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 ever.
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 baseball."
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 whole team."