro sports world â€“ that all of this success wonâ€™t spoil Steve Nash.
*Derrick O’Keefe is a founding editor of Seven Oaks Magazine (www.SevenOaksMag.com ), an on-line journal of politics, culture and resistance.