Steve Nash retired from the NBA on the weekend. Starting as an outsider and a consummate underdog, the floppy-haired point guard earned his place in the NBA through hard work, subsequently carving out one of the most prototypical careers any player has ever had. As a two-time MVP, he leaves a legacy rooted equally in statistics and stylistics, his indelible fingerprints all over a sport he came to revolutionize during seminal stints in Dallas and Phoenix.
“I’m retiring,” Nash writes in a personal letter on The Player’s Tribune. “I heard someone once say there comes a day when they tell us all that we can’t play anymore. We’re not good enough. Surplus to requirements. Too slow, maybe. When you’re a teenager with outsized dreams and a growing obsession, and someone tells you this ain’t gonna last forever, it’s scary. I never forgot it.”
For the greatest Canadian basketball player ever – without a doubt, hands down, why are we even debating this? – it seems like that day has come.
In some ways, the unprecedented success of Steve Nash is a product of a bygone era. Without a hype machine in place to raise his national profile, with nowhere near the number of elite level camps and academies, no social media or blogs, Nash could remain relatively unknown, even after leading Santa Clara of an upset over 2-seed Arizona in 1993.
Toronto may be the new home of Canada’s basketball revolution, but Steve Nash is a giant reminder of the role Victoria had to play in elevating the national profile of basketball. It was in this budding infrastructure that Nash was able to develop and thrive. Ken Shields, coach of the University of Victoria Vikes during their reign of championship terror throughout the ’80s, would allow a teenage Nash to stay late in the gym, often times putting him up against some of the best players in the country. Jay Triano, then coach at Simon Fraser University, actively recruited Nash, but ultimately helped him make the decision to play for Santa Clara in the much stiffer competition of NCAA Division I ball.
Revolutions often start humbly. In his earliest professional years in Dallas, with Don Nelson and a young Dirk Nowitzki, Nash would start to develop the vocabulary of a basketball style that would later be put into screeching prose by Mike D’Antoni and the Seven Seconds or Less Suns. In Phoenix, coming into form far later in his career than other elite point guards, Nash became the engine and conductor of the NBA’s most unstoppable offense – a pace and space revolution scrawled on NBA hardwood across the continent in bold, frantic letters, declaring itself a superior form of basketball. The evidence was hard to ignore.
Ranks of Steve Nash-led offenses from '01-'10: 1, 1, 1, 1, 2, 1, 2, 2, 1.
— Justin Phan (@jphanned) March 21, 2015
These are the kind of numbers that make you check again because holy shit look at them. There are are more numbers like them: 10,335 total assists, which is third best all-time. Eight All-Star appearances. Seven All-NBA seasons, including three on the first team. Four seasons, and three seasons just under the cusp, of shooting 50% from the field, 40% from three and 90% from the line. Two MVP Awards, in consecutive years, which has only happened ten times.
But his legacy does not lie in statistics. Steve Nash broke basketball. His legacy is a blistering streak of offensive creativity, misdirection and unrelenting attack. With his talent and creativity, crafted in part with Mike D’Antoni, he re-introduced pace and freethinking into the NBA. In the process, Steve Nash helped make passing cool again.
That Suns DNA is now sprinkled into the craftiest and most efficient of the most recent NBA offenses: the Warriors, the Spurs, the Rockets, the Heat, the Hawks. They all playing some derivative of the Suns’ blistering pace, deep spacing and quick-trigger shooting. The Spurs beat the Suns and then copied their style to winone championship and come seconds away from another.
When asked about Nash’s legacy and his impact on the current playing style of the NBA, Hawks’ coach and former Spurs assistant Mike Budenholzer said that, “The whole league has observed and watched Steve Nash and tried to figure out, if we can’t stop it, maybe we should try to incorporate a little bit of that. And that’s always easier said than done. But he was just an incredible passer. Read the defense. As soon as you made a slight adjustment, he was so quick to see it and ready and pick the right guy. So I think other point guards said, let’s see if we can do that on a similar and understand how defenses are playing us and what’s going to be open. He’s just one of the elite, elite point guards during my little stretch in the NBA. He was hard hard to prepare for, and I guess when you’re not playing him he was fun to watch.”
Dirk on Nash: He overcame a lot in his career, being injured, and being slow, and white and unathletic
— Amin Elhassan (@AminESPN) March 23, 2015
Coming on at the age of 30, almost impossibly late for a pro athlete, let alone an NBA player, only adds to his legend. Reaching just high enough peak to become a cult figure – for Canadian athletes and sports fans, for basketball snobs – his story never fitting the superstar narrative as we have grown to know it. Some of the reason for that because he is white, or because he is Canadian, because when people talked about Steve Nash they tended to do it without exaggerating and really just trying to make sense of it all. His nightly highlights subtle and just outside the realm of impressive to make your dad say “woah” between hockey highlights.
Even after the MVP accolades and his cult status, Steve Nash curiously sits outside the spotlight. In many ways, he is still the same outsider passed over by nearly all major NCAA programs. Nash thrived on the far west coast on the country, sweating in a gym with the greatest basketball coaches the country had known while a new somewhat separate culture grew in Ontario.
In retirement, Nash is finding a new place in history as General Manager of the Senior Men’s National Basketball Team. This timing is no coincidence. There could be no better person to guide the next generation of Canadian superstars – from Andrew Wiggins to Jamal Murray – through this unprecedented surge of popularity and attention. His impact as an executive still waiting to be made but virtually no one questions whether he is the right man for the job.
Nash did not have the ending he wanted and especially not the one he deserved. In his letter, after thanking his family and colleagues with whom he made basketball history, it should be noted that he also thanked his physiotherapist. The last few seasons of his career, in which he found himself mired in a high profile failed experiment with Kobe Bryant and the Lakers, have not been kind to the now 38-year old. The announcement of his retirement came as a surprise to no one, especially those who had watched his body decline, the agony on his face stretching out on the hardwood of the Staples Center in between a few atypically mediocre performances. Watching his fight to get back on the court, halted by major injuries two seasons in a row, chronicled at Grantland, fans at least had the time to ponder his place among the greats.
And without a doubt, Steve Nash sits in a unique place in basketball history. The shooting numbers, insane. The stylistic effect, immeasurable.
With a new generation coming into their own, a new superstar awakening, Steve Nash is faced with the difficult task of bringing Canada into international basketball legitimacy. His legacy is on the basketball court is truly extraordinary, heralded in Dallas, Phoenix and LA. But to Canadians, there exists a mystique to the professional basketball career of Steve Nash. Like it happened, but never really happened. Off the basketball court, taking upon the role of guardian for the game, a legend in his own time may finally take a national stage.