In explosive sports news that upstaged even the fireworks on the 4th of July, the Los Angeles Lakers announced that they had traded for Phoenix Suns All-Star point guard and two-time Most Valuable Player Steve Nash. Nash even at the ripe old age of 38 is still among the best in the sport having averaged 12 points and almost 11 assists in 2012. He's also arguably the finest shooter of his generation, with staggering lifetime shooting percentages of 49% from the field, 43% from three point land, and over 90% from the foul line.
Understandably people are already recalibrating the 2012-2013 season, wondering if Nash and his future Hall-of-Fame teammate Kobe Bryant can not only co-exist but compete for a championship. I'm personally wondering how Nash will look in purple and gold which is as bizarrely unsettling as picturing Magic Johnson in Celtic green. I also am genuinely flummoxed about how Nash’s unique skill set, which involves dribbling all around the half court until finding an open shooter, will mesh with Kobe's Bryant's desire to be genetically fused with the ball like Jeff Goldblum in The Fly.
But a less discussed question is the political impact, if any at all, of Steve Nash playing in the white-hot spotlight of Laker-Land. Nash has played most of his career in Arizona, the state Jon Stewart once described as "The Meth Lab of American Democracy." More than perhaps any elected official in the state, Nash has stood out as a voice of sanity. He spoke out against the troop escalations during the Bush wars, wearing a T-shirt that read, "No war. Shoot for peace." Nash said he choose to wear the shirt because, "I think that war is wrong in 99.9 percent of all cases. I think [Operation Iraqi Freedom] has much more to do with oil or some sort of distraction…. Unfortunately, this is more about oil than it is about nuclear weapons.” Nash has also spoken out for LGBT Marriage Equality, recording commercials in New York State when the legislature was considering legalization. This is a pro athlete who admitted casually to reading the Communist Manifesto as a way to better understand Che Guevara. I wish that wasn’t a controversial thing to say, but it is and he said it.
But above all else, he’s also is the player responsible for organizing his Suns squad to speak out against Gov. Jam Brewer's radical, "papers please", anti-immigration bill, SB 1070. On Cinco de Mayo, 2010, Nash organized the entire team to wear jerseys that read Los Suns.He said, "I think the law is very misguided. I think it is unfortunately to the detriment to our society and our civil liberties and I think it is very important for us to stand up for things we believe in. I think the law obviously can target opportunities for racial profiling. Things we don't want to see and don't need to see in 2010."
One person who didn't like what they had to say, however, was Lakers coach Phil Jackson.
In an interview with ESPN, Jackson spoke out in support of SB 1070 saying, "Am I crazy, or am I the only one that heard [the legislature] say 'we just took the United States immigration law and adapted it to our state.'" When sports writer J.A. Adande remarked that SB 1070 could mean "the usurping of federal law," Jackson said, "It's not usurping…. they gave it some teeth to be able to enforce it."
Jackson, the ex-60s radical, then challenged the Phoenix Suns right to even talk about it, saying:
"I don't think teams should get involved in the political stuff," If I heard it right the American people are really for stronger immigration laws, if I'm not mistaken. Where we stand as basketball teams, we should let that kind of play out and let the political end of that go where it's going to go."
But Phil might have been one of the few people in Los Angeles who didn't like Los Suns. The LA city council voted 13-1 to "ban most city travel there and to forgo future business contracts with companies headquartered in the state." Now it's rumored that Phil Jackson might come back and actually coach the Lakers. Jackson is famous – or infamous – for assigning books to players to read. Maybe if he comes back, Nash could suggest something to him.
The bigger question, though, isn’t about Nash’s politics or the clash that could result from a possible Jackson return. It’s whether Nash will use the hyper-exalted platform of being a Laker to be loud and proud about the issues that matter to him. If the past is any guide, he will continue to speak out. But it’s one thing to do it as the unquestioned leader – and cash cow – of the Phoenix Suns. It’s another thing to do it in the purple and gold, while trying to wrest the basketball from Kobe Bryant’s steely grip. If Nash does continue to be that rarest of outspoken athletes, he’ll undoubtedly find the heat in Los Angeles to be even greater than it was in the Arizona desert. But he’ll also find a helluva lot more shade.