The Tao Of Steve The Mavericks' Steve Nash has found a winning philosophy by tempering his you-first attitude with a little selfishness

December 17, 2001

This goes back a ways, but the NBA was once a team sport, with
playmaking and passing and other archaic rituals of
togetherness. Now, of course, the game is little more than a
souped-up shoe commercial with players competing not so much to
win as to gain market share, contract leverage and highlight
film. That's not to say it's not exciting; it may be more
exciting. Just different.

Still, here and there are throwbacks, players so committed to
the team ethic that they seem to be contrarians of the new
celebrity culture of the NBA. You always need someone to get the
ball inside to Shaq (or just away from Kobe), but when you find
a guy who enjoys it, who revels in the sense of involvement he
brings to his teammates, you find yourself in a time warp,
transported, well, back a ways.

Dallas Maverick Steve Nash is one of those throwbacks, the John
Stockton of our time (or will be, if Stockton ever leaves). "His
first objective," says fellow Mav Michael Finley, "is keeping
everyone else in the game." He's so selfless it's almost
irritating. No, it actually is irritating, at least to his
coach. In Nash's first season with Dallas, 1998-99, he spread
the ball every which way, and coach Don Nelson engaged him in a
long tug-of-war over Nash's reluctance to shoot.

"He wants to pass first," says Nelson. "I guess it's O.K. to be
that way on a certain kind of team, but I needed him to get 15
points every night. I had to tell him once that he had to shoot
at least 10 times a game. It was hard for him. It went against
his grain, I guess."

"I love being part of a team, any team," Nash says. "Not just
playing, but the camaraderie, the whole thing. It's just what I
get off on."

So he found a way to accommodate both Nelson and his own
instinct for team play. Coming into this season, Nash has become
the acknowledged leader on a much improved team, somehow
satisfying his idea of self-sacrifice while shooting more. Last
season, as the Mavericks made the playoffs for the first time
since 1990, Nash not only controlled the flow from his point
guard position but also scored double his career average, nearly
16 points a game.

To look at Nash, with his Beatlesque haircut (says Dallas owner
Mark Cuban, "It's all about Steve's hair"), and read his clips,
with their tabloid headlines (GERI SUNK BY SLAM DUNK HUNK), and
examine his fat contract ($33 million for six years) is not to
form an impression of the ultimate team guy. Did Bob Cousy ever
squire a Spice Girl? But whatever flamboyance Nash has displayed
has been of the off-court variety, enjoyed in the pursuit of a
blessed bachelorhood. (He's 27, likes to travel and somehow
hooks up with starlets from time to time.) At heart he's the
Canadian gym rat who dribbled his way out of obscurity and,
improbably, into the glamorous world of the NBA.

If he is poised to be a star in this, his sixth season, he will
be an unlikely one, given his background. Nash received exactly
one scholarship offer from a Division I college. The Steve Nash
Story falls into that genre of juvenile literature in which the
small-town boy always makes good. The small-town boy himself
adds, "It helps if you're a little naive."

Nash grew up in Victoria, B.C., in the 1970s and '80s, where the
closest NBA franchise was a two-hour ferry ride away, in Seattle,
and basketball was very low-profile. Kids played it, but not with
the idea of taking it past high school. Better to concentrate on
soccer or hockey. Nash did concentrate on those sports, as well
as on lacrosse and baseball.

As the son of a professional soccer player who'd moved around
the world to hook up with one team or another (Steve was born in
South Africa after his family moved from London for the soccer),
Nash became as deft at booting a ball as at bouncing one. (His
younger brother Martin plays soccer professionally, for the
Rochester Raging Rhinos in the A-League.) "But basketball was my
main sport since I turned 13," Nash says. "It's just that, after
high school, Canada doesn't really have a next level. Not enough
kids, not enough tradition."

He could make all the name for himself in Canada he wanted, but
it didn't seem to travel across the border. He went down to Long
Beach State after his junior year and scored 13 points in a
summer league game. At the urging of his high school coach he
arranged to meet Donn Nelson (Don's son and now his assistant)
and Tim Hardaway (now Nash's teammate) in Seattle to see
firsthand the benefits of weight training. Nash sent 30 letters
to U.S. colleges, sent a flickering videotape of high school
highlights, made calls. He traveled to a tournament in Las
Vegas. The only big rush he was getting came from Jay Triano at
Simon Fraser College in Burnaby, B.C., which to this day is not
recognized as an NBA feeder school. "I thought we had him," says
Triano, who later got to coach Nash on Canada's national team.
"I remember going to a tournament, though, and I was
disappointed to see a Division I guy there."

The guy was Dick Davey of Santa Clara, which was not known as a
lottery-pick factory either. Davey was the only coach to offer
Nash a scholarship. And if not for that bit of luck...."But I
did have that luck," says Nash, "and if that hadn't happened,
something else would have. I would have found a way--junior
college, something."

He was a winner at Santa Clara from the start, helping the
Broncos into the NCAA tournament and to an upset of Arizona in
his freshman season. Nash quickly established himself as one of
the country's top point guards and began hearing rumors that he
could land at a brand-name program if he'd transfer. "But I
didn't want to leave my teammates," he says. So he remained at
Santa Clara, dribbling a tennis ball to classes, "meeting a guy
with a key to the gym, and maybe a couple of redshirt freshmen"
for midnight scrimmages, he says, and leading the Broncos to
upsets over teams such as UCLA, Michigan State and Oregon State,
and two more NCAA tournament appearances.

The Phoenix Suns made him a first-round pick in 1996 but didn't
expect too much of him, putting him on the bench behind Kevin
Johnson and Jason Kidd. He more or less sat there for two years,
taking it all in, until desperate Dallas, partly on the advice
of Donn Nelson, paid big bucks to lock him up as its point guard.

It had been years since expectations were high in Dallas, but
Nash and his $33 million contract seemed to arouse the populace,
which began showing up to see what he could do. For a long while
it wasn't much. Nash didn't tell anyone that he was playing with
a sore back and a sore heel--"It felt like I had a stone in my
shoe," he says--and he stunk up the place. That team had plenty
of players to heckle, but Nash seemed to be the lightning rod
for fans' disappointment. It got so bad that during one game,
after Nash had missed his first eight shots, fans booed every
time he touched the ball. "That was interesting," he says. "That
kind of overreaction reminded me that it's just a game. I wasn't
that bad. I knew different."

As he rounded into health, he became the Steve Nash of young,
although not quite the Steve Nash that Don Nelson needed. For
most of two seasons Nelson was livid about Nash's stubbornness,
his you-first attitude at a time the Mavs needed his scoring.
Nash is, after all, a pretty good shooter, one of the best
three-point shooters in the league. "The better the team we
have," says Nelson, "the less I need him to be aggressive, but I
needed him to shoot, not be John Stockton. He struggled until he
got my message."

Truth is, it might not have been Nelson's message that Nash
finally received. Nash has always been loyal to Canadian
basketball (and to Canada itself; he retreats to his parents'
home when not globe-hopping in the off-season). He nearly led
the national team to a berth in the 1996 Olympics, and he helped
it lock up a spot in the Sydney Games. Nash is not the only
Canadian in the NBA, but he is by far the best. Consequently,
any Canadian team he is on--and he's on them all, including last
summer's entry in the Tournament of the Americas in
Argentina--becomes his team. Triano, the national coach, got
through to Nash in a way that Nelson couldn't, possibly because
duty to one's country motivates Nash more than a possible NBA
playoff berth. "I'd rather give the ball to my teammates," he
says, "but to win...."

To win in the Olympics, Triano explained to him, "you'll have to
score a lot of points." Nash became the team's shooter, and
Canada became the 2000 Olympics' big surprise, upsetting
Yugoslavia, Russia, Australia and Spain. The team missed the
medal rounds when France wised up and triple-teamed Nash in a
quarterfinal game.

Except for forcing him to shoulder the shooting, those Olympics
appealed to Nash's idea of democratic basketball, in which all
players are treated equal, even if they're not created equal.
Compare his experience to that of the Dream Team, which
approached the Olympics as a fun little exhibition, getting
together a few weeks beforehand to compare endorsement
contracts. The Canadians, who didn't have 11 other Nashes (only
one other NBA player, New Jersey Nets center Todd MacCulloch),
began hunkering down in July for two-a-days. Nash was at every
one of them.

What's more, he eschewed every privilege offered him, refusing
to fly first class while the rest of the team flew coach,
refusing to room alone or eat alone. "Nobody fits in like
Steve," says Triano. "When we took our meals, it was all of us,
the whole season, joking about all his girlfriends."

That Nash has been linked with Geri Halliwell, formerly of the
Spice Girls, and, more recently and more briefly, Elizabeth
Hurley, whom he met while she was filming a movie in
Dallas--he's a serial celebrity dater--makes him a target for
teammates from all countries. "He's our rock star," says Finley,
laughing.

Nash, who recently agreed to pick up the six-figure tab to
sponsor a 10,000-kid basketball program in western Canada that
the Grizzlies abandoned when they departed Vancouver, likes to
help the locals. So it was, before the Canadian team left for
Australia, that he slipped Triano about $25,000 to be
distributed equally and anonymously amongst the 10 non-NBA
players as a stipend so they could better enjoy their stay
there. "He said, 'Would you mind if I do this for the players?'"
Triano recalls. "It was typical. True team guy."

That was typical of Nash: always trying to dole it out when he
could simply stop and pop. Doing things any other way goes
against his grain. Now, though, with the demands of the modern
game requiring more than self-sacrifice, he's learning to mix in
the shooter's ego, becoming a player whom both teammates and
coach can love. He should be fun to watch this season,
straddling basketball eras as easily as he does countries,
looking to share but, all the same, increasingly willing to take
the open shot.

COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY BOB ROSATO Passing fancy It took the exhortations of his NBA coach and his Canadian national team coach to get Nash to dish less and shoot more. COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY BOB ROSATO

At heart he's the Canadian gym rat who dribbled his way out of
obscurity and, improbably, into the glamorous NBA.

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