In May 2012, Steve Nash was named GM of the Canadian senior men’s basketball team. It is fitting that, as this country looks to feature its most talented crop of players ever in the lead-up to the 2016 Olympics, one of the team’s fiercest-ever competitors is at the helm. Nash first played for the national squad in 1993 and was the driving force behind its seventh-place finish at the 2000 Games in Sydney (and best Olympic performance of the past 20 years).
While coming home without a medal was a big disappointment, Nash’s time with the national squad was deeply important to him personally, and, as it turned out, a critical boost to his NBA career. In the following excerpt from Steve Nash: The Unlikely Ascent of a Superstar, by Dave Feschuk and Michael Grange, friends and former teammates Rowan Barrett (now assistant GM of the national team) and Sherman Hamilton describe how Nash pushed them to the berth in Sydney.
After a promising start to his NBA career, Nash went into a deep trough in his first year in Dallas in 1998–99. He was struggling with injuries that had yet to be properly diagnosed and was shooting a career-low 37.3 percent from the field on a bad Mavericks team; for the first and only time in his career, Nash was the subject of fans’ scorn as they booed their new high-priced point guard for that most undeniable of reasons: he sucked.
That summer, the national team became something more than a place for Nash to reconnect with his friends and play for his flag. It became a refuge and a place where he could play basketball the way he played it growing up: freely and with friends. As the undisputed leader he could play with his mind clear and mend his fraying confidence.
“From a formative perspective, it was very vital for him to play early on,” says Barrett. “You need three things to be [successful]. One, you need strong coaching. Second, you need talent. Third, you need the right training environment: You need the opportunity to make mistakes, you need to have the opportunity to have the ball in your hand and live and die with your decisions. Playing for the national team, Steve was able to get those types of experiences that he wasn’t getting in the NBA earlier on, which actually helped him eventually in the NBA context.
“NBA people could see what he looked like with the ball in his hands against good competition. So in the end [the national team] helped him.”
The national team had been at a bit of a low ebb, having finished a disappointing twelfth at the 1998 World Championships minus Nash thanks to the NBA lockout, with the effort costing head coach Steve Konchalski his job. “For the young guys, it was ‘Wait till we get to the next one, it’s not going to be like this. When our group gets a chance to take over and do something, it’s not going to be like this,’” says Sherman Hamilton. “For the older guys, I think it was ‘This is some bullshit.’ And they knew their time was up.”
In 1999, with Nash running the point and Triano on the bench, things turned around almost immediately.
“We got some much-needed experience in those international climates where it’s eat or be eaten, basically,” says Hamilton. “And we needed that.
“We beat Argentina in that first game and from then on we just felt everyone else was in our way, we’re going to beat them if we do the right things. We weren’t cocky but we felt if we played the way we could play, we could beat anyone in that tournament, outside the U.S.”
Nash’s humility and brand of play were exactly what that team needed. And he was paid back in kind. Instead of doubts and boos, he had unquestioned support and a team willing to follow his lead.
“He brought us that confidence, but the group we had, we were all fighters, so it was perfect for Steve,” says Hamilton. “Steve would try to will a bag of oranges to win a game, but he had a group of guys that were already seething and waiting to take that next step, so it was perfect timing.
“We lost to Puerto Rico [in the second round, 80–75] and we’re in the locker room and that was one of those moments where you’re pissed off and . . . you’ve got to take down the home country,” says Hamilton. “That’s a statement game and we lost it. And we’re sitting there and we’re pissed off and Steve came in and said, ‘They can’t beat us twice.’ And sure enough they didn’t.” Nash and his teammates went on to beat Puerto Rico two days later in the semifinal, a game that had an Olympic berth on the line. Nash was the tournament MVP, as he scored 26 points and grabbed eight rebounds, while dishing out four assists in an 83–71 win.
Canada had qualified for their first Olympic tournament since 1988. For once, Canadian basketball was on the map. With the national media assembled to cover the Sydney Games, for a few weeks Nash and his teammates became Canada’s Team. They finished first of six teams in their preliminary group, notching wins over powers like Spain and Yugoslavia, and losing only to Russia. It set up a seemingly favourable matchup for the playoff round as Canada drew France — fourth-place finishers in the other preliminary pool — in their quarterfinal game. A win there and Canada would be playing for its first Olympic medal in basketball since 1936. But the magical run ended abruptly when a pair of French guards took turns forcing the ball out of Nash’s hands, pushing the already physical brand of international basketball to the limit. Canada lost 68–63, ending their tournament and leaving Nash in tears.
But getting to the Olympics had provided a clear signal that Nash’s best basketball was ahead of him and his ceiling was higher than anyone may have thought. It was a prelude to his breakout 2000–01 season, in which he leveraged his virtuoso Olympic experience into career highs in every offensive category and a playoff berth for the Mavericks, and it started in Roberto Clemente Coliseum in stifling San Juan, Puerto Rico, in front of a rabid crowd of 12,000 in full throat.
All of them wanted the same thing: to see Canada go down. On the line was the last spot in the 2000 Games, on the floor was the best Puerto Rico could offer, a team with a handful of NBA players and some hardened pros who had played in the island’s domestic professional league and in Europe.
“It was for all the marbles in international play. We were in a situation where we could really show the world we were ready to compete. That game in Puerto Rico, with 12 or 13,000 people there, all of them against us, that was one of the biggest games I’ve ever been in and no one thought we could win it, except us,” says Hamilton, who hit seven free throws in the final three minutes to help seal the win. “And we went in there and did and Steve had a lot to do with it. He played one of the best games I’ve seen him play.
“I remember one time they were getting into Steve — and in international ball, you tug and grab and all that stuff — and Steve got by, rose up, hit a jumper, got fouled and just held his follow-through [after the whistle]. It was just one of those ‘No matter what you do to me, I’m going to do what I do.’”
Ideally there should have been many more moments like that for Canada in international basketball. In his new executive role, Nash has a chance and the tools to rectify that by doing what he’s always done with a ball in his hands: galvanize the group; find a way to make the whole as strong as possible and the experience itself resonate with the best instincts of the individuals involved.
It might be his toughest play yet.
Excerpted from Steve Nash. Copyright © 2013 Dave Feschuk and Michael Grange. Published by Random House Canada, an imprint of the Knopf Random Canada Publishing Group, which is a division of Random House of Canada Limited. Reproduced by arrangement with the Publisher. All rights reserved.