"Nash. Steve Nash. From British Columbia."
December 11, 1995
"You mean South America?"
"No, coach. British Columbia ... in Canada...."
B.C. does not stand for Basketball Country. Ian Hyde-Lay, the
coach at St. Michaels University School in Victoria, B.C.,
discovered as much four winters ago when he tried to find a
college, any college, for a kid he believed--correctly, it turned
out--could become one of the best point guards in America.
Despite myriad phone calls and letters to more than 30 colleges
all over the U.S., Hyde-Lay couldn't sell Steve Nash to anybody.
Victoria is located on the southeastern tip of Vancouver Island,
a mere 20 miles from the U.S. mainland, yet it might as well
have been Antarctica in the eyes of American recruiters. The
rejection letters are still stashed in a shoebox in Nash's
bedroom closet at home. The responses from Arizona, Duke,
Indiana, Maryland, Miami, Pepperdine, Villanova and many others
all begin with encouraging words but quickly dissolve into
unfortunately or however or thank you, but.... The University of
Washington, just a short ferry ride from Victoria, didn't even
send a reply. Instead the Huskies recruited a junior college
guard who these days is playing pickup ball at a Minnesota
prison. "The lack of response hurt me, because I thought I was
good enough that people would come knocking on my door," says
Nash, who nearly averaged a triple double (21.3 points, 9.1
rebounds and 11.2 assists) his senior year in high school. "It
was like I was trapped in an elevator and I'm screaming, but
nobody could hear me."
Nash was the innocent victim of stereotype. "When you're at
Pepperdine you get 300 letters a year [from players who might
want to come to your school]," said former Wave coach Tom
Asbury, who is now at Kansas State. "And for a white guard from
Canada, you're probably not going to do a lot of follow-up."
The only U.S. school to show any interest in Nash was Santa
Clara, a small university of fewer than 4,000 students, 46 miles
south of San Francisco. Nash admits he knew next to nothing of
Santa Clara when a Bronco coach contacted him, and he recalls
enduring the taunts of one of his St. Michaels teammates who
referred to the place as Santa Claus State.
Santa Clara part-time assistant coach Scott Gradin heard about
Nash from a former Bronco assistant and asked Hyde-Lay for some
game film. What Gradin received became a cult hit in the Bronco
basketball office: a grainy, shaky videotape, shot with a
camcorder, on which Nash head-fakes a defender who collapses to
the floor like a Washington General. "When I walked by the room
where Scott was watching the tape, he was laughing out loud,"
Santa Clara coach Dick Davey remembers. "I asked him, 'What's
wrong?' And he said, 'I got this tape of the Canadian kid. He
makes people fall down.'"
Gradin requested another tape, and eventually Davey agreed to go
see Nash play during the first round of British Columbia's
senior boys' AAA championships in 1992. He realized just moments
into the game that he had unearthed buried treasure and peeked
around the PNE Agrodome, dreading that he might see Jim Harrick,
Lute Olson or some other coach from an elite program who might
snatch Nash away. Davey had nothing to worry about. "It wasn't a
case of being Einstein," he says. "There was no magic wand. I
just got very lucky."
In a landmark case of tough-love recruiting, Davey met Nash
after St. Michaels won its game and said, "I'll offer you a full
ride, but I've got to tell you that you're the worst defensive
player I've ever seen." A few weeks later Nash, aware that he
had no other offers, except from three Canadian universities,
signed with Santa Claus State.
Since then he has turned into the best Christmas present Davey
ever got. At the end of his freshman season Nash made six
straight free throws in the final 31 seconds--eagerly sprinting
to the foul line before each opportunity--to ice the Broncos'
upset of Arizona in the first round of the 1993 NCAA tournament.
As a junior last season he became one of only four players ever
to lead the West Coast Conference in scoring (20.9 points per
game) and assists (6.4), as he led Santa Clara to the NCAAs
again. He also shot a robust 45% from beyond the three-point arc
last year, his deadly long-range shooting the result of
launching treys from the more distant international arc on
Canadian courts. This season Nash has already directed Santa
Clara to victories over UCLA, Michigan State and Oregon State
and into the Top 25 rankings for the first time since 1972.
Still, Nash's name is inevitably followed by that loathsome
appositive "the best player you've never heard of." Through his
first three college seasons he played in only four nationally
televised games, and this season, of the 400 games scheduled to
be broadcast on ABC, CBS, ESPN and NBC, just one was scheduled
to involve the Broncos--the opener of the Maui Invitational
against national champion UCLA. Naturally there were some frayed
nerves in the Bronco locker room before that game, but as soon
as Nash sensed the tension, he looked around the room and said,
"I can't believe a bunch of yahoos like us are about to beat
UCLA." The other Broncos cracked up, and then they backed him up
with a dominant 78-69 win. Nash scored 19 points and held Bruin
point guard Cameron Dollar to zero. After the game Nash walked
past Davey and winked. Not bad for the worst defensive player
Among those converted in Hawaii was Magic Johnson, whom Nash had
met for the first time outside the arena on the morning before
the game against UCLA. "I got a picture with him, and I'm sure
he thought I was just some punk kid," Nash says. The next day a
Nash family friend showed Johnson an enlargement of the photo of
Magic and Nash. Johnson took out a pen and inscribed it: "Good
luck from Big Magic to Little Magic."
Steve Nash grew up dribbling ... with his feet. His father,
John, played professional soccer in England and South Africa,
where Steve was born in 1974. By all family accounts, Steve's
first word was "Goal!" Steve's younger brother, Martin, 19,
played with Tottenham Hotspur of the English Premier League last
year. John and his wife, Jean, claim that they didn't much care
which sport Steve chose to play, although John does jokingly
say, "When Stephen was a baby, I thought about cutting the top
joints of his fingers off."
After the Nashes moved from Johannesburg to Canada--first to
Regina, then to Vancouver and finally to Victoria--Steve was
exposed to a slew of new games, and he excelled at all of them.
He won three elementary school chess titles, once scored seven
goals in a juvenile lacrosse game, made 10 of 10 place kicks in
his first high school rugby match and became British Columbia's
most valuable high school soccer player as an 11th-grader.
Basketball was almost an afterthought. Steve didn't really
compete in organized hoops until the eighth grade. Of course, by
his senior season he was British Columbia's top player. Says
Hyde-Lay, "Steve could be playing soccer for the Canadian
national team right now. He's superb at lacrosse and ice hockey,
and a lot of people in the province think his best sport was
There is a handwritten placard in the men's locker room at Santa
Clara's Toso Pavilion, where the student section is called the
Broncs' Zoo, that reads: THERE ARE TWO PLACES IN THIS LEAGUE:
FIRST PLACE AND NO PLACE. It's generally understood that at
Santa Clara, Steve Nash is the difference between one and the
other. Though he is just 6'3", with a paltry 31-inch vertical
leap, his advantage has always been his voracious appetite for
the game. During his freshman year with the Broncos he returned
home for the holidays and was spotted shooting hoops outdoors in
a rainstorm on Christmas Eve. He has always had access to a key
to Toso Pavilion, where he often shows up at midnight and shoots
into the wee hours. Any afternoon on the sunny campus Nash can
be readily identified: He's the guy with the arctic pallor
dribbling a ball between classes. He used to bounce a basketball
but has recently switched to a tennis ball for a stiffer
challenge. "Steve is really deranged," Davey says. "He's
addicted to basketball, and fortunately he's helped derange the
Last week Nash could be found dribbling his mangy tennis ball
between his legs for an hour without a double dribble as he sat
on a threadbare couch at the off-campus house he shares with
four teammates. The joint is called the Fireplace, either
because it sits across the street from a firehouse or because it
looks like the remains of a four-alarm blaze. As he dribbled,
Nash sat transfixed by the televised image of Utah Jazz guard
and Gonzaga alumnus John Stockton, the WCC's last polished
diamond and the guy to whom Nash is ceaselessly compared. "The
NBA is the major dream in my life and the grail I chase every
day," Nash says. "I am obsessed with it."
That obsession has put him among the elite point guards in the
college game this season, and he may be the most solid of the
bunch. Who's better? Kansas's Jacque Vaughn may direct traffic
better, but his outside shot isn't as good as Nash's.
Georgetown's Allen Iverson is a terrific talent but still turns
the ball over too much and makes a lower percentage of his shots
than Nash does. Georgia Tech freshman Stephon Marbury is a
wunderkind, but he has played only a handful of games.
Says Utah coach Rick Majerus, "The Greek philosopher Diogenes
carried a lantern around in the daytime looking for an honest
man. Today he'd have an even tougher time finding an NBA point
guard, but if he came around with that lamp, the light would
shine right on Steve Nash."
"Born leaders like Steve don't come along that often, so if we
have a lottery pick, I'd argue for him to the point of a fight,"
says New Jersey Net scout Jim Hadnot, who has seen Nash play
more than 30 games. "You feel secure knowing that if Steve wins
the lottery, he's not going to quit his job."
"I like Nash, he's a tough kid," says understandably interested
Vancouver Grizzly general manager Stu Jackson. "It's clear that,
marketingwise, having a B.C. player is a no-brainer."
Nash's popularity around Vancouver is immense. Last spring four
of his Bronco teammates happened to mention at the Canadian
border that they were going to visit Nash, and the border guard
replied, "Steve? What's he doing home so early?" The guard must
have missed the item in the Victoria Times-Colonist a few days
before that had reported the news flash that Nash had returned
to town for a week. There's already a book in the works on
Nash's life story, and it seems as if every other caller to
sports-talk radio shows in Vancouver wants to know if the
Grizzlies will draft him. The speculation has become so
overwhelming that Nash apologized to Jackson for becoming a
bother when the two met recently. "The Grizzlies would be my
number one choice if I had to pick a team," Nash says, "but if
there were an NBA team in Moose Jaw, I'd be glad to play for it."
There are only two Canadians currently on NBA rosters, Rick Fox
of the Boston Celtics and Bill Wennington of the Chicago Bulls,
and Nash is quick to point out that both played high school ball
in the States. Only eight Canadians have ever played in the NBA,
and none has created any significant stir, meaning that Nash
could become his country's most illustrious hoops icon since
Nash can't wait to get out of the Fireplace and into the fire.
"It seems like my whole life I've been this little Canadian kid
dreaming that somebody would give me a chance, and now I'm
asking for my shot in the NBA," he says, palming the tennis ball
for a moment. "I guess I'm still in that elevator screaming, but
they can hear me now and I'm on my way to the top."
Soon everyone will know Victoria's secret.