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.