Staying true to his Canadian roots, his left-leaning views and his playmaking principles, Steve Nash of the Suns shows no signs of slowing at age 36
This is an article from the April 12, 2010 issue
A cold spring rain passes through the broken mountains. The morning is gray and laced with it, and it lashes the cactus plants and the arid brush and the birds that call with voices as rough and jagged as the topography. The rain changes the aspect of the desert, softens it into something unlike itself, something liquid and less implacable, something habitable and conventional and less wild, a place where things have to work less hard to grow.
El Chorro Lodge is opening in late morning. Silent men in coveralls sponge the water off the tables on the patio. It is a place like so many that have been carved out of the desert and the hillsides outside Phoenix. People come here to do business over lunch, or to celebrate bibulous anniversaries and promotions and the other minor benchmarks by which success has been measured in the centuries since the desert became another place for the commerce of cliché that is modern American life. The morning comes alive. The chatter at the bar gets louder, almost drowning out the music on the sound system. A Canadian named Neil Young is singing about burning out and fading away. A busboy sings along. Nobody at the bar knows the words. There's no golf course in sight, but everybody there looks as though they've just birdied 18. Outside, a guy on a silver mountain bike glides up to the valet parking stand.
There's a long-sleeved T-shirt under the short-sleeved T, and a pair of gray shorts, and the hair is in some place halfway between the pillow and the morning breeze. The face seems to spread itself open at the bones, the blue eyes wide and the cheeks broad and chiseled. The whole aspect is something both controlled and askew, off-plumb but on-balance. Steve Nash hands his bike to the valets. They park his bike in the lot between a couple of Cadillacs, which look no more like Cadillacs used to look than this place looks like the primordial desert. On a chilly rain-washed morning in a place that's supposed to be neither chilly nor rain-washed, amid the banalities and air-kisses and petty contrivances of a dozen business lunches all around him, Nash seems to be the only soul in the place who's real.
"I've always had a feeling in my life that great things are to come," he says. "My life, it's definitely a bubble, but it's all about how freely and easily you depart from it. And I love my departures from the bubble. I love thinking, What else am I going to do?"
It has been a good season within the NBA's bubble for Nash and his Suns. Last season was a lost one. After Mike D'Antoni departed to coach the Knicks, Phoenix struggled to find an identity under Terry Porter. In no small part because of the presence of Shaquille O'Neal, Porter slowed down the Suns, and the effect was not unlike slamming a high-powered engine into a low gear. Springs flew. Pistons cracked. As the point guard Nash felt the shuddering most acutely—both in his game and in the team's. Nash's drop in production prompted speculation that, at 35, he'd taken one step down the other side of the hill.
However, under Alvin Gentry, who replaced the fired Porter last February, the Suns re-ignited themselves. They won Gentry's first game by 40 points, scored more than 140 in each of his first three, and finished the season with a 12--5 run that wasn't quite good enough to get them into the playoffs. The momentum carried over to this season. With O'Neal gone off to loom over Cleveland, Phoenix started the season strongly, winning 14 of its first 17. After a brief midseason hiccup, during which time the team was openly shopping power forward Amar'e Stoudemire's huge contract, the Suns won nine straight in March and at week's end were tied for second in the Western Conference. Nash once again found himself with every aging point guard's dream—young, hungry big men to whom he could fire passes off his hip, especially Stoudemire, who, with his contract situation settled for the nonce, became ferocious once again.
"I'm happy because, this year, we are where we should be," Nash says. "I don't think we should have been an eighth, ninth, or 10th-seeded team going into last year. I think [struggling] is inevitable when you have a different coach and you have to account for some major personnel moves, even if it's one or two players. Shaq, I think, was a player that demanded us to at least attempt to play a certain way. That's one reason why there was a big change last year, and now this year, without Shaq, we're back into something very similar to the way it used to be.
"I expected this. I mean, take out the time with Terry Porter, I was just the same player. The last 2½ months with Alvin, I played just the same way I always have. I think people were misled by that first 3½ months, thinking I was going downhill, slowing down. It was misleading, but I was never misled. I knew what I could do. I came back this year, and the ball was back in my hands again."
By any measure, Nash is enjoying a signifying season. Through Sunday he was averaging 16.6 points and 11.0 assists, shooting 50.5% from the field and 42.3% from beyond the three-point line. Once again, there's a freedom to the way he's playing. With his hair flying and his eyes wide, he is a compelling figure in the middle of a fast break. And when he angles a pass to a spot where his teammate will be, instead of the spot where the teammate is, you can see a supple, malleable mind at work, one that perceives a uniquely personal order in the chaos, what an artist might call a vision of how things are supposed to work.
"I think a big reason for Steve's success is his mind," explains Phoenix general manager Steve Kerr. "It's about seeing those angles that most players don't, about thinking the game in concepts. That's all creativity in the mind."
"It's the same with myself," says Stoudemire. "When you have creative minds, you get involved in different sports, in different cultures, and it allows you to open up on the basketball court and just be yourself. Steve's a heck of a soccer player. He's one of those skateboard guys. For the most part, you want to be yourself. Being yourself allows you to play better, to have more fun. It opens up your spirit."
The NBA has opened itself to the world over the 12 years since Nash came into the league. He was a bit of an anomaly then—a South African--born Canadian who won over people as a basketball playmaker at Santa Clara but whose heart had a place for soccer that basketball would never touch. Now, foreign players are salted throughout the draft every year, and they festoon the All-Star Game rosters.
"It was fairly common when I was a rookie, but now it's tenfold," Nash says. "It's improved the culture of the NBA, and it's improved the game. It's important not to be homogenous. It's important to grow and to expand."
The Renaissance man is having an altogether renaissance year. He helped light the Olympic torch in his native British Columbia, jetting back and forth on the sly from All-Star weekend in Dallas to do it, and he's launched his own film production company back home as well. It is of a piece with his whole life. Nash always has seen beyond the court.
His politics are left of center—at least for an athlete playing an American sport. For a Canadian, they're pretty much mainstream. "I still don't understand the new health-care system here," jokes Nash, who grew up under the single-payer system to which Canadians are so devoted that they named its creator, Tommy Douglas, the Greatest Canadian of All Time. (He's also Kiefer Sutherland's grandfather.) Back in 2003, when hardly anyone else in his profession did, and when nobody else in Dallas did, Nash, then playing for the Mavericks, spoke out against the rush to war. This did not make him popular.
"I got called a Commie," he chuckles now. "It wasn't that I so much didn't like the three weeks afterward. It was the stupidity of the inquisition. I was careful in what I said, to a point and to a purpose. I would hardly venture to say I thoroughly read political history at all. Obviously, I'm left-leaning for certain, and I'm all for capitalism. But, at the same time, I feel that education and health care are human rights."
He has been a witness, then, with the shrewd eye of an outsider, to the NBA's transformation into an engine of what Joseph Nye calls "soft power"—the great, galumphing presence of American popular culture in the rest of the world. "Popular entertainment," writes Nye in Soft Power: The Means to Success in World Politics, his seminal 2004 work, "often contains subliminal images and messages about individualism, consumer choice and other values that have important political effects." Nye specifically mentions that "even popular sports can play a role in communicating values."
But Nash also has a sense of soft power's inherent trap. So many of its globalized manifestations are driven by corporate imperatives that it homogenizes everything it influences. The authentic is no longer antonymic to the artificial—not with Camden Yards and throwback jerseys stitched by children in China. When "authentic" is just another brand, the only antidote remaining to the artificial is the genuine, which must always be defined as a million different individual personal choices.
"You lose track of what's going on outside," says Nash, as the lunchtime bid'ness gabble reaches a kind of climax around him. "When I said bubble, I meant more from an introspective level. Sometimes you need a moment to realize that you are a person, not a robot. You need a moment to remind yourself to live your life."
Celebrity," Nash insists, "is boring. On the one hand, you can't say it doesn't give you things. On the other hand, it's a pain in the ass and it is to be wary of." Which is not to say that celebrity can't ever be an efficient tool, like a crowbar.
For example, this year, Nash and his cousin, filmmaker Ezra Holland, launched Meathawk productions in Victoria, B.C. Over the past several years Nash has developed a serious jones for this sort of thing, directing and producing several popular YouTube films, including a spoof of the movie Step Brothers, starring himself and Baron Davis, in which Nash and Davis ride a tandem bicycle, and Nash, bedecked in red suspenders, a bilious Hawaiian shirt and plaid shorts, attempts some sort of knee-knocking dance that appears to be an ungodly hybrid midway on the Caucasoid scale between the Charleston and the kazatzky.
(He's also responsible for some hilarious videos filmed on the Suns' charter flights, the butt of which seems always to be Robin Lopez, the young center with the frazzled hair and a look of perpetual astonishment. At least one of these videos is Not Safe for Our Younger Viewers.)
Working with Holland, Nash developed the idea of doing a documentary on Terry Fox, the cancer patient and amputee whose attempt to run across Canada galvanized the country in the summer of 1980. At about the same time, ESPN contacted Nash to ask that he appear at the ESPYs, the network's annual attempt to demonstrate that the primary difference between athletes and actors is that Stuart Scott is not Barbara Walters. Nash had been asked to appear before. He had even been nominated. He had never attended. He always had better things to do in the summer.
"Walking a red carpet? That's not really my cup of tea," he says. "I got my soccer games, and my kids, and my friends in New York City. You walk outside in New York, and the whole world's there." (Nash, his Paraguayan-born wife, Alejandra, and their twin five-year-old daughters spend every summer in the city, where Steve and Alejandra met.)
Nevertheless, Nash saw the opportunity to leverage his celebrity. He agreed to come to the ESPYs if he would be allowed to pitch his Fox documentary to the producers of ESPN's well-regarded 30 for 30 series. It will air on the network this fall.
"I loved movies as a kid," he says, "but my parents weren't into it, and I was playing tons of sports. In college I started to go more often, with my eyes and ears open. My wife had a big influence on me because her father was extremely passionate about it. I learned a lot more when I was dating." He's already planning his next project—a documentary about Pelé that may take him to South Africa this summer for the World Cup. His faces lights up when he talks about soccer. "You know," he says, "the dream never dies."
It would be a kind of homecoming for him. He was born in Johannesburg, in 1974, to John and Jean Nash. They'd met in a London nightclub. John was a printer, and Jean worked as the executive assistant in a stock brokerage. John was also a gifted soccer player, and when the opportunity came to move to South Africa, where he could work his trade, play his game and get paid for doing both, they jumped at the chance.
You can see Steve in each of them. He has his mother's quick smile, but the broad planes of his face are his father's, and so is the slightly sidewise look at the world. Upon explaining that he finished his apprenticeship in London, John is quick to mention that, because of that, "I can wear a sword in the City of London and I'm allowed to drive sheep over London Bridge." The original London Bridge has, of course, been relocated to Lake Havasu City, Ariz.
"So I was a compositor. I used to set type," John continues. "By the time I finished my apprenticeship, I was obsolete. After 450 years, they decided it was obsolete. Goodbye, Gutenberg."
Once Steve was born, neither John nor Jean wanted to stay in South Africa. They sensed the deadly paradox of apartheid: What appeared to be immutable masked a terrifying fragility. The iron authoritarianism of the system—pass laws, rigidly and ruthlessly enforced white supremacy—was unsustainable. "I mean, we didn't like apartheid, and we're not a racist family," explains John. "But, basically, security was an issue for me. The white South Africans were teaching their children that the regime was justified. Then, suddenly, you have a baby and you're responsible."
They moved to Canada—first, to Regina in Saskatchewan and then to Victoria, where their three children played every game in sight. Steve was a clever center in hockey, deft with a lacrosse stick, and a gifted infielder. Soccer was his first love, but basketball was his great gift. And Canada was never anything but home. "I've never had any question that I'm Canadian," he says. "Canadians have a sense of wonder about the rest of the world anyway, because we all seem to come from different places and backgrounds."
His globalized upbringing and the cosmopolitan view of the world that it developed in him have given Nash a firm sense of who he is and, with it, the freedom to explore all the aspects of who he is. It armored him against the way that celebrity can be isolating. It gave him ways out of the bubble. He was a globalized man before the NBA became a globalized product, and that has made all the difference. It made him free to run around in his bachelor days with Dirk Nowitzki, when they were both young and Mavs together, just as he is free today to bring his family to New York City for the summer, and to play in his soccer games and drink beer with his teammates afterward. It has enabled him to avoid being "authentic" by remaining genuine.
"Sometimes," he says, "it takes a lot of dusting off to say, 'Where am I? What am I doing?' because it's such an all-encompassing pursuit. It's such a marathon, whether it's a season or a career, that you can easily lose track of what's taking place. A little bit of you, I think, disappears every day. You're city to city, and you're in such a routine and it takes so much to get through it that you just kind of get numb to it and, in the process, you lose a certain amount of consciousness of what you're actually experiencing, every day. You don't see anything anymore."
You can see that freedom today in his ceaseless motion—jogging in place during timeouts, running the halls of the US Airways Center before games, as the swells from the lower bowl of the arena call his name and he smiles and waves and is gone again. To keep moving is to keep all the avenues as open as they can be. To keep your life in motion is to keep your life genuine, to keep it real, as they say, which doesn't always have to be a slogan you can use to sell things.
There's a lot of dummy in me," he laughs. "You'd be surprised at how normal a cross section of America there is in an NBA locker room. For the most part, in my career, I've had good teammates and interesting people who had a lot to offer, whether or not they could expound on the new health-care bill or not."
He is the old one now, on a team full of robust young players who have brought his game back to where he was sure it should be. He is 36, and it is a number that is in many ways foreign to him. Age is a limiting thing, so he doesn't acknowledge it. Age curtails options, restricts growth, truncates experimentation and wonder, so he chooses not to feel it. "Thirty-six," muses Nash, who runs three sports clubs in British Columbia. "Some days, it's tougher than others. That number seems unfamiliar to me, although I get glimpses of it, once in a while. I think I'm just vain enough to think that I'm not 36, but every now and then, I catch a glimpse that these young guys think I'm an old man. I catch a glimpse and I think, Wow, these guys must think I'm ... you know...."
Lunch is winding down. Business is concluded over the second glass of wine, and the restaurant falls quiet again. The valet lot outside is giving up its Cadillacs until only his bicycle is left. Steve Nash tips the valet, and he's off, one man riding through an afternoon that is clearing away. The rain has stopped, and the sky's going blue, and the desert mountains look harsh and unforgiving, the way that desert mountains are supposed to look. Everything looks real again in the sun.