When it comes down to it, what do we really want from an NBA player?
We want a guy who loves the game like we fans do.
A guy who is passionate, who cares when he’s on the court.
A guy that is entertaining to watch play and enjoys putting on a show.
A guy who is selfless and sets up teammates.
A guy who gets the most out of his natural ability.
That’s Steve Nash.
Which is why there were a lot of people around the league sad when the news broke Thursday Nash was out for the entire 2014-15 season. I was among them. Everyone understands that means his career has ended, even if the retirement is not yet official.
If you’re just a fan of good basketball it was hard to watch Nash struggle with injuries, to watch his body betray him the past couple seasons (when you spoke to him you could see how emotionally draining this was on him), because we remember the joyous player of his time in Phoenix. He was a team-first player, the best passing point guard in the game, who also made himself a very good shooter — he had four seasons where he shot better than 50 percent from the field, 40 percent from three and 90 percent from the free throw line. There are only 10 such seasons in the history of the NBA. Again, Nash had four of those.
You could see Nash’s love of soccer (and his hockey upbringing) in how he played the game, holding his dribble and surveying for guys making runs (or as basketball calls it, cuts). He brought creativity to the court at a time the league needed some.
Nash was driven — you don’t get two MVP awards with his physical abilities unless you have put countless hours in to hone your body and mind. He didn’t wear his work ethic on his sleeve like some, but nobody around him questioned that drive. Later in his career he spent more hours in the training room and working in the gym to get his body ready for games than most fans can imagine. Even the past couple years, trying to fight back from injury, to retrain his body, you could see that passion, that work ethic, and that desire to leave the game he loved on his terms.
Sadly, that’s not how this chapter ends.
The book, however, ends with him in the Hall of Fame.
You can argue there were better players the two years he won the MVP, you can point to the fact Nash has no rings, but what he and those Phoenix Suns did (under Mike D’Antoni) changed the NBA. Watch a game now and you see a faster pace than a few years back. You see teams trying to get early offense before the defense gets set, to catch it scrambling and get an easy bucket. You see the Spurs winning a title using that concept and Popovich crediting D’Antoni’s Suns for the idea. But Nash was the maestro of that early offense style, nobody has since run it as fluidly, as beautifully as Nash.
He was a leader in the locker room, but one who did it through positive reinforcement, not in-your-face challenges. Leadership is not one size fits all. Different players, different players respond to different kinds of motivation (Duncan is mostly positive with his teammates and that has worked pretty well in San Antonio). Nash understood nuance, he understood building people up.
Nash was good off the court, with the community, with the fans, and yes with the media. (We all like people who make our jobs easier.) He was honest, and he wanted to be a part of whatever city he was in. He didn’t want to be a basketball-playing tourist.
He was, in the end, everything we want our NBA players to be.
That’s why I’m going to miss getting to watch him play.