Steve Nash won two NBA MVP awards in his sterling 19–year pro basketball career, which ended in 2015. But be honest, Steve: How much soccer do you play and consume these days compared to basketball?
“Much more soccer,” says Nash, 42, in a wide-ranging interview about his ongoing fútbol fascination. “I haven’t played basketball since I retired. I love the game and still am working with the Warriors [as a consultant] and find a great deal of reward and enjoyment out of that. But I’m playing no basketball and playing soccer semi-regularly. If you add up my love of Spurs and Mallorca and the Whitecaps, I probably watch more soccer than I do basketball these days as well.”
Nash is a lifelong Tottenham Hotspur fan as well as an owner of the Vancouver Whitecaps and, as of last summer, Spain’s Mallorca. He grew up playing soccer in the same household as his brother, Martin, who earned 38 caps with the Canadian national team, and their father, John, who played soccer professionally in South Africa.
For the past nine years, Nash has hosted a charity soccer game in New York City drawing big names from the worlds of soccer and the NBA. And if you look closely on the beaches in Southern California, you might have spotted Nash playing pickup soccer with a group that has included Alessandro Del Piero, Landon Donovan, Stuart Holden, Kyle Martino and Cobi Jones. (Holden and Martino recently signed on as fellow investors in Mallorca.)
Nash is convinced that he would not have become an NBA player had he not also been a soccer player while growing up.
“Obviously they’re completely different sports—one’s with your feet, one’s with your hands—but as far as spacing, connectivity with your teammates, movement, passing, defending, there are similarities,” Nash says. “I probably wouldn’t have been an NBA player if I didn’t bring a unique perspective born in soccer to the game of basketball.
“In soccer, you always have to have your head on a swivel and be thinking before you get the ball. You have to see where you’re going to go with it or what your options are before you get it. And that’s not the way a lot of kids grow up playing basketball. So that gave me an awareness and a mentality to be a step ahead of the defense and be predicting angles and opportunities before they arise. So it’s something that I transferred over.”
Here’s the rest of my conversation with Nash, lightly edited for length and clarity:
Grant Wahl:I’m interested in hearing more about your ownership group of Mallorca, a club that got relegated from La Liga earlier this year.
Steve Nash: The Phoenix Suns ownership had explored pretty extensively in the UK and then explored fairly extensively in Spain purchasing a club. When they got to Spain they got pretty close a few times. They asked me if I was interested and I was. It ended up working out with Mallorca, which we thought was an exciting prospect. They have a pretty long and great history, and they’ve been in La Liga and were in Champions League in 2002 the last time. So there’s some recent success.
It’s been run into the ground a little bit, unfortunately, but as they say it’s good to buy low. We’re in the position where it’s an exciting, historic club on a beautiful island. We have an opportunity to get involved in this project and hopefully turn it into a winner and get ourselves and the club and the fans back into La Liga. Now it’s tough, because of going down and not having a lot of hope the last few years, the excitement kind of diminished. But we’re slowly working on it every day to get it back up, and we are putting together piece by piece a good team in the office and a better team on the field. It’s exciting.
GW: How much time do you devote to soccer these days?
Nash: Really with the Whitecaps situation I’m just a superfan. I try to watch and follow as closely as I can. But with the Mallorca situation I try to get over there twice a year. I stay in touch with our new president, Maheta Molango, and he consults with me. In some ways, on the football side I’m a little bit of a conduit between Maheta and the ownership group, who are becoming soccer fans, but that wasn’t their history. I have a lot more experience with the game being a lifer in some respects, and I’m able to at least help them understand what our president is saying and how he can translate the game to them.
GW: Does a typical weekend for you involve watching Mallorca, the Whitecaps and Spurs?
Nash: Yeah. It’s a lifelong habit to watch Spurs. Then the Whitecaps, whenever I can I check them out online. Mallorca I kind of follow online because I can’t watch the games until 24 hours later on Wyscout. It’s really hard to get their games live streamed.
GW: I’ve heard stories about some pretty legendary pickup soccer games you’ve been in around L.A. over the years.
Nash: Yeah, we’ve had a couple really good games. We had one day where Kyle, Stu, Landon and a couple other MLS guys were there with Alessandro Del Piero. Other days we have Cobi Jones and other guys as well. Those are some fun days. Usually it’s a couple guys who played at a high level and the rest are kind of filling spots. But some days we’ll get six or seven really good players.
What was your background playing soccer growing up?
Nash: I just played club soccer from a young age. I was a good youth player and had some opportunities, but by the time my dad was asking if I wanted to live with my aunt in London and see if I could make it at Spurs, that was about the time that Michael Jordan and Spike Lee were making commercials and putting shoes out on the market. It was a pretty exciting time to be in seventh and eighth grade and be playing basketball with your friends. So I kind of turned him down and got more and more into basketball. A couple years after I’d stopped playing club soccer, I still asked to go out for the junior national team, but by that point I was too entrenched in basketball to really go back.
GW: So there was an actual moment when you considered trying out with Spurs?
Nash: My dad had asked. Since I had an aunt in the area and was close to her, and my dad having grown up there and played conference football in the UK and professionally in South Africa, I could take a chance at that age to see where I stood and have a go at it. But it just wasn’t the right time. If he’d asked me a year earlier, maybe I would have taken the chance as an 11-year-old. But by the time 12 or 13 came around, I just kind of fell in love with basketball and found a whole group of friends that loved the game as well that I could share it with.
GW: How many years have you been doing your New York City charity soccer game?
Nash: We’ve done it nine times. Next year will be our 10th.
GW: Congratulations. It sounds like it’s going strong and you want to continue?
Nash: Yeah. We feel lucky. It’s hard at times to do something for 10 years in New York City, so we feel thrilled that we have a unique event that people continue to come out for. We’ve had a pretty awesome cast of characters over the years and an entertaining game and a cool format. So we want to keep it going and feel really fortunate that we made our mark in the soccer community downtown and got so much support.
GW: Speaking of charity games, I saw your old partner Dirk Nowitzki had a soccer charity game in Europe recently, and he got a penalty and impersonated the many-stepped approach of Italy’s Simone Zaza from the Euro before launching it into the stands. Do you and Dirk ever talk much soccer?
Nash: He usually texts me when Spurs lose like clockwork. When we first got to Dallas he wasn’t much of a soccer fan. Then he’s really gotten into it now. You know [Swedish national team soccer players] Marcus and Martin Olsson? He married their sister [Jessica]. So he’s become a big soccer fan. And obviously growing up in Germany he was around the game, but he was pretty obsessed with basketball. Now he’s gotten into [soccer]. We banter a little about it, usually when he’s riding Spurs. It’s a little too easy and predictable.
GW: I wanted to ask you about the coolest soccer things you’ve been able to do. I remember you were at the World Cup in 2006 and did some fun stuff.
Nash: I went to both semifinals and the final in Germany. Alessandro Del Piero gave us tickets, and to watch him win was pretty exciting.
I’d say my two biggest thrills were: One, I got to train with Spurs twice. Which was awesome. [Editor's note: Nash trained with the Spurs for a third time earlier this week] The other one was, and I’ll hope you allow me to name-drop, but back in 2004 I happened to be in Paris before Euro 2004. I called a friend of mine who works at the NBA in Paris and told him I was in town. We were rushing out the door to do some tourist stuff. He was like, ‘Wait, wait, wait. I talked to Thierry [Henry] and told him you were coming, and he wants you to come to Clairefontaine [the French national team training center].’
You don’t usually get a chance to go there. I said, ‘What?’ He said, ‘Yeah, he wants to bring you down.’ The guys are bored to tears. They kind of pen them up in the countryside and they train for three weeks. He probably was sick of video games or something, so we drove out, and straight away he came out. He brought [Zinédine] Zidane and Olivier Dacourt. We sat and talked for over an hour. He said, ‘Do you want to see the training pitch?’ ‘Yeah, for sure.’
Zidane is as big a hero as it gets for me as a player. He said, ‘Should we get a ball?’ I was like, ‘Yeah, of course.’ So we got out on the training pitch. They were between two sessions, and basically we had a kickabout with Thierry and Zidane. There’s men in suits in the bushes like CIA agents. They just sat out there showing me tricks and pinging balls all over the place. I couldn’t believe it was happening. It gave me goosebumps. It gives me goosebumps thinking about it right now. They couldn’t have been nicer.