INSIDE THE LINCOLN TUNNEL — There are times when Steve Nash talks about his love for soccer that you think one of the main reasons he became an NBA star was to allow him to enjoy the dream experiences of every other hardcore soccer fan like him from around the world.
"I feel like such a lucky bastard," Nash says on the way back into New York City after taking part in a training session with Inter Milan ahead of its participation in the Guinness International Champions Cup this week. "I've had so many crazy experiences that I never would have gotten if I didn't play basketball. It's incredible."
Nash did just fine in his time on the field with Inter and had some good-natured fun with Esteban Cambiasso and other Inter players afterward. It was just the latest fútbol adventure for Nash, a lifelong Tottenham Hotspur fan who plays twice a week in amateur soccer leagues in New York every June and July.
Over the years, Nash has trained now with Inter, the New York Red Bulls, AC Milan, Paraguay's Olimpia and his beloved Spurs during the days of French star David Ginola. "Ginola loves basketball," says Nash. "He had two balls, and he put them down on the D and said, 'We hit the crossbar! Go ahead!' So I chipped it up and smashed the crossbar the first time. And I was like, 'Your turn!' And he smashed it dead on. It was unbelievable. He was a genius, just watching him practice."
Nash has also connected with another Frenchman, Thierry Henry, who follows the NBA with the fervor that Nash follows soccer. It was a natural fit. Nash spent a week at Henry's house in Barcelona a few years ago and got the chance to attend Barça training sessions and meet all the players.
Nash and Henry had first met just before Euro 2004 when Nash was visiting Paris and Les Bleus were training at their Clairefontaine base just outside the capital. "They were bored stiff," Nash says. "All these teams can't leave their grounds. So they finished training in the morning and were just sitting around, and Thierry and [Zinédine] Zidane came outside and talked to me and my cousin for an hour."
"We had a great conversation, and they said, 'Do you want to see the pitch?' Of course. 'Let me get a ball.' Next thing you know, I'm having a kick-about on their training pitch with Zidane and Henry and my cousin who's never played. It was unbelievable. They were out there for an hour kicking it around, showing me tricks. That was one of the greatest experiences of my life."
The thing about Nash and soccer, though, is that he doesn't need to be around bold-faced names to have a good time. When he attended his first World Cup in 2002, he backpacked around Japan with some buddies from home in Vancouver. When he plays in New York, it's with the same amateur teams he's been on for years: Phebe's Pub in The Bowery on Wednesday nights and The Promo Factory with his Italian buddies on Thursday nights on the West Side.
Nash sees value in the cross-training that playing soccer in the summer provides for him. And he doesn't worry about any injury potential affecting him basketball-wise. "I guess my theory is: Ask for forgiveness, not permission," he says with a smile. At one point a few years ago, he says he had a conversation with the owner of the Phoenix Suns that went like this:
Owner: "What's all this soccer you're playing in the summer?"
Nash: "Well, I play soccer in the summer."
Owner: "Don't you think you'll get hurt?"
Nash: "Nope. I grew up playing soccer."
Owner: "Are you sure?"
Owner: "O.K. then!"
When Nash says he's a lifelong Spurs fan, he means it. "My dad grew up in Tottenham, and so did my dad's dad," he says. "My whole family is Tottenham fans. When I was a little guy, my mom used to work for the airlines, so we were able to travel cheaply. We'd go to England every summer and I'd get a new kit. All my cousins were Spurs fans. I still remember in '81 waking up at 5 in the morning to put on my two-tone striped blue kit with my dad to watch the FA Cup final [in which Spurs beat Man City 3-2]."
Nash's brother, Martin, played pro soccer for the Vancouver Whitecaps and the Canadian national team. And Nash does wonder how far he might have gone in soccer had he chosen that direction instead of basketball.
"It's a huge passion for me," Nash says. "My first word really was goal. My dad is an incredible fan of the game, and I grew up with his playing from the time I was born. It's something that me and my dad and my brother and friends all share to this day. You know how it is as a soccer fan. You're with your buddies and you get to the bar, and what do you talk about? I speak the language and really love the game."
Nash is a minority owner of MLS's Vancouver Whitecaps, and he keeps up closely with how they're performing. "The team's doing pretty well, considering in our second year we made the playoffs," he says. "We're an expansion team still. We're growing, we're trying to build a culture and we're trying to do it the right way by developing some talent with our residency program, which is really important to us. We have a pretty knowledgeable fan base and a good tradition dating back to 1974 and the NASL. So there are some real ingredients there to build a nice culture."
Five years ago, Nash also started the Steve Nash Showdown, an annual charity soccer game that includes stars from the NBA and the world of soccer. This year events took place in Los Angeles and in the traditional Chinatown venue in New York.
"That's been a fun experience for me," says Nash, who has lived in New York in the off-season for the past 11 years. "People wanted us to move it to a bigger stadium, but it takes away the feel. It's just right in the neighborhood on a pitch where people walk up for free. They see people they only see on TV, and we just don't want to change that. We want to keep improving it but also keep a neighborhood feel."
If it seems like Nash could talk soccer all day, well, that's because he could. (Especially after he was asked 58 times this week about Dwight Howard leaving the Lakers.) Yet for someone who socializes in elite circles, he's also a guy who could sit next to you at the soccer bar, have a few pints and seem just like the rest of us. And isn't one of the reasons why we love this sport?