Point Guard From Another Planet

The Phoenix Suns' Steve Nash doesn't fit any NBA mold, yet the Canadian Kid is following up his MVP season with an even better one
January 30, 2006

When considering the phenomenon that is Steve Nash, there is the temptation to present him as an NBA novelty act. He is a small man in a big man's game, a white man in a black man's game, a Canadian man in an American man's game, a long-haired man in a short-haired man's game, a political man in an apolitical man's game. He licks his fingers and smooths back his brown locks--and that's just in mid-dribble--and in warmups the former youth soccer player is more likely to pick up a rolling ball with his foot than with his hands. Even at age 31, with 177 pounds packed evenly but not buffly onto a 6'2" frame, Nash looks like the dead-end kid who never gets picked for the hoops game and ends up hustling bets at the corner pool hall. ¬∂ But any story about Nash, the Phoenix Suns' point guard who has his team fighting for the best record in the Western Conference (despite playing all season without 6'10" superstar-in-ascension Amaré Stoudemire), must begin in that most conventional of basketball settings (a gymnasium) with his working on that most conventional of skills (shooting). It is 45 minutes before the Suns are to play the Golden State Warriors at US Airways Center in Phoenix, and Nash is the only player in the team's practice gym. He shoots, equipment manager Jay Gaspar retrieves.

Nash begins near the basket, then gradually moves farther away, firing jumper after righthanded jumper with what Dallas Mavericks assistant coach Del Harris calls "absolutely perfect mechanics," his right palm facing the ceiling as he releases, his wrist snapping on each follow-through. Next Nash launches a dozen runners, some off his left foot and some, unconventionally, off his right. He moves through his practice ritual according to some internal rhythm ("I change spots when it feels right," he says), eventually stepping behind the three-point arc (from where he makes 17 of 24) and finally settling in at the free throw line (making 11 in a row). Then he signals to Gaspar that he is finished.

"Any idea how many you shot?" a reporter asks him.

"No," says Nash.

"A hundred sixty-three. Any idea how many you made?"

He ponders this for a moment. "A hundred thirty?" he says.

"Nah," comes the reply. "A hundred twenty-eight."

Nash shrugs. That's about average.

Aside from his nonsuperstar appearance and his north-of-the-border upbringing (the best Canadian player before him was 6'8" forward Leo Rautins, who lasted only two NBA seasons in the mid-1980s), Stephen John Nash--the reigning league MVP--was not even considered an elite player going into last season. In July 2004, when he signed a six-year, $60 million free-agent deal that swept him out of Dallas and into the Valley of the Sun, the consensus was that he would make Phoenix, 29-53 the previous season, a little better and maybe, just maybe, get the team into the playoffs.

But when second-year Suns coach Mike D'Antoni handed him the keys and told him to run all the red lights, Nash had a season that was truly transformative, for himself and his team. He shot a career-high 50.2% from the floor in scoring 15.5 points per game, but more important he led the league in assists (a career-best 11.5 per game) and ignited an offense that became the talk of the NBA. Winning 31 of its first 35 games, Phoenix finished with a league-best 62-20 record, bowing to the eventual NBA champion San Antonio Spurs in five games in the Western Conference finals. That's why the Maurice Podoloff Trophy landed in the arms of a kid who grew up playing soccer and, of course, hockey in Victoria, B.C.

Which raises a question: Did the man make the system, or did the system make the man?

"When a guy can make plays 80 to 85 percent of the time," says Milwaukee Bucks point guard Maurice Williams, beginning a long paean to Nash (abridged version follows), "when he can pass, he can make runners, floaters, and ... he'll burn you with a jumper too.... I mean, he's awesome. The system doesn't work without Steve Nash."

Gilbert Arenas, the Washington Wizards' point guard, offers a mild dissent. In the Phoenix system, he says, Nash "gets to control the game with his ball movement. He is a probe--he can look for his teammates, shoot the three. The system helps what he does." Clearly, Nash wouldn't be as effective in a walk-it-up offense, and the Suns clearly would be an average team or worse without him. Yet there seemed to be more than a little magic swirling about the Canadian Kid last season, and with magic comes skepticism: Could he do it again?

Nash's play over the first three months of this season provided the answer: Yes. Although Nash's primary receiver last season, the fleet and high-flying Stoudemire, has yet to play a minute because of left-knee surgery, and opponents had all summer to plot ways to thwart the Suns' fast break, Phoenix was the Pacific Division leader again with a 26-13 record through last Saturday's games, third best in the West. Nash was averaging more minutes than last season (37.1 to 34.3), more points (18.7 to 15.5) and almost as many assists (11.4 to 11.5). He still tucks his hair behind his ears (his wife, Alejandra, likes it long), licks his fingers ("No," he says, "I don't think about the bacteria") and puts the team on his back, always keeping his head up, always looking for seams and always finding the open man--sometimes with an outrageous wraparound pass delivered with his off hand.

Another unusual aspect of Nash's game is the amount of dribbling he does. But that's a good thing too because he doesn't go side to side so much as he is constantly on the attack. He may be the best ever at driving toward the hole and, finding his way blocked, continuing under the basket, like a bus passenger who doesn't like the look of his stop and keeps on going. "The beauty of Steve holding it," says Raja Bell, Nash's starting backcourtmate, "is that you know he's holding it to help you out. There are times when I say, 'O.K., do you want me to float up the lane or back cut?' And he'll always have an answer. You learn every day to be ready for when that ball hits you in the hands because--trust me--it will hit you in the hands."

When Nash is not pulling up beyond the arc (his three-point accuracy is above 40%), he can corkscrew his body to get off a reverse in the lane or launch a deadly fadeaway. And because his head is always up, he can find a good space from which to shoot even as he's driving at top speed. Thus his shots are rarely blocked, though he's not a great leaper.

Defensively, Nash is hardly a stopper, but he's gotten better at keeping opponents in front of him, notably Arenas (16 points against Nash on 7-of-23 shooting on Dec. 28), the Philadelphia 76ers' Allen Iverson (16 points on 7-of-23 on Jan. 4) and the Golden State Warriors' Baron Davis (22 points on 8-of-23 on Jan. 12). All told, last season's MVP might be playing even better this season. "You could make that case," says D'Antoni, "but it seemed like Steve went 60 games last year before he made a mistake, so I'm not going to say it."

When pressed, Nash will concede that this season has been harder than last. "The big difference is, without Amaré, they can load up on me a little bit," he says. Actually, a lot. On more than one occasion this season the Suns' coaches have stopped a film session and noted five defenders around Nash while his teammates stood watching. But even then the Canadian Kid is just as likely to go behind his back, spin, lick his fingers, fix his hair and splice the defense with a pass to a cutter for a dunk.

Nash also admits that last season's MVP award is sometimes on his mind. He remembers all the thrills that came with it--the congratulatory phone call from 1957 MVP Bob Cousy and the one from 2004 MVP Kevin Garnett, who "welcomed me to the club," Nash says--and he thinks, What if I fall on my face? "But I'd be thinking that anyway," he says, with a smile. "People have always told me I'd fall on my face, that I wouldn't make it this far. But here I am."

And here he is after a practice, grinning as he watches a trash-talk-fueled shooting contest between Bell and gunning guard Eddie House. For someone who's the center of attention during the game, Nash skirts the perimeter of the Suns' social circle. He will lend a quip now and then, but usually he doesn't stay in one place long enough to get involved. Whenever there's a break in practice, for instance, Nash takes off and shoots, working his way around the gym's baskets.

When standing, Nash is never still. He flexes his knees, wiggles his toes, stretches his neck, bobs his head, skips in place like a boxer. (You should see him jump rope.) He does it partly because, as assistant coach Dan D'Antoni, Mike's older brother, says, "Steve's got ants in his pants," but also because he has spondylolisthesis, a condition in which a vertebra slips over the one below it, causing muscle tightness and back pain. Nash lives in fear of stiffening up. Conversely, when he must be at rest, such as on the bench or looking at film, he lies supine, his head supported by a ball or a rolled-up towel, so he can see what's going on.

Aside from that, he's all perpetual motion, an approach he latched onto 14 years ago when, as a senior at St. Michael's University High in Victoria, he made the outrageous decision that he would play in the NBA. Nash had by then abandoned his first loves, soccer and hockey, because basketball had seized his soul. "I happened to have a group of friends who loved basketball more than the so-called Canadian sports," he says. "At the same time the NBA was really, really big, with Magic, Michael and Larry. I totally fed into the game and totally fed into the hype machine. I don't know if it would have happened for me at any other time. Maybe I would've kept on playing soccer and hockey."

But, still, the NBA? For a Canadian teenager whose first spoken word was goal? There was sincere doubt that Steve was even the most athletic Nash. His brother, Martin, younger by 22 months, was the natural, and much more confident than Steve--the two of them agree on that. They played basketball together one year in high school, Steve as the playmaker, Martin as the cocky and quick-scoring reserve. "I remember looking out the window of our house, watching Steve shooting free throws in the rain," says Martin, a midfielder for the Vancouver Whitecaps in the United Soccer League's First Division. "I didn't do that. Look, I have no regrets. I played in three World Cup qualifiers. I had my chances. But with that little extra drive--that Steve drive--who knows?"

Martin's superior ability remains a joke between the brothers. When Steve was named Canada's outstanding athlete of 2005 by the Canadian Press, Martin called him to offer congratulations and added, "But we both know the real truth, don't we?" (That was kinder than the response Steve got from his coach. "Who'd you beat out?" Mike D'Antoni asked. "That guy who sweeps the ice with a broom?")

No one, least of all Steve, can explain the origins of the Steve drive. His father, John, a retired marketing manager for a financial institution, played semipro soccer in his native England and also in South Africa (where Steve was born). But he was, and is, Steve says, "a rather laid-back guy who never pushed me at all." His mother, Jean, a former special-needs assistant at an elementary school, supported her sons in sports but was no soccer mom. Though Steve's basketball buds loved the game, none of them ever thought about taking it all the way. "How do you explain where drive comes from?" asks Martin. "You can't."

Steve knew his dream was outlandish, but along the way he got bits of encouragement. After a summer basketball camp Eli Pasquale, a Canadian point guard who had been a late cut by the Seattle SuperSonics in 1984, drove a teenage Nash home one day and said, without prompting, "If you want to make it, really make it, have a plan. Decide right now. If I had decided at your age, dedicated all I had to making it, I would be in the NBA right now."

Recalls Nash, "That was a wake-up call."

It's one thing to have a dream, another to realize it. Nash knew he would have to get into a Division I program in the U.S., but he couldn't get any schools interested, even though he more than held his own in all-star tournaments against top American high school players. Syracuse and Washington, his dream schools, didn't even respond to his letters. "I don't want this to sound egotistical," says Nash, "but what I heard later was that scouts and coaches just didn't believe what they were seeing. It was too weird. A recruiter would see this average-sized white kid, and then he'd have to go back to campus and say, 'Hey, I saw this kid from Canada,' and before he finished, everyone would say, 'Hey, we got a thousand kids like that.'"

Finally Dick Davey, then an assistant at Santa Clara (he became the head coach in Nash's freshman year), believed what he saw and helped Nash get a scholarship. "It felt good, and I owe so much to Santa Clara," says Nash, "but honestly? I wish it would have been Syracuse or Washington." At first, though, even the West Coast Conference seemed to be too big a jump for Nash, who struggled just to get the ball upcourt in pickup games against the Broncos' starting point guard, John Woolery, a long-armed defensive stopper. "Here I am thinking I want to play in the NBA, and I can't even get the best of somebody at Santa Clara I'd never heard of," says Nash. "But I finally figured it out."

Nash just worked and worked, and got better and better. He and his buddies would sit around at night talking sports, music and women--he acknowledges that he was not a dedicated student and worked "just hard enough" to earn a degree in sociology--and SportsCenter would come on. That was the signal for Nash to get off his butt. "I felt uncomfortable being comfortable," he says. "I'd call the manager, get the key to the gym, call some teammates and go shoot for a couple of hours." Nash led the Broncos to three NCAA tournament appearances and was the WCC's player of the year as a junior and a senior.

In the summers, Nash played for Team Canada, first for the junior squad and then for the national team, and it was during the World Games in Toronto in 1994 that he had another Pasquale-like moment. Before taking over as Los Angeles Lakers coach, Del Harris, then serving as an adviser to the Canadian team, was smitten with Nash's see-the-whole-floor game. "I remember it like it was yesterday," says Harris. "I approached him and said, 'Steve, you may not know it, but you're an NBA player. You have a shot at having a good career. You remind me so much of a guy who nobody said could play named Mike Dunleavy.'"

Nash remembers too. "So many people said, 'Give me a break' when I told them I wanted to be an NBA player," he says, "so when you hear someone from the NBA say it, it means a lot. When you're on the borderline, when you don't have what everybody thinks you need to make it, it's important to have someone who believes in you. It's sometimes the most important thing."

What Harris saw in Nash was the kind of court sense that allowed Dunleavy, now the Los Angeles Clippers' coach, to carve out a solid 11-year career. That's what the Suns saw before they made Nash the 15th pick of the '96 draft, primarily to back up All-Star Kevin Johnson. Phoenix fans, however, saw something else entirely: a small Canadian. They booed the Nash pick when it was announced at the Suns' arena. During Nash's rookie season, in which he averaged 10.5 minutes per game, Phoenix traded for Jason Kidd, and that seemed to spell doom for the Canadian Kid. "I figured I was the odd man out," says Nash.

But Johnson, one of the Suns' alltime greats, had given the rookie another Pasquale-Harris-like boost when he said, "You're as good as anyone I play against." The moment remains frozen in Nash's memory. "It stopped me cold," he says, "because until then maybe I didn't believe in my dream myself." He got another jolt of encouragement the following season, when Danny Ainge replaced Cotton Fitzsimmons as coach. Having been a freewheeling guard himself, Ainge liked small ball and liked shooters. He frequently deployed a three-guard offense, Nash usually being the one to come off picks and shoot. "To this day," Nash says, "one of my biggest accomplishments was getting minutes my second year." (He got 21.9 per game and averaged 9.1 points.)

Eventually, though, the Suns' brass didn't envision Nash's supplanting Kidd and traded him to Dallas after the 1997-98 season. Over the next six years Nash developed into the perfect point guard for the Mavericks--a team that was offensive-minded, entertaining and, once Nash and Dirk Nowitzki got their pick-and-roll game down, pretty good. But all the flash and dash couldn't turn defense-deficient Dallas into a bona fide contender, and when Nash became a free agent in the summer of '04, owner Mark Cuban decided his point guard was expendable.

Meanwhile, the Suns were intent on remaking themselves along the lines of the Showtime Lakers and felt that Nash was just the point guard they needed. He signed on July 14 and appeared a few days later at a press conference in Phoenix wearing golf shoes, the only hard-soled pair the famously casual Nash could scare up in his closet.

The move was big news around the NBA--but not big, big news. At the time, Nash was perceived by his peers as a curiosity as much as an All-Star point guard. There were his off-season, see-the-world jaunts ("I wasn't staying in five-star hotels," he says, "but I didn't do the Europe-on-$20-a-day thing either"); his allegiance to Tottenham Hotspur, the Premier League soccer team in north London that Nashes have been following for generations; his choice of reading material, including The Communist Manifesto ("I just wanted to learn something about it"); and the T-shirt, no war: shoot for peace, that he wore to a press conference in Atlanta for the 2003 All-Star Game. Nash took a lot of heat for that shirt back in Texas, "the reddest of the red states," as he puts it. "But I got a lot of positive feedback too, and I don't regret it. I'd do it again if the occasion arose. The idea was to get people talking, and that's what happened, even if I was the target."

Among friends and teammates, Nash is not particularly outspoken. He will talk politics in the locker room, usually with the like-minded Bell, but it's not as if he shows up every day wearing an antiwar T-shirt. Still, politically, he goes left most of the time. "My upbringing certainly affected what I became and how I think and look at the world," says Nash. "I remember the way my dad spoke about other cultures, the respect he had for traditions other than our own. That had an enormous effect on me, as did the fact that he and my mother left South Africa because of apartheid. We never had to talk about those things--I just felt them.

"Growing up in Canada made a difference too. Canada and the United States are both multicultural places, but in different ways. It just seems there is more understanding [in Canada], no tradition of imperialism, no tradition of taking things. It's the Bob Marley of nations, a very noncontentious place." He smiles. "Except when Canadians play hockey."

After signing with Phoenix, Nash was determined to realize the last part of his dream: to become an elite point guard. His off-season workouts with Vancouver-based trainer Rick Celebrini intensified. Though best explained in a book on kinetics, basically what Nash and Celebrini did was break down his movements on the court, fine-tuning them to fit his style of play while also accommodating his spinal condition. "With athletes who have complex physical problems that won't get better," says Celebrini, who runs the physical-training company P2Sports, "you have to change the way they move." Both athlete and trainer are loath to talk about the training because they realize it sounds like gobbledygook, particularly when Celebrini says things like, "We've addressed the biomechanical efficiency that produces the movement." But at root it's about discovery and repetition.

"If you study yourself, like I have, and, for example, you see your hip go way out over your ankle, you know you have to correct that," says Nash. He and Celebrini also discovered that the best way for Nash to shoot from the perimeter and preserve his back is with a long stroke and a high finish, initiating more movement with his core muscles. (That the stroke happens to be technically perfect is a bonus.) So Nash has worked on shooting his jumper the same way every time. Part and parcel of that is his especially slow practice stroke at the free throw line, where through Saturday he led the league with 93.8% shooting.

So that's the biomechanically perfect, ultramotivated package Phoenix got in Nash in the summer of '04. But it still doesn't explain the MVP thing, does it? Taking a cue from Celebrini, we may find the answer by breaking down Nash's game, and the point guard position, into five aspects.

•Shooting
If a lead guard is deadly from the outside, opponents have to play up on him, and that increases his opportunities for what the Suns call "blow-bys." There are nights when Arenas, Iverson and Davis are unstoppable, but opponents can always play off them and make them hit a few outside shots. Nash, like the Detroit Pistons' playmaker, Chauncey Billups, must always be crowded. The Phoenix assistants joke that they want to rebound for Nash when he works on his jumper before and after practice. "You just stand under the basket, and it comes right to you," says Alvin Gentry.

•Drive and determination
That's Nash and always has been Nash. He concedes that last season he wanted to show the Mavs--whom he torched for a career-high 48 points in Game 4 of the conference semifinals--that they'd made a mistake in not re-signing him. Now he's playing to win a championship.

•Court sense
In this regard Nash is as good as anyone since Utah Jazz star John Stockton. "Certain players are predisposed to creativity and decision making, and I guess I'm one of them," Nash says. "I do believe that, to an extent, point guards are born, not made. But you have to make yourself better. You have to take those natural gifts and expand them. You hear about so-called tweeners, guys who aren't quite point guards and aren't quite shooting guards. What do they usually become?"

Mediocre shooting guards?

"Exactly," says Nash.

•Leadership
It's not absolutely necessary that coach and quarterback be on the same page, but it helps. The 2003-04 Pistons didn't start playing like champions, for example, until Billups and Larry Brown reached an agreement on Billups's role in the offense. Nash and Mike D'Antoni aren't just on the same page--they're in the same sentence. D'Antoni is convinced that Nash is always trying to do the right thing for the team, and it goes without saying that Nash buys into D'Antoni's go-go-go philosophy on the break and his dribble-dribble-probe philosophy in the half-court. "There are times when Steve dribbles too much," says D'Antoni, "and times that he tries stuff that is too outlandish. But why would I say anything to him? Nine times out of 10 he makes it work."

•Athleticism
Physically gifted point guards go around (the speedy Iverson), through (the powerful Billups) or over (the spring-loaded Davis) their opponents. It's obvious that Nash isn't that powerful or blessed with much lift. But here's news: He's not all that quick, either--not from a standing start, anyway. Nash and his teammates and coaches shake their heads when they hear testimonies to his quickness, for within his own team Bell, House, Stoudemire and All-Star forward Shawn Marion are all quicker, never mind backup guard Leandro Barbosa, who's twice as quick. Yes, the Suns are one of the league's quickest teams, yet Nash feels he can be outquicked by most of his opponents.

But not outjuked. "I'm more elusive than quick, and people confuse the two," says Nash. "I'm really good on the move, which involves coordination, timing and balance. Once I get going, I can do a lot of things. But I'm painfully bad at explosiveness." What Nash has done, then, is to master ways to be always moving. The Suns' offense is predicated on that principle, even in the half-court. Nash gives it up on the run and gets it back (by a pass or a dribble handoff) on the run. But what else would you expect?

It's minutes before the Suns' tip-off against the Washington Wizards at the MCI Center, and talk in the Phoenix locker room has turned to the purported 40-yard-dash times of NFL linemen. (You might think it would be about the Wizards, but once team meetings have ended players rarely talk about the opponent at hand.) House is claiming he can run a 4.4. "You watch me tonight getting to the corner on a break," says House. "It'll be a low four-damn-something." Others, such as Stoudemire, agree that they, too, could run in the low 4s.

Suddenly, Nash pipes up. "How about nobody in the room could run even a 4.5," he says with conviction.

This appears to be the last word. Nash doesn't usually make such public pronouncements and, being somewhat the exercise scientist, his opinion is certainly valued. Even House is silent. For a moment.

"Are you telling me I can't run faster than a damn defensive tackle?" he says.

"You know a defensive tackle who can do a 4.4?" says Nash.

"A couple of them," says House.

"They're freaks then," says Nash. "And if they can run that fast, they're faster than anybody in here."

Within his team, Nash has become the elder spokesman without seeming particularly elderly or particularly spokesmanlike. There is something like an air of serenity that attaches to the man, even when he's running around like a squirrel on speed. "We all just feel, I don't know, safer when Steve's out there," Mike D'Antoni says. And Nash knows that the responsibility to keep things safe stops with him. He's an MVP, so that's where it should stop. He can handle it. The pieces have fallen into place better than he could have imagined when he hatched his NBA dream back in Canada. He is the elite leader of an elite team that could challenge for the championship if, as expected, Stoudemire comes back after the All-Star break.

Off the court, the pieces of his life have similarly come together. Steve and Alejandra, who is from Paraguay, are the parents of one-year-old twin daughters, Lola and Bella. Alejandra and the girls frequently accompany Steve on road trips, and you can tell they're there by the number of hotel guests who jam the lobby to kitchy-kitchy-koo the impossibly darling twins. The girls are, like Nash, eternally on the move, hard to pick up in the open floor. Though a perennial all-interview candidate, Nash guards his domestic privacy and will not allow his daughters to be photographed. Were the paparazzi ever to catch up with him, this would be their shot: Nash, dressed in Suns gear and ski cap, pushing a double stroller out the door of a hotel for a walk, as he did, for example, on the afternoon of the Dec. 28 game in Washington. "It beats taking a nap," he says.

Michael Bay, who has directed Hollywood blockbusters such as Pearl Harbor, directed Nash's how-to basketball video, which includes a clip of Steve dribbling a soccer ball and kicking it into the basket. (It took only four takes.) Then there was Nash in December's GQ, modeling leather jackets. But his appearances in pickup soccer games around New York City last summer (he and Alejandra have an apartment in the Tribeca section of Manhattan) were under-the-radar outings, talked about on the Internet and in pubs where Nash and his unknown teammates would repair after games. He also played pickup hoops from time to time at city playgrounds. And Nash made a flawlessly straight-faced appearance as the foil to spoof-meister Ali G on a preseason TNT commercial. ("We couldn't use the best stuff," says Nash. "At one point he said to me, 'Did you ever, like, let one of your plums fall outta your shorts to distract the opposition?'")

But achieving counterculture currency isn't what Nash had in mind all those mornings when he shot free throws in the rain or all those nights when he asked the Santa Clara team manager to open up the gym. "Most guys somewhere along the line will meet an obstacle they aren't willing to clear," he says, "whether it's shooting or dribbling or something off the court, like girls or partying. They will not keep on going. I kept on going."

The Steve drive. That's really how the Canadian Kid became America's Point Guard.

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"People have always told me that I'd fall on my face, that I wouldn't make it this far," Nash says of becoming an elite guard. "But here I am."

"There are times when Steve dribbles too much," says D'Antoni, "but why would I say anything to him? Nine times out of 10 he makes it work."

There's an air of serenity that attaches to Nash, even when he's running around like a squirrel on speed.

PHOTOPhotograph by John W. McDonoughTAO OF STEVE Always keen to improve, Nash has incorporated a core board into his workouts. THIRTY-FOUR PHOTOSJOHN W. MCDONOUGH EIGHT PHOTOSGREG NELSON PHOTODAVID E. KLUTHO (1) FOUR PHOTOSROBERT BECK

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)