How Don Nelson turned Steve Nash into a Hall of Fame player-to-be

Steve Nash with the Phoenix Suns greets his former coach Don Nelson in 2004 (Donna McWilliam/AP)

Before Steve Nash walks up to the podium and gives his speech about his rightful induction into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame Friday, the greatest hooper Canada’s ever produced will first be introduced by his former Dallas Mavericks coach Don Nelson.

Perhaps a surprising choice given the fact he is most famed for his back-to-back MVPs in 2005 and 2006 while a member of the Phoenix Suns but, as he explains it himself, Nash wouldn’t have it any other way because “Nellie” was the man who helped spark the Victoria, B.C., native’s transformation from just a promising talent into perhaps the greatest point guard to ever play the position.

“Nellie was really hard on me, but he also really believed in me,” Nash told The New York Times’ Marc Stein. “He had more belief in me than I did.

“It was him imploring me to score. And that was a fundamental building block for me, because once I balanced the playmaking with the scoring, it opened up everything for me and my teammates.”

Seeing how Nash is one of the greatest shooters in basketball history, this seems obvious now, but it wasn’t so apparent to Nash at the time, who says Nelson changed his thinking thanks to the hall-of-fame coach’s famed tough love.

“My nature is just to pass, pass, pass – to give. Nellie finally got it in my head that that was B.S. – that you’re hurting us by doing that. He challenged me, without exactly saying it this way, to realize I was being selfish.”

This call to action Nelson dared Nash with, according to Stein, happened in the 1999-2000 season, another dismal year that saw Nash only average 8.6 points and 4.9 assists.

However, despite the pedestrian numbers, something sparked in Nash afterwards as that summer he went on to lead Team Canada to a seventh-place finish at the Sydney 2000 Olympic Games and followed that up with a breakout 2000-01 campaign that saw him average 15.6 points and 7.3 assists on 40.6 per cent shooting from deep.

It was revelatory and foreshadowed over a decade of dominance to come.

“I didn’t ask him,” said Nelson. “I told him he had to change or I was going to stop playing him. I told him, ‘You’re one of my best shooters and you won’t shoot – I don’t understand.’ So I told him I was going to fine him every game he didn’t take at least 10 shots. I definitely hurt his feelings, but he tried to change after that. He became an all-star and didn’t stop until he won two MVPs.”

Part of the reason why Nelson is presenting Nash into the hall of fame is because the hall demands that an inductee ask a previous one to present him/her. Nelson was inducted into the hall in 2012 and even though Nash could’ve had his pick of the litter, such as fellow B.C., native Pete Newell, he opted to go with Nelson, the man who turned his entire game around.

“He was pivotal. We had some tough times and a couple tough moments, but overall I look back on Nellie as an absolute beauty.”

Nash, along with fellow players of his generation Ray Allen, Grant Hill and Jason Kidd are among 12 who will have their names immortalized in Springfield, Mass., on Friday.

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