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When considering the phenomenon that is Steve Nash, there is the temptation to present him as an NBA novelty act. He is a small man in a big man's game, a white man in a black man's game, a Canadian man in an American man's game, a long-haired man in a short-haired man's game, a political man in an apolitical man's game. He licks his fingers and smooths back his brown locks--and that's just in mid-dribble--and in warmups the former youth soccer player is more likely to pick up a rolling ball with his foot than with his hands. Even at age 31, with 177 pounds packed evenly but not buffly onto a 6'2" frame, Nash looks like the dead-end kid who never gets picked for the hoops game and ends up hustling bets at the corner pool hall. � But any story about Nash, the Phoenix Suns' point guard who has his team fighting for the best record in the Western Conference (despite playing all season without 6'10" superstar-in-ascension Amar� Stoudemire), must begin in that most conventional of basketball settings (a gymnasium) with his working on that most conventional of skills (shooting). It is 45 minutes before the Suns are to play the Golden State Warriors at US Airways Center in Phoenix, and Nash is the only player in the team's practice gym. He shoots, equipment manager Jay Gaspar retrieves.
Nash begins near the basket, then gradually moves farther away, firing jumper after righthanded jumper with what Dallas Mavericks assistant coach Del Harris calls "absolutely perfect mechanics," his right palm facing the ceiling as he releases, his wrist snapping on each follow-through. Next Nash launches a dozen runners, some off his left foot and some, unconventionally, off his right. He moves through his practice ritual according to some internal rhythm ("I change spots when it feels right," he says), eventually stepping behind the three-point arc (from where he makes 17 of 24) and finally settling in at the free throw line (making 11 in a row). Then he signals to Gaspar that he is finished.
"Any idea how many you shot?" a reporter asks him.
"No," says Nash.
"A hundred sixty-three. Any idea how many you made?"
He ponders this for a moment. "A hundred thirty?" he says.
"Nah," comes the reply. "A hundred twenty-eight."
Nash shrugs. That's about average.
Aside from his nonsuperstar appearance and his north-of-the-border upbringing (the best Canadian player before him was 6'8" forward Leo Rautins, who lasted only two NBA seasons in the mid-1980s), Stephen John Nash--the reigning league MVP--was not even considered an elite player going into last season. In July 2004, when he signed a six-year, $60 million free-agent deal that swept him out of Dallas and into the Valley of the Sun, the consensus was that he would make Phoenix, 29-53 the previous season, a little better and maybe, just maybe, get the team into the playoffs.
But when second-year Suns coach Mike D'Antoni handed him the keys and told him to run all the red lights, Nash had a season that was truly transformative, for himself and his team. He shot a career-high 50.2% from the floor in scoring 15.5 points per game, but more important he led the league in assists (a career-best 11.5 per game) and ignited an offense that became the talk of the NBA. Winning 31 of its first 35 games, Phoenix finished with a league-best 62-20 record, bowing to the eventual NBA champion San Antonio Spurs in five games in the Western Conference finals. That's why the Maurice Podoloff Trophy landed in the arms of a kid who grew up playing soccer and, of course, hockey in Victoria, B.C.