This goes back a ways, but the NBA was once a team sport, with play-making 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."