A cold spring rain passes through the broken mountains. The morning is gray and laced with it, and it lashes the cactus plants and the arid brush and the birds that call with voices as rough and jagged as the topography. The rain changes the aspect of the desert, softens it into something unlike itself, something liquid and less implacable, something habitable and conventional and less wild, a place where things have to work less hard to grow.
El Chorro Lodge is opening in late morning. Silent men in coveralls sponge the water off the tables on the patio. It is a place like so many that have been carved out of the desert and the hillsides outside Phoenix. People come here to do business over lunch, or to celebrate bibulous anniversaries and promotions and the other minor benchmarks by which success has been measured in the centuries since the desert became another place for the commerce of cliché that is modern American life. The morning comes alive. The chatter at the bar gets louder, almost drowning out the music on the sound system. A Canadian named Neil Young is singing about burning out and fading away. A busboy sings along. Nobody at the bar knows the words. There's no golf course in sight, but everybody there looks as though they've just birdied 18. Outside, a guy on a silver mountain bike glides up to the valet parking stand.
There's a long-sleeved T-shirt under the short-sleeved T, and a pair of gray shorts, and the hair is in some place halfway between the pillow and the morning breeze. The face seems to spread itself open at the bones, the blue eyes wide and the cheeks broad and chiseled. The whole aspect is something both controlled and askew, off-plumb but on-balance. Steve Nash hands his bike to the valets. They park his bike in the lot between a couple of Cadillacs, which look no more like Cadillacs used to look than this place looks like the primordial desert. On a chilly rain-washed morning in a place that's supposed to be neither chilly nor rain-washed, amid the banalities and air-kisses and petty contrivances of a dozen business lunches all around him, Nash seems to be the only soul in the place who's real.
"I've always had a feeling in my life that great things are to come," he says. "My life, it's definitely a bubble, but it's all about how freely and easily you depart from it. And I love my departures from the bubble. I love thinking, What else am I going to do?"
It has been a good season within the NBA's bubble for Nash and his Suns. Last season was a lost one. After Mike D'Antoni departed to coach the Knicks, Phoenix struggled to find an identity under Terry Porter. In no small part because of the presence of Shaquille O'Neal, Porter slowed down the Suns, and the effect was not unlike slamming a high-powered engine into a low gear. Springs flew. Pistons cracked. As the point guard Nash felt the shuddering most acutely—both in his game and in the team's. Nash's drop in production prompted speculation that, at 35, he'd taken one step down the other side of the hill.
However, under Alvin Gentry, who replaced the fired Porter last February, the Suns re-ignited themselves. They won Gentry's first game by 40 points, scored more than 140 in each of his first three, and finished the season with a 12--5 run that wasn't quite good enough to get them into the playoffs. The momentum carried over to this season. With O'Neal gone off to loom over Cleveland, Phoenix started the season strongly, winning 14 of its first 17. After a brief midseason hiccup, during which time the team was openly shopping power forward Amar'e Stoudemire's huge contract, the Suns won nine straight in March and at week's end were tied for second in the Western Conference. Nash once again found himself with every aging point guard's dream—young, hungry big men to whom he could fire passes off his hip, especially Stoudemire, who, with his contract situation settled for the nonce, became ferocious once again.
"I'm happy because, this year, we are where we should be," Nash says. "I don't think we should have been an eighth, ninth, or 10th-seeded team going into last year. I think [struggling] is inevitable when you have a different coach and you have to account for some major personnel moves, even if it's one or two players. Shaq, I think, was a player that demanded us to at least attempt to play a certain way. That's one reason why there was a big change last year, and now this year, without Shaq, we're back into something very similar to the way it used to be.
"I expected this. I mean, take out the time with Terry Porter, I was just the same player. The last 2½ months with Alvin, I played just the same way I always have. I think people were misled by that first 3½ months, thinking I was going downhill, slowing down. It was misleading, but I was never misled. I knew what I could do. I came back this year, and the ball was back in my hands again."
By any measure, Nash is enjoying a signifying season. Through Sunday he was averaging 16.6 points and 11.0 assists, shooting 50.5% from the field and 42.3% from beyond the three-point line. Once again, there's a freedom to the way he's playing. With his hair flying and his eyes wide, he is a compelling figure in the middle of a fast break. And when he angles a pass to a spot where his teammate will be, instead of the spot where the teammate is, you can see a supple, malleable mind at work, one that perceives a uniquely personal order in the chaos, what an artist might call a vision of how things are supposed to work.
"I think a big reason for Steve's success is his mind," explains Phoenix general manager Steve Kerr. "It's about seeing those angles that most players don't, about thinking the game in concepts. That's all creativity in the mind."