This article was originally published in Maclean's Magazine on May 23, 2005
Steve Nash Is Basketball's Rising Sun
YOU NEED TO understand the way of the point guard. This isn't just a position on a BASKETBALL team, this is a calling, a tradition, a mantle of responsibility handed down like a sacred trust - Keeper of the Ball - lacking only secret handshakes and sworn oaths. Point guards are savvy, unselfish, creative. They can juke by a defender and into the lane, attracting other opponents and then slipping a sly pass to an open mate. They have the fundamentals but also the flair, and they have their hand on the throttle, blazing up court or choking back the flow, their coaches' agents on the hardwood. They make their bones by making their team better.
So here was Steve Nash, consummate point guard, leading his Phoenix Suns into the second round of the NBA playoffs last week. He had just received the league's most valuable player trophy - something a skinny kid from Victoria could scarcely dream of - and a sustained ovation from the home crowd. On top of that, his squad was taking on the Dallas Mavericks, Nash's former team, and among the interested spectators was Mark Cuban, the flamboyant Mavs owner who'd decided the Canadian wasn't worth the six-year, US$65-million stipend Phoenix had dangled to lure him to the Valley of the Sun.
And how did Nash respond? By changing nothing. By having fun. There he was - 31 years old, a mere six foot three - racing up the floor, hair flying, his gait at once fluid and herky-jerky, whirling, stopping, starting, dribbling between his legs and behind his back, making the simple passes and the sublime ones, content to let his younger, taller teammates steal the show. The splendid Amare Stoudemire - a future MVP, surely - finished with 40 points. Nash collected a wagon-load of assists and another standing O when he retired to the bench, the Dallas contingent routed, at least for this night.
He makes it look so easy, you almost forget how far he's come. Sure, basketball was invented by Canadian James NAISMITH, but, as any moviegoer knows, it was perfected by straight-shooting American country boys (Hoosiers) and later by sky-walking city kids (Hoop Dreams). Only California's Santa Clara University took a chance on the Canadian guy. But Nash starred there and ascended to the NBA, from Phoenix to Dallas and then back to the desert, where he turned a 29-win assemblage of unharnessed athletes into a cohesive team of roadrunners with a league-best 62 triumphs.
Think of him as Canada in sneakers, or Canada at its best anyway: sharing, caring, hard-working, modest, tough and, by the way, supremely talented. (Heck, he's even against the Iraq war, and not afraid to say so deep in the U.S. heartland.) And then there was his challenger for the MVP, one Shaquille O'Neal. Shaq is America in really big sneakers: outsized, unstoppable, a gentle giant who, when you get him riled, steamrolls lesser men and sends off waves of shock and awe. The fact that Nash won, that David beat Goliath ("Nobody loves Goliath," that late great hoops philosopher, Wilt Chamberlain, often complained), doesn't mean he's the NBA's best player. He's not the fastest or strongest or highest flying or even the one you'd pick first if you were starting a team from scratch. But most valuable, for 2005? Absolutely.
And now he's a man on a mission: to prove that a run-and-gun gang can actually bring home a championship. Because even as the Suns racked up a league-leading average of 110 points per game, and blew by the Memphis Grizzlies in the first round of the playoffs, the wise old heads kept saying they'd wither as the competition stiffened. This is where basketball's woes mirror hockey's, with conventional wisdom dictating that a defence-first, no-fun, bump-and-grind style is what captures the crown. Nash is having none of that. He says Phoenix plays the game the way it "was meant to be played." Nash, revving up the Suns' high-octane attack, is one point guard determined to make a point.
Maclean's May 23, 2005