In the summers, Nash played for Team Canada, first for the junior squad and then for the national team, and it was during the World Games in Toronto in 1994 that he had another Pasquale-like moment. Before taking over as Los Angeles Lakers coach, Del Harris, then serving as an adviser to the Canadian team, was smitten with Nash's see-the-whole-floor game. "I remember it like it was yesterday," says Harris. "I approached him and said, 'Steve, you may not know it, but you're an NBA player. You have a shot at having a good career. You remind me so much of a guy who nobody said could play named Mike Dunleavy.'"
Nash remembers too. "So many people said, 'Give me a break' when I told them I wanted to be an NBA player," he says, "so when you hear someone from the NBA say it, it means a lot. When you're on the borderline, when you don't have what everybody thinks you need to make it, it's important to have someone who believes in you. It's sometimes the most important thing."
What Harris saw in Nash was the kind of court sense that allowed Dunleavy, now the Los Angeles Clippers' coach, to carve out a solid 11-year career. That's what the Suns saw before they made Nash the 15th pick of the '96 draft, primarily to back up All-Star Kevin Johnson. Phoenix fans, however, saw something else entirely: a small Canadian. They booed the Nash pick when it was announced at the Suns' arena. During Nash's rookie season, in which he averaged 10.5 minutes per game, Phoenix traded for Jason Kidd, and that seemed to spell doom for the Canadian Kid. "I figured I was the odd man out," says Nash.
But Johnson, one of the Suns' alltime greats, had given the rookie another Pasquale-Harris-like boost when he said, "You're as good as anyone I play against." The moment remains frozen in Nash's memory. "It stopped me cold," he says, "because until then maybe I didn't believe in my dream myself." He got another jolt of encouragement the following season, when Danny Ainge replaced Cotton Fitzsimmons as coach. Having been a freewheeling guard himself, Ainge liked small ball and liked shooters. He frequently deployed a three-guard offense, Nash usually being the one to come off picks and shoot. "To this day," Nash says, "one of my biggest accomplishments was getting minutes my second year." (He got 21.9 per game and averaged 9.1 points.)
Eventually, though, the Suns' brass didn't envision Nash's supplanting Kidd and traded him to Dallas after the 1997-98 season. Over the next six years Nash developed into the perfect point guard for the Mavericks--a team that was offensive-minded, entertaining and, once Nash and Dirk Nowitzki got their pick-and-roll game down, pretty good. But all the flash and dash couldn't turn defense-deficient Dallas into a bona fide contender, and when Nash became a free agent in the summer of '04, owner Mark Cuban decided his point guard was expendable.
Meanwhile, the Suns were intent on remaking themselves along the lines of the Showtime Lakers and felt that Nash was just the point guard they needed. He signed on July 14 and appeared a few days later at a press conference in Phoenix wearing golf shoes, the only hard-soled pair the famously casual Nash could scare up in his closet.
The move was big news around the NBA--but not big, big news. At the time, Nash was perceived by his peers as a curiosity as much as an All-Star point guard. There were his off-season, see-the-world jaunts ("I wasn't staying in five-star hotels," he says, "but I didn't do the Europe-on-$20-a-day thing either"); his allegiance to Tottenham Hotspur, the Premier League soccer team in north London that Nashes have been following for generations; his choice of reading material, including The Communist Manifesto ("I just wanted to learn something about it"); and the T-shirt, no war: shoot for peace, that he wore to a press conference in Atlanta for the 2003 All-Star Game. Nash took a lot of heat for that shirt back in Texas, "the reddest of the red states," as he puts it. "But I got a lot of positive feedback too, and I don't regret it. I'd do it again if the occasion arose. The idea was to get people talking, and that's what happened, even if I was the target."
Among friends and teammates, Nash is not particularly outspoken. He will talk politics in the locker room, usually with the like-minded Bell, but it's not as if he shows up every day wearing an antiwar T-shirt. Still, politically, he goes left most of the time. "My upbringing certainly affected what I became and how I think and look at the world," says Nash. "I remember the way my dad spoke about other cultures, the respect he had for traditions other than our own. That had an enormous effect on me, as did the fact that he and my mother left South Africa because of apartheid. We never had to talk about those things--I just felt them.
"Growing up in Canada made a difference too. Canada and the United States are both multicultural places, but in different ways. It just seems there is more understanding [in Canada], no tradition of imperialism, no tradition of taking things. It's the Bob Marley of nations, a very noncontentious place." He smiles. "Except when Canadians play hockey."
After signing with Phoenix, Nash was determined to realize the last part of his dream: to become an elite point guard. His off-season workouts with Vancouver-based trainer Rick Celebrini intensified. Though best explained in a book on kinetics, basically what Nash and Celebrini did was break down his movements on the court, fine-tuning them to fit his style of play while also accommodating his spinal condition. "With athletes who have complex physical problems that won't get better," says Celebrini, who runs the physical-training company P2Sports, "you have to change the way they move." Both athlete and trainer are loath to talk about the training because they realize it sounds like gobbledygook, particularly when Celebrini says things like, "We've addressed the biomechanical efficiency that produces the movement." But at root it's about discovery and repetition.