Let there be light.
It’s not quite — "And on the seventh day he rested" – but it’s a start. It’s a helluva start.
Basketball may have been invented by a Canadian, but as far as Canadians playing the game, it was perfected by Steve Nash.
The rest of the sport’s legacy and infrastructure and tradition in the land that sprung forth James Naismith and where the game’s roots are deep, if poorly tended, well, it’s been some version of a well-intentioned mess for, um, — let me check the calendar here – yup.
It’s been a mess forever. And perpetually short on cash too.
That hasn’t stopped Canada from producing some tremendous players and Canadian basketball players from producing some incredible moments – from the men and women’s national team’s international hey days in the 1980s to the Nash-led run at the medals in the 2000 Olympics and more recently the seemingly steady stream of young talent poking their way into mainstream –NBA athletes like Tristan Thompson and Cory Joseph and prospects like Myck Kabongo, Kevin Pangos and the brightest light of them all: 17-year-old Andrew Wiggins, thought to be the best player his age in the world.
There’s been talent and now there’s more of it.
But basketball has lacked – for lack of a better expression – some kind of creation myth; a shorthand that the sports’ varied and deeply committed supporters, coaches, administrators and participants can use to explain themselves to the world and perhaps most importantly, to each other.
In the broadest sense that’s what Tuesday’s announcement that Nash — the two-time NBA MVP with the everyman’s physique, a genuine modesty and from nowhere-to-the-top story– will be taking the helm as the general manager of the men’s national team for Canada Basketball actually means.
It means the sport’s only true made-in-Canada celebrity cares enough to give back, to put his sparkling reputation on the line to make the sport (more) relevant within the country and competitive internationally.
It’s where comparing Nash’s role to Hockey Canada bringing Wayne Gretzky or Steve Yzerman on board fail miserably.
Hockey Canada was, would, and will be fine if Gretzky or Yzerman never existed. There were and will be an endless stream of candidates for those roles and oodles of money to spend.
For basketball in Canada there is and was only Nash, and money has always been a problem.
If Canada is to become a team that matters internationally and a rallying point for sports fans domestically, Tuesday will be the day that will be identified as the beginning.
Nash is the right man for the job because it comes from the heart – and not only because he’s doing the job for free.
"This program has meant so much to me and my career, going back to being a 16-year-old and having [then national team coach] Ken Shields allow me to come out and work out with the men’s team before anyone knew who I was," the Phoenix Suns star from Victoria said yesterday, the significance of the occasion underlined by the fact he dropped his standard designer skateboarder look for a tailored suit, including a bright red pocket square.
"It’s a great history and I feel I owe a lot of the success I’ve had to the program… The Olympics was the greatest experience of my career, bar none."
The challenge for Nash is to make playing for Canada as relevant to those that are coming behind him as it was for him and friends like Rowan Barrett – his national team backcourt mate who was introduced as the assistant general manager and executive vice-president of the national team – on their way up.
Nash’s patriotism is real, but his 10 years with the national team were fueled by pragmatism too: the program was an avenue for him to prove himself and improve himself, first as an NBA prospect and then as a NBA player.
And so while he spoke yesterday of bringing the disparate cultures and vested interests that have not always seen eye-to-eye together, for once – "this is everybody’s game, coast to coast; we need get out there and make people feel they’re part of it" – there was a player-friendly message too.
"What I want to do is turn this over to the players and say: ‘how can we make this worthwhile for you? How can we help you develop your game and take your game to the next level?" said Nash.
The early indications are that it’s not a figurehead role. While Nash acknowledged he will be leaning hard on the likes of Barrett and others on the ground to lead the charge day-in and day-out while he’s still playing (his plans for free agency were not on the agenda Tuesday) he didn’t commit his name and weight to the project until he figured there would be a way to pay for training camps, the cost of insurimg NBA contracts or springing for first-class seats for athletes who struggle to fit in coach.
Playing for the national team is never going to be a path to riches, but Nash seems determined to make sure it doesn’t cost players money and that the experience does enhance them as athletes and professionals.
Nash participated in conference calls with selected ‘high net-worth’ individuals with basketball ties – a fund-raising group called "The Sixth man" – and laid out his vision for the program and asked simply: will you help pay for it?
It’s estimated the national team will need an additional $4-million to make qualifying for the 2016 Olympics a realistic goal and before Nash came on board Canada Basketball – with his help – was able to get commitments for as much as $2-million already.
"In the past we were constrained by budgets," said Nash, who would dip into his own NBA-lined pocket to upgrade seating for teammates and help cover gaps in funding when the team travelled. "(It) didn’t help trying to get that guy from the NBA to give up their summer."
It’s a massive undertaking Nash has signed on for. It’s thought former national team coach and Toronto Raptors head coach Jay Triano will be his first choice as coach, though Nash was non-committal yesterday.
He’ll need all the help he can get. The men’s national team has qualified for one Olympics since 1988. The sport’s global profile has only increased and keeping up with the competition promises to get harder, not easier.
In that sense Nash’s role is more saviour than general manager and one short on actual management experience at that. I asked him why he thought he was the man for the job and Nash laughed first saying "besides being a cocky athlete?"
What he really brings is credibility, experience, the glow of celebrity and noted success in getting teams to play together. Getting Nash on board has been a priority for Canada Basketball chief executive officer Wayne Parrish since Nash retired as a national team player in 2007.
"Of the athletes I’ve known there’s just a sense about some that in management, they’re going to get it," said Parrish, the unsung hero in this tale. "They’ve got the right interpersonal skills, the right IQ, the right feel for people.
Nash, Parrish says, has it.
"He’s going to be a lighthouse for our talent in this country in this game."