You’ve got to understand how unlikely any of this was. In 1992, in British Columbia, Steve Nash’s team won the provincial title at the old Agrodome, and he was in complete control, so cool. What a player, we all thought. Man, Steve Nash.
But we expected him to go to the University of Victoria. You know? Kids from B.C. almost never went to the States; when he got a scholarship to Santa Clara, the one Division I school to offer one, it was incredible. When he played in NCAA tournament games as a freshman, in an upset of No. 2 Arizona, it blew our minds. He’d left the map at that point, and nobody knew where he could go.
We found out. On Thursday night Steve Nash was ruled out of the entire 2014-15 season by the Los Angeles Lakers due to nerve damage in his back; it was a variation of the nerve troubles that had wracked his body since an innocuous collision with Portland’s Damian Lillard in October of 2012. He came back, and wasn’t himself. He tried again last season, and only played 15 games. He worked so assiduously, looking for a way to fix his body. One bump, and it wouldn’t work.
Then this summer, suddenly the 40-year-old father of three felt like a young man again, shooting alone in the gym at night, the way he did when he was a kid, searching for a hoop and a streetlight. It was like he had been given his own body again.
Now, it’s probably over. Earlier this month, Nash talked about the few games he played towards the end of last season where he was himself again, meaningless to everyone but him, and how much joy and peace they brought him.
“I feel like I came a long way in the last eight months or so, and it started with the dark place I was in last Christmas,” Nash said. “And being able to come back and play a few games where I felt well, and that I could do the things I wanted to do, and just basically playing well for those few games — it really changed things, it helped me.
“Because . . . I was going through this whole process of dealing with what am I feeling, what am I hiding from, what are my fears, what am I worried about? . . . I think holding on so tight to things, didn’t help me.”
He was beginning to let go. He wanted to take it all in, whatever came, however it ended. But then Nash picked up some bags, and something flared. This is a sudden, brutal stop. I asked him in early October whether there was any chance that this was not his final season.
“I’m not going to say no way,” he said. “I’d be open to considering it for sure. But it’d have to be in L.A., staying with the Lakers. Because my kids have a really good life here now, and they’re happy, and they’re more important than me flying off somewhere to play basketball.”
So, this is almost certainly it. Steve Nash became a first-round pick, an All-Star, a two-time MVP. He ran the best offence in basketball for nine straight years on two teams, playing the game in such beautiful, precise, otherworldly ways. He had that back condition — spondylolisthesis — that left his vertebrae trying to topple, so he laid on the floor when he wasn’t on the floor. He worked around it, like everything else.
Nash played more playoff games than any player in NBA history who never won a title, and part of it was bad luck — the bloody nose game, the suspension game, Joe Johnson breaking his face. He reached No. 3 on the all-time assist list, best free-throw shooter ever, one of the great shooters in history, and eventually, the oldest player in the NBA. Point guards don’t often get to 40. It’s like going to the moon.
But at that time in B.C., any of this was like going somewhere else, out in space. The kid whose team he beat in the 1992 final, Scott Walton, was a six-foot-seven athlete who demolished great big man after great big man, and went to a junior college in Oklahoma or something, vanished. There was no path here. There was no plan. There was just a kid who had extraordinary balance, a maestro’s hands, a need to be great. Nash spent a lifetime trying to find a way to make his teammates better, any way he could. He tried to understand them, make them bloom, deliver that pass one-tenth of a second faster, and a quarter-inch to the left.
I’ve always said you could make a case that Steve Nash had the greatest career of any Canadian athlete ever, for this reason: We were always going to produce the greatest hockey player of all-time. A Hall of Fame basketball player? A two-time MVP? How was this possible? How could it be?
Now, the athlete’s death. He’s been preparing for it for a year, and hopefully that was enough time.
“It’s the same for Scott Walton,” Nash told me last year, when it wasn’t clear he’d ever play again. “Or yourself. But for everyone, it’s a part of you that dies. And if I don’t move forward from it, it’ll always hold me down. For the greats it’s probably double — like, for Michael Jordan, he’s stuck way up there.”
“I’ve got no excuse now . . . I need to take this opportunity to face myself, to get bored, to see where I am, and transition to a new life. If I don’t make that transition, I will never find real happiness in the next chapter.”
It was always going to end. Everything ends. It’s just that after all those years, all that brilliance, this voyage to worlds we’d never imagined, somehow, it wasn’t supposed to happen so soon.