Links: Steve Nash’s Showdown in Chinatown

by June 26, 2008

by Lang Whitaker

(We’ll talk more here tomorrow about actual NBA moves, once the Draft is over and teams finish shifting guys around for the time being. But I will say this: Pacers fans, welcome to rebuilding!)

Last night here in Manhattan, Phoenix Suns guard and two-time MVP Steve Nash teamed up with former US National soccer midfielder Claudio Reyna to host a charity soccer match in Chinatown. They’d already announced the line-ups, which were pretty amazing, with a lot of big names. And they’d also already announced that the game was free for anyone who would show up, so I had an idea that this thing might be a disaster, at least in terms of crowd control.

I met up with Jake down at the field yesterday afternoon around 5:45, and there was already a crowd of people at least five-deep all the way around the field, pressed up against the chain-link fence. People were hanging from trees, climbing the fences…it looked like the famous picture of Dr. J at Rucker.

This was the view that I had…

So at first I couldn’t see anything that was happening, I could only hear occasional roars from the crowd. It was both frustrating and disappointing—though I wasn’t as mad as Kanye.

So Jake and I stood there on our tip-toes, trying to peer over the crowd. I saw glimpses of Nash, Leandro Barbosa’s left eye, a sliver of Raja Bell’s calf. At one point I heard a fan yell, “Hey Baron! Baron Davis! Opt out!”

A few moments later, thanks to the pulling of some strings, Jake and I were standing on the field in the corner, a few feet down from potential draftee Alexis Ajinca, who’s about 200 feet tall and wide and long and in street clothes looks like the greatest basketball player who ever lived. (Of course, I haven’t seem him actually do anything athletic, like run or hold a basketball, so any GMs out there reading this, you might want to consider watching him, like, play basketball.)

Once we were on the field, it was easier to see what was going on. The teams wore yellow and blue. The Yellow team featured Nash, Barbosa, Thierry Henry and Raja Bell. The Blue squad had Reyna, Baron Davis, Jason Kidd, Salomon Kalou and Jozy Altidore.

Some notes…
• Loudest cheer of the first half was for Baron Davis, who successfully headed the ball with a Dodgers hat on. I hope that little button on the top of his hat didn’t scrape the top of his head. Because that can hurt.

• Moments later, Baron scored with an assist from Altidore. Then Henry answered back on the assist from Nash. Nash then ran to the sideline and laid on his back with a towel behind his head. OK, not really.

• At one point, Henry ended up solo’d against Kidd, who was playing at half-speed and obviously wanted no part of trying to defend him. Henry went right around Kidd. Like Chris Paul during the Playoffs.

• Nash gets all the pub as the NBA player most into soccer, but Barbosa was ridiculous. He was playing full-speed, doing dribbling tricks, tearing up the wings. If Phoenix doesn’t trade him to Portland, they should at least put in a call to Sao Paolo.

• Only yellow card of the first half went to Henry, for dissent.

• Jason Kidd got free in front of the goal and someone centered the ball from the wing. Kidd tried to chest-volley the ball into goal but it clanked off the crossbar. Do I even need to make a joke? Actually, Kidd played well and had some nice skills on the ball out there.

•’s Mark Stein was also out there playing hard. After he missed an open header, I was going to give him a hard time here, but then I thought about it and remembered that even if they were all playing half-speed, Stein was playing with and against some of the greatest soccer players of all time. And I am one of the few people on earth who can sympathize with the enormity of such an experience.

• First person to kick the ball over the fence was Baron Davis. I was wondering if they’d have to cancel the game, but it turned out someone else had an extra soccer ball. Henry also hit a shot that went about 10 feet over the goal and through a hole in the fence.

• The game ended with Henry lobbing a pass to Nash, who let the ball carom off his chest and drop toward the ground, but before it hit the turf Nash one-timed into the net for a goal. Heckuva shot.

Although the NY Times reported Nash’s team won 9-4, Leandro told me it was actually 6-4. That’s what the Times gets for allowing Jayson Blair to cover the event. (And as I left I bumped into Joel Kimmel, official illustrator of The Links. We’d never met before, and now I’m concerned I’m going to be the drawing for NBA Friday.)

A few hours later at the after party at the store Replay in Soho, I asked Steve Nash why Shaq wasn’t out there playing, since he’s obviously in New York right now. Steve explained that he didn’t think Shaq was really into soccer. Who cares? As I told Steve, if they’d had Shaq in goal, his squad might have pitched a shutout.

As for the after party, it was pretty dope: a two-level store, open bars throughout, lots of cool people and current/former athletes. Jake and I talked to everyone from Shan Foster to Nash to Baron to some excited fans who’d crashed the party that Stein passed off on me. Jake had a plan to try and convince everyone that he was actually a prospect from Belarus in town for the Draft, but I don’t think anyone was buying it. Besides, Jake was too busy eating the free sliders and hot dogs.

Whatever the actual score, it was a great, entertaining event, a nice way to spend a few hours outdoors on a perfect, warm Manhattan evening, with everything benefiting Reyna’s charity and Nash’s charity. And as good a basketball player as Nash is, he should totally run for office once he retires (if they even have elected officials and stuff like that in Canada)—he was straight working that party, shaking hands and circulating around to everyone. He knew everyone’s name, and if didn’t he asked for your name and introduced himself. I’ve known him for a while now, even before he was the superstar he is today, and he hasn’t changed a bit, at least not when I’m around him. He organized much of this event on his own, got all these guys involved to play for free. You can argue his MVP-worthiness or his importance to the Suns, but to me, Nash’s commitment to humanity and the world he lives in remains inarguable.

And that makes him a perpetual MVP in my book.