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The overflowing legacy of Steve Nash

After 18 trend-setting, pocket-passing, finger-licking seasons, Steve Nash is retiring from the NBA.

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On March 12 at the Langley Events Center in Langley, British Columbia, St. Michaels University School played G.W. Graham Secondary School in the quarterfinals of the provincial championship tournament. The G.W. Graham point guard was a 5’10”, 145-pound sophomore named Gabe Mannes. When he took the court, he wiped the soles of his sneakers. Before he caught an inbounds pass, he licked the tips of his fingers. After he hoisted a shot, he held his follow-through, wrist bent at 90 degrees. “Every mannerism,” says St. Michaels coach Ian Hyde-Lay, “exactly the same.”

Legacy is a word that gets thrown around a lot in sports, often incorrectly. The formal definition – “something received from a predecessor” – is far different than the popular meaning. Legacy increasingly refers to an athlete’s compilation of awards, records and championships. But those are lines on a résumé. Nash's imprint on the future is his legacy.

When Gabe Mannes touches his sneakers, that’s Steve Nash. When Goran Dragic deploys the up-and-under, that’s Steve Nash. When Tony Parker runs three pick-and-rolls on the same possession, when Damian Lillard lets it fly because a foolish defender sneaks under a screen, when Rajon Rondo drives inside, circles back, and patiently finds a cutter, that’s also Steve Nash. When the Warriors go small, the Hawks go fast, and somebody somewhere torches a trap with a meticulously placed bounce pass to a careening giant, that too can be traced at least in part to Steve Nash. His legacy lives in Chris Paul and Kyrie Irving, Russell Westbrook and Ricky Rubio, even if they don’t fully recognize it. It lives in random Canadian teens like Gabe Mannes, who does not even attend Nash’s alma mater, but clearly hails from his school. All these young point guards enjoy freedoms Nash made possible. “He created a new way to play,” the Warriors’ Steph Curry says. “He inspired me to play the way I was comfortable.”

After 18 trend-setting, pocket-passing, finger-licking seasons, Nash is retiring from the NBA. The end was interminable, three wretched years in Los Angeles, sabotaged by nerve damage in his back that deepened with every change of speed and direction. Fast breaks were brutal and road trips unbearable. The frayed nerve caused his hamstring to feel perpetually pulled, and while he could ignore the rising pain, he could not overcome the diminished dexterity. He lost the agility that allowed him to maneuver around screens and exploit angles. He lost the thing that made him Steve Nash.

He spent practices in the weight room at the Lakers training facility and games in the weight room at Staples Center, performing choreographed exercises that looked like tribal dances. “Keep chipping away,” he’d tell strength and conditioning coach Tim DiFrancesco, a mantra that eventually nauseated both men. “Every day was like another hit in the nose with a hammer,” DiFrancesco says. The only thing Nash chipped away was his own psyche.

He played 15 games last season and felt as if he needed three weeks to recover from each one. “Oh s---, am I done?” he’d ask himself on the mornings after. “Is it gone? Is it over?” The anxiety fed the agony. The Lakers' announcement in October, ruling him out for 2014-15, was a reprieve. His body made the call that his heart couldn’t. Nash would retire, and everyone around him knew it, but he didn’t discuss the decision publicly until Wednesday afternoon on the patio of a Greek restaurant two blocks from his home in Manhattan Beach.

“I subscribe to the idea that an athlete dies twice,” says Nash, 41. “It’s hard. You’re going to miss it forever. You have to take some time and grieve your former self.” He does not know where exactly he stands in the mourning process. He views himself neither as the legend who captured two MVPs in Phoenix nor as the convalescent who struggled to carry his luggage in L.A. “I’m still just the kid from Canada with one scholarship offer,” Nash says. He is the Santa Clara freshman who kept getting stripped at center-court by teammate John Woolery and considered leaving until an R.A. in his dorm helped convince him to stay. He is the junior who spent his summer around Gary Payton and Jason Kidd at Cal, where a loose ball once rolled out of the gym and Payton cracked: “Let the little man go get it.” He is the senior who was nitpicked by NBA evaluators convinced he didn’t have the right specs and he didn’t come from the right place and he didn’t even walk the right way.

“He’s not pigeon-toed enough,” lamented Phoenix scouts, who preferred Syracuse’s John Wallace with the No. 15 pick in the 1996 draft. But the Suns had just hired 33-year-old assistant coach Donnie Nelson, formerly in Golden State’s front office, who met Nash when he starred at St. Michaels and drove down to Seattle for a Sonics-Warriors game. “Okay, whatever, church boy Steve,” Nelson thought at the time. But his opinion changed as he tracked Nash through the tournament games at Santa Clara and the pick-up runs in Oakland. The day of the draft, Suns owner Jerry Colangelo asked Nelson, “You feel good about this kid?” Colangelo liked Nash, as did assistant coach Danny Ainge. Nelson confirmed their instincts. “If Stevie is not a success,” he replied, “you can have my job.”

“I subscribe to the idea that an athlete dies twice,” says Nash, 41. “It’s hard. You’re going to miss it forever. You have to take some time and grieve your former self.”

Steve Nash at Santa Clara.

Steve Nash at Santa Clara.

Nash entered the league as a third-stringer, stuck behind Kidd and Kevin Johnson, putting himself through two-a-days to learn a floater and a crossover. Reaching the NBA as a 6’3”, 195-pound Canadian was daunting. Piling up more than 17,000 points and 10,000 assists, despite a congenital back condition, was unfathomably difficult. “I didn’t feel right if I didn’t train,” Nash says. “I didn’t sleep well if I didn’t train. So I just trained all the time. I was preoccupied with the thought that I should be in the gym. That made me the player I was, but at the same time, I became a prisoner of it.” Even when he qualified for eight All-Star teams, he barely enjoyed the experience, fearing he might jinx himself. “I felt like if I ever sat back, happy about something, reality would be right around the corner,” he says. “So you get back in there early tomorrow and try to push it all away.”

Sitting on the patio, half-a-dozen blocks from the beach, he looks relieved. He wears a T-shirt and shorts, shoes with no socks. His expression has always been serene, masking the furnace inside, but he seems to smile more. He hasn’t unleashed a shot in five months, which he mentions with pride, like an alcoholic who wants you to know how long it’s been since he touched his last drink. “Shooting, for me, was an addiction,” he says. “It was an obsession. I put so much pressure on myself for so long. In some ways it is a relief to finally back away from the edge of that cliff.”

He has no clue how he will replace the rush, if he even wants to, so for now he plays weekly seven-on-seven soccer games at a park in Venice, helps his kids with their homework, walks the dog. He believes he will find the right outlet organically. He is not the type to pop in old Suns tapes or draw comparisons with Curry. He recoils at the mention of legacy and chuckles at the suggestion that he changed the sport in any fundamental way. But if there has been a death, then there has also been an inheritance, one eternal dime passed down from the ultimate floor general to his many heirs.

Dirk Nowitzki and Steve Nash with head coach Don Nelson after joining the Dallas Mavericks in 1998.

Dirk Nowitzki and Steve Nash with head coach Don Nelson after joining the Dallas Mavericks in 1998.

It is impossible to pinpoint the time and place when the NBA’s point guard revolution began, but the spring of 1999 in Dallas is as good of a guess as any. Donnie Nelson had moved to the Mavericks and helped convince his father, head coach Don Nelson, to acquire Nash. Donnie would come out looking like a genius, yet again, but it took a while. Nash’s first season in Dallas was the worst of his professional career. During a particularly grueling stretch, long-time agent Bill Duffy called every day for three weeks to offer encouragement. Nellie wasn’t as empathetic. He didn’t understand why Nash kept turning down shots. “I’m the point guard,” Nash explained. “I want to pass. It’s my nature.” In ’99, that was still a reasonable stance for a ball-handler to take. “It’s bulls---,” Nellie responded. “You’re a dominant f------ player.’” Nellie believed, as most contemporary coaches do, that the best point guards should shoot as well as pass, one skill complementing the other.

On March 24, Dallas lost to Houston and Nash went 1 of 10 from the field. Mavericks forward Dirk Nowitzki remembers the 1. “I was on the bench and the fans were booing him over and over again,” Nowitzki recalls. “Right when the booing got really bad, Steve ran down the court as fast as he could, put up a three and hit it. I thought, ‘Wow, this guy has big stones in his pants.’”

Nowitzki and Nash rebirthed pro basketball in Dallas. They arrived together, as the headliners in a transformational three-team trade, but Nowitzki was a draft choice from Germany and wanted to spend two more years in Europe. The Mavericks urged him to fly over for the press conference, meet Nash, then decide. They wound up living in the same apartment complex, playing H-O-R-S-E every off-night at Reunion Arena, and experimenting with the pick-and-roll. “Here’s a guy who is 5’10”, slow, and un-athletic,” says Nowitzki, prone to hyperbole. “He’s driving into trees, getting trapped in mid-air, and somehow throwing the ball through his legs to a shooter in the corner.”

A lifelong Spurs fan, Steve Nash can talk soccer as good as anyone

The Mavs adored Nash, but they fretted about his back, and the Suns outbid them in ‘04. “We didn’t even know how we were going to play,” says former Suns coach Mike D’Antoni. In Europe, D’Antoni’s teams treated games like rapid-fire recitals, spacing the floor and uncorking the three. “I was afraid to do that here,” says D’Antoni. “Everyone told me, ‘You’ll kill your players. You’ll get fired.’” That summer, D’Antoni met with Jerry and Bryan Colangelo, and they uttered the words he had been waiting to hear: “Use your best five.” D’Antoni shifted Amar’e Stoudemire to center and Shawn Marion to power forward, radical moves that downsized the lineup, spread the floor, and enabled Nash to reimagine offense.

“He showed what can happen when a great point guard has an open court and the freedom to make choices,” D’Antoni says. “The game explodes.” The Suns failed to capture a championship, so they were easy to dismiss as a seven-second novelty act, but they’ve flourished in other incarnations. Watch the Spurs and the Warriors, the Hawks and the Rockets, running their incessant pick-and-rolls. You’ll notice hints of the Suns in all of them. “It looked like chaos,” remembers Grant Hill, now an NBA analyst for Turner Sports. “But eventually teams adopted their style and Steve was largely responsible for that. It used to be the point guard came down, threw the ball inside or gave it to a wing. He provided a new blueprint. If you’ve got a guy like Curry or Lillard, Westbrook or Paul, you hand him the keys. Maybe you have some sets, some structure, but you basically trust his instincts and let him go.”

Hill signed with Phoenix in ’07 and was greeted with bullet passes he couldn’t see coming. “If you missed one,” Hill recalls, “Steve would say, ‘My fault,’ and then he’d go right back to you.” Sprinting alongside Nash, Hill resuscitated his career, same as Channing Frye, Marcin Gortat, and scores of others. Take Tim Thomas, for example, a 36.9 percent three-point shooter who rose to 42.9 in his lone season with the Suns. He parlayed that spike into a $24 million contract from the Clippers and was barely heard from again.

Nash’s legacy transcends positions and crosses borders. When he was growing up in Victoria, B.C., he could count on one hand the number of significant NBA players from Canada. Over the past four years, the country has produced five lottery picks, including the last two No. 1s. He makes everyone better is the phrase most often used to describe Nash, and it rings true throughout North America, except perhaps in the city where he happens to live.

Steve Nash with the Phoenix Suns and head coach Mike D'Antoni.

Steve Nash with the Phoenix Suns and head coach Mike D'Antoni.

In the summer of 2012, Nash had a chance to depart the sinking Suns for the Lakers, Knicks or Raptors. “I want to be in the fire,” he told his friend, Steve Kerr, the Warriors coach. “I want the biggest risk and the biggest reward.” The sign-and-trade that sent Nash to Los Angeles, and four draft choices to Phoenix, crippled both an iconic player and a signature franchise. Nash completed one game before he broke his left leg. Shortly thereafter, he was rehabbing and the Lakers were rebuilding, an onerous task given all the picks they had surrendered.

Even after Dwight Howard bailed for Houston and Pau Gasol for Chicago, Nash was still hanging around the periphery of the team, his back an issue and his $9.7 million salary an albatross. In Canada, Arizona and Texas, his name was synonymous with golden eras. In Southern California, it evoked unusually dark days. “What I saw was a guy in a fishbowl, swimming in circles, swimming upside down, trying to jump out, and constantly hitting his head on the glass,” says Lakers strength & conditioning coach DiFrancesco. “Meanwhile, everybody is banging on the glass like, ‘Come on, Steve, get going, get your act together, stop bs’ing around.’ They’re seeing him float through the end of his contract. But I was inside that fishbowl and my view was, ‘No one is swimming harder and trying more ways to get the hell out of this bowl.’”

When the glass shattered in October, Nash immediately leapt into meetings with his film production company and his foundation, eager for a second act. “It was madness,” he says. He gave himself no time to grieve. Nash finally met with another young retiree, from the business world, who shared a popular Buddhist philosophy: “Empty your cup.” The saying is traditionally attributed to a Chinese Zen master, encouraging a student to clear his mind, so it can be filled anew. Nash’s absence from the Lakers facility perturbed fans, but he was draining his cup, remaining on the roster only in case the club wanted to trade his expiring contract.

GALLERY: Rare photos of Steve Nash