Steve Nash’s Influence; and a Broken Ankle
Basketball never stopped, especially after my first year of high school, a time when I was getting my first taste on a competitive team. That’s where I found myself at the gym, everyday, after school, with no stress or a worried thought. I wasn’t thinking about how to get better, shoot more threes, learn how to dribble left-handed; I just played because it was fun. And on a macro-level, maybe it helped me get better as a whole. I took a dribble, like a thousand other times in my life, took two long steps and reached up to cram the ball into the spheric rim that seemed so far away just a year ago. A second later, I lay sprawled on the floor in the kind of pain that wouldn’t allow you to scream or cry even if your body pleaded with all its might. The kind that haunted you whenever you jumped into the lane again, your mind reflexively flashing back to that specific moment, forcing a physical, audible flinch. I had a severely fractured ankle that needed three pins inserted and would never recover that same ability, and the reckless, carefree, worry-less mental state again.
Steve Nash is and always will be my favorite basketball player. That really annoying thing where centers and tall forwards always want to play point guard and jack up threes and whip no-look passes? I was that guy. And Nash was a huge part of why teammates would bemoan a transition three that went over the backboard or a behind-the-back midair cross-court pass that flew into the stands. His free-flowing, seemingly easy approach to the game endeared him to millions. I watched every single one of his games as a Dallas Maverick and Phoenix Sun. I lamented the Dirk-Nash breakup. But then the seven-seconds-or-less Phoenix Suns happened. The team was built to perfection; a pick-and-roll monster in Amare Stoudemire, knock-down shooter in Joe Johnson and jack-of-all-trades player in Shawn Marion. But no matter the talent that surrounded Nash, he was far and away the best player, the proverbial oil that greased the engine, and a player that elevated everyone and everything around him.
Recovering from surgery, I spent an inordinate amount of time studying Nash’s highlight tapes. What else was there to do when you’re laying in bed with a walking boot and eating Hot Cheetos 24/7? I wasn’t a scout, and I’m definitely not now, but the easiest part of Nash’s game was explicitly noticeable. He saw plays several steps before they happened. In transition, he’d look off defenders like a quarterback to safeties. I paused, rewinded, and played, enthralled as Nash pushed the ball to one side of the court, looking one way, only to flick the ball all the way to the other side of the court, knowing no one had seen Joe Johnson streak down the sidelines. His teammates? They knew exactly where to be, which amazed me all the more. How does Johnson know where to be if Nash is never looking at him in transition or even throughout an entire play? Nash didn’t tell him to backcut or stay in the corner. It seemed like a psychic intangible connection that hooked everyone on a line, in every possession. An unselfish level of basketball that elevated the players around him, it made everyone else a smarter and better player. You didn’t just get better playing with Nash — the majority of the world will never experience this — you saw things and anticipated movement on a higher level by watching Nash.
But what made Nash so legendarily gifted remained inherent. The ability to control a game, maneuver a defense, and toy with a defender are qualities I’m sure he was born with. You can spend hours tring to perfect the absolute vision necessary to run a fastbreak but Nash had fun. It didn’t seem like he was thinking, he was just playing. That was the purest of him his basketball self on the court and it shone through night after night, season after season. Insofar as his abilities, this isn’t a racial divide between talent and athleticism. Everything he excelled at, I tried to learn, no matter how hard I fell. Passing, shooting and IQ are talents, and Nash was one of the most talented players of all time.
For the first two years off my surgery, I wasn’t able to elevate the way I wanted to. I played center, which is vastly different from Nash’s position. Yet I’d be remiss if I didn’t admit to using many parts of his game to further my own. Passing became easier. I started to love when defenders would zone, leaving me in the middle to pick apart the defense, going to the corners or drive-and-kicking. But this isn’t about how I played, it was how Nash engineered and sparked a legion of younger players that had watched Allen Iverson, Stephon Marbury and then Kobe Bryant; all players that handled the ball as much as Nash but never graced the court as effortlessly as he. Talent comes in different sizes, packages, and volume. Nash kept me, and us, in awe without feeling twinges of jealousy about his ability to enhance himself, but everybody around him.
All this to sadly point out that Nash is nearing the end of his career. They say that shooting will never die. And despite the fact that Nash will finish his career as one of the greatest shooters of all time, Father Time loses to no one. He went to Los Angeles to chase a title, something everyone with the #FreeSteveNash movement was happy to see even if it meant it happened in L.A. But without the Phoenix Suns training staff and more elbows and hip checks that probably felt like full on body punches, it’s looking more and more as if the whirling, magnificently aesthetic point guard that mesmerized the NBA with his shooting and passing, the new-age Pete Maravich and old-age Stephen Curry, is finally on his last legs.
The new wave of NBA point guards veer towards the species that can physically and brutally dominate a game. Russell Westbrook, Derrick Rose, Kyrie Irving, Tony Parker and Damian Lillard possess different, yet scintillating abilities to take over whole quarters at a game. Nash was an assassin in a way that made me think, “Why can’t I make that pass?” or “How did he make it seem like anyone else can do it when he was so clearly above the rest of his competition?”. Nash gave me a gift; one that helped me understand basketball in a way I could try and emulate, even if it was significantly less than a homeless man’s version. And if I had to do everything again, I’m glad I laid bent on the floor that day, because it opened my eyes to one of the greatest basketball players of all time; one that might never be artistically and influentially duplicated.