With the Suns battling the Lakers for the West’s bid to the Finals, we thought the time was right to run DeMarco’s recent mag article (SLAM 137) online.–Ed.
by DeMarco Williams
One million, two hundred and twenty-two thousand, two hundred and thirty-five people can’t be wrong. Give or take a few thousand Phoenix Suns die-hards, that’s the number of fans who voted for Steve Nash as a starter for this year’s All-Star Game. It was Steve’s second career starting nod and seventh invite overall. Most with functional retinas see where the million-plus were coming from. Eighteen points and 11 assists every single time he laces up? Kinda hard not to punch a chad for the guy.
“It’s flattering and humbling to be recognized as an All-Star, especially after as many years as I’ve played,” says Nash, who played his first midseason classic back in ’02. “To be recognized as playing at a high level still is a reward for all of the time I’ve put into my game and my team. My teammates share this with me because our success is what allows people to highlight your individual performance. Without team success, you’re not going to be recognized.”
Reciting team-first quotes or calling out tantalizing stats is cool, but it’s also something the president of The Chris Paul Fan Club can do to proclaim his man the best point guard in the League. To truly show Steve Nash as the NBA’s finest floor general, we need to go a little deeper, express a different side. To do that, we’re following the 13-year vet on the road for a couple of days. Yeah, we already know what you’re thinking: If 22-year-old, world-class athletes find it nearly impossible to keep up with the wily pro, what in the world made us think we could? A few plane tickets, a dependable rental car and some scheduling ingenuity, that’s what…
First Stop: Houston, TX
“We’re fighting.” That’s Steve Nash’s answer to Phoenix’s postseason prospects. The mere thought probably ages the cerebral Sun a few months. “I think we have to improve if we’re going to continue to be in the Playoff push. We’re in the Playoffs the way it stands now. I think we’re a Playoff team. When we say that, we gotta bring it every night in the Western Conference because there’s so many teams in the same position as ourselves.”
He’s right. There’s a logjam in the West. Take the Lakers and Nuggets out the picture and the rest of the teams are virtually interchangeable. At press time, in fact, the third and 10th slots were separated by a mere five games. Needless to say, tonight’s Suns/Rockets match-up is a pretty big deal. But looking at Steve Nash, it seems like any of the other nearly 1,000 games in a Hall of Fame career. He’s skipping around. He’s chatting. He’s high fiving teammates repeatedly. Dude, there are 10 seconds until tip!
Once the action starts, though, he’s all business. No. 13 gets four rebounds in the first four minutes. For obvious reasons, the feat stands out: First, he’s the shortest “6-3” chap you’ll ever meet; second, the man’s made a career out of giving, not grabbing. But hey, might as well catalog the accomplishment with all the others from this unbelievable season. Not only are the 18-point and 11-assist averages near career highs (and on par with his back-to-back MVP campaigns of ’04-05 and ’05-06), Nash is also shooting at an unprecedented clip this year. If his 52 percent from the field, 43 percent from far out and 94 percent from the free-throw line hold up, he’ll have achieved those levels for a fourth season. Larry Bird’s the only other person to do it twice.
This brings us to another point regarding Nash’s brilliance. With all the textbook passes to Amar’e Stoudemire season after season, Nash’s scoring prowess gets overshadowed. Having aspects of your hard work routinely go unnoticed has to weigh down on a person at some point, right?
“I’m not really concerned with that,” tells Nash, who quietly had nine games of 25 or more points by Valentine’s Day. “I think so often in our business, people outside of our locker room don’t really have an educated view of what’s actually happening. They don’t really understand a lot about what’s going on with our team, you know? They don’t understand the schemes we play defensively, the offense we play. They have an outsider’s perspective. Even the media who follows us every day, they can’t really analyze the game properly.”
Umm, OK. Call Nash bothered by the question or just cranky from the night’s performance. In a hard-fought, overtime win against Houston, Nash shoots an unsteady 2-10 from the field, goes 1-6 from three and is whistled for his first technical foul of the season. He does snatch a season-high 8 rebounds and earn 11 points. Still, he just wasn’t himself out there.
“I have an abdominal strain and a bad back,” explains Nash, who still manages to post a Toyota Center-record 16 assists. “I was trying my best not to shoot tonight. I don’t know. Maybe it’s because I stayed in my room and laid on my back for about 14 hours. The pain and soreness was there tonight.”
Nash is 36 years old. Give the man a break…and a heat pad!
When he graduated from Santa Clara as the two-time West Coast Conference Player of the Year back in ’96, Aaron Brooks was still wearing Bugle Boys jeans in elementary school. Pardon the old fella if he aches more than your typical superstar playing 34 minutes a night.
“I’m handling the rigors of the season as well as I ever have,” adds Nash. “But the same things are always difficult, like the travel, the constant amount of games. You know, for me, the hardest thing is always [striving] to be a consistent player. That takes a lot of preparation and a lot of dedication and a lot of guts on some nights. That could be the most tiring thing—that and setting a standard and a consistency for yourself to live up to.”
Second Stop: New Orleans, LA
The drive from Houston to New Orleans is about six hours long; doing it in a Ford Focus during a monsoon probably adds another 45 minutes. But if there is some good to come out the lengthier ride, it’s that it offers the chance to reflect on Nash’s prudent remarks from the previous night: Setting a standard and a consistency to live up to.
This is why Steven John Nash is the James Francis Cameron of the hardwood. The man has set a bar that only he seems capable of eclipsing. Don’t get us wrong. Deron Williams and Rajon Rondo have been exemplary over the past few seasons. But until those young guys have a decade-long stretch like this cool Canadian’s had—three All-NBA First Teams, over 7,500 assists and counting, eight Playoff appearances, a portfolio comprised of 10 different businesses and two non-profits—you’ll have to excuse us from comparing Alice in Wonderland to Avatar.
“You definitely appreciate it,” says Suns swingman Jason Richardson of Nash’s on-court directing skills. “He’s a guy that’s going to give everybody shots. He’s very unselfish the way he passes the ball. And he can score. When you have a guy of that caliber, it just makes everybody’s job easier.”
Try telling that story to Darren Collison, point man for the New Orleans Hornets, another team in that aforementioned glut in the West. The UCLA blur has the unenviable task of not only guarding Nash tonight, but also filling the injured Chris Paul’s shoes for the next month. The youngster does go for a Nash-like 16 and 14. Nash has a Nash-like 18 and 12. Suns score another tight W. Nash’s tightening back takes another L.
“I need to apologize to him because I meant to keep his minutes under 30 tonight,” admits Phoenix head coach Alvin Gentry. “But as he said to me, ‘Coach, we gotta win the game. I can rest tomorrow and then we’ll see what happens.’ Obviously, he’s just sucking it up. He’s not feeling well. He’s having problems with his back and his groin and stuff like that. He’s been able to just play and find a way for us to hang in. He’s been great for us.”
JRich adds, “They say wine gets better with age. That’s how Steve is. He’s gotta have one of the highest basketball IQs in the game. He’s just such a smart player. He knows where everybody’s gonna be at. He knows when to pass the ball. He sees the court very well. When a lot of people age, they slow down, but he’s just so smart about the game that it comes easy to him.”
But leave it to the warrior who’s No. 2 on the Suns all-time assists list to pass off self-praise: “I don’t know if I’m getting better, but I’m feeling like I’m playing as well as I’ve ever played. In some ways, maybe I am getting better. Maybe I’m not. But overall, I think that…um, maybe tonight is a bad night to ask ’cause I’m exhausted. But you know, even being tired tonight, I got the job done so I can’t complain.”
Of course, the day will eventually come when Steve’s twinges and tweaks simply won’t allow him to keep up with the Derrick Roses and Russell Westbrooks any longer. And when that time arrives, Nash will graciously hang up the Nikes, throw on some Vans and ride off into the Springfield sunset with his wife and twin daughters. Nash already seems to have a part of his enshrinement speech prepared.
“I want to be remembered as being a good teammate, being a great competitor and being someone who gave it everything he had,” he says. ”Those things, I mean, are more important than all the accolades. I want to be remembered as the guy my teammates liked playing with.”
As 12 teammates and 1,222,235 fans can surely attest, as well as the entire country of Canada (Nash lit the Olympic torch at the Winter Games’ Opening Ceremonies three nights before playing in his seventh All-Star Game), there are no worries there.
Not that Steve Nash cares too much either way. The man’s already walking down the hallway outside the locker room, heading to a charter bus that’s, hopefully, heading to a hotel bed.