'PLAYING WITH STEVE SPOILS YOU'
'PLAYING WITH STEVE SPOILS YOU'
As Steve Nash is enshrined in the Basketball Hall of Fame, close friends from childhood through to the NBA open up about what makes the kid from Victoria so special.

Steve Nash grew up in Victoria, B.C. pretending to be Isiah Thomas or Magic Johnson on the court with his buddies. On Friday night, he’ll take the stage at Symphony Hall in Springfield, Mass. and explain what it means to him to be formally inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame alongside those childhood heroes. Over the 18 years he played in the NBA and internationally, Nash’s style and outlook shaped how the game is played today, even five years after his last full season. Stranger things have happened in the realm of sports than a B.C. boy reaching basketball’s hallowed ground, but the list isn’t all that long.

As Nash evolved from a small-town high-school standout far off the sport’s beaten path to a small-college hero at Santa Clara University to a struggling young NBA player and finally an all-star and two-time MVP, those close to him have had the pleasure of reconciling the kid they knew with the icon he has become. Here are thoughts and memories from five people who knew Steve Nash before that name meant something; who watched him succeed beyond anything they could have imagined and who will watch with pride as he gains basketball’s highest honour this week.

Al Whitley, the head equipment manager with the Dallas Mavericks, is Nash’s childhood friend and was a teammate of the point guard’s at Arbutus Middle School in Victoria, where they both started playing basketball.

To even mention that one day you wanted to play in the NBA instead of the NHL as a kid growing up on Vancouver Island was laughable. Obviously playing in middle school and high school he was head and shoulders better than everyone else — he always has been, pretty much at every sport — but anyone who says they predicted he was going to be a two-time MVP and a Hall of Famer is lying, without a doubt. But his dream was to make the NBA, and not only did he make it, he became one of the most successful point guards in NBA history. I’ve known him for 35 years, have worked in the NBA for almost 20 years now and that’s surreal to me — I’m still in disbelief that a kid from an island in Western Canada can actually achieve these goals. It’s a fairy tale, storybook.

“He was so cerebral in how he approached things. Even at an early age you could tell that he was looking for certain angles that no one saw.”

He was so cerebral in how he approached things. Even at an early age you could tell that he was looking for certain angles that no one saw, he was looking for tendencies in opponents that we didn’t understand. He was so far ahead of us in his development. We were going, ‘Hey, let’s get our shots up, put the work in and hopefully get better.’ But everything he did had a purpose. He might have tracked something the day before and wanted to do it better the next day. He just saw that and understood that at a way younger age than most kids. He was always trying to set himself up for the future and where he wanted to go.

He made guys [in the NBA] look foolish some nights, but that’s what he did our whole childhood growing up. To see him on that stage doing some of the same things he did in junior high and high school to us is a pretty surreal experience, I can tell you that. It gives us bragging rights. We can always brag that we beat him in one-on-one now and again. At one point we did compete with him, we weren’t terribly far behind, but then he hit a certain age and he just exploded. When our group started to slow down in development he was just taking off.

In Grade 11, Nash transferred high schools, enrolling at St. Michael’s University School, a private institution with a strong athletic tradition. Due to transfer rules he wasn’t able to play soccer or basketball in his first year, but SMU had a highly regarded rugby program coached by Ian Hyde-Lay, who also coached basketball. Nash decided to give rugby a try and ended up making the first 15 and helping to win the provincial championship in Grade 12 (after already leading SMU to provincial titles in soccer and basketball). One of his rugby teammates and lifelong friends is Peter Robb.

Steve was just never bigger than the team. He knew he was a star basketball player in this city and on this team, but he never thought to himself, ‘Well, I’m bigger than this. I’m the biggest thing in this school. Watch what I can do.’ He just put his head down, and said, ‘What do you need me to do?’

[Coach] Hyde-Lay said, ‘You should play rugby because you should be a well-rounded athlete.’ Athletes now would say, ‘Not a f—ing chance. I got one ticket and I’m going to ride it.’ But Steve loved the contact. Him and another guy, Jamie Miller, came to SMU from another school and they were both star basketball players. Hyde-Lay told Jamie to play rugby too and he was mortified. He was twice Steve’s size and as soon as he got the ball he would throw it out of bounds. Steve took it all on. We were all real proud of his heritage when he split his eye open [after taking an elbow from Tim Duncan in Game 4 of a second-round playoff sweep of the San Antonio Spurs in 2010] and was looking to get back into the game.

Steve has an innate ability to slow things down, and it comes through in everything he does. As a fullback [in rugby] you’re not making a thousand tackles a game but you’re playing with the ball and making decisions. He had that skill already. He was also always willing to try everything. We got him to play cricket one year and he was awesome at it.

By Grade 12 we figured, wow, he’s really good for Victoria and he’s intense but he was still out chasing girls and chasing beer all summer and then he went away to Santa Clara. No one knew Santa Clara then. It was like ‘Steve, you’re going to a small school nobody knows. Congratulations, loser.’ Once they knocked off [No. 2] Arizona [as the No. 15 seed in the 1993 NCAA tournament] we figured okay, Steve might be on to something here.

“I'm not a terrible golfer. And he beat me, with my clubs, playing left-handed.”

He didn’t change [as he got famous]. For us that’s the true sign of a man. We always managed to get together. We went on golfing trips, we’d got to the lake. One time, we were at a wedding in Victoria and we went out to play [golf]. I’m left-handed and Steve’s right-handed. Steve won one hole and we went back and Steve played it left-handed, with my clubs, and beat us all again. And I’m like, ‘You [jerk]. Who does that?’ And I’m not a terrible golfer, I’m a 12 handicap; I’m shooting in the 80s. And he beat me with my clubs, playing left-handed. I was like, ‘All right, let’s just drink beer from now on.’

When he was in Dallas and went up 3-0 on Portland [in the first round of the 2003 playoffs], a bunch of us went down to Portland. Steve was like, ‘We got this in the bag.’ He came out on the piss that night and they lost three straight after. [Nash was scoreless with four turnovers in Game 4 in Portland; the Mavericks won the series in seven]. We look back at it and laugh now; it was a really funny situation.

Ian Hyde-Lay was well positioned to help Nash prepare for basketball after high school. He had played for the legendary Ken Shields at the University of Victoria as a hard-nosed guard and team captain, winning a national championship in 1980 and working up close with a slew of future Canadian Olympians. But he was still a young teacher and coach when Nash arrived at SMU for Grade 11. Now in the 38th year of a career that is still going strong, he’s able to more fully appreciate his most accomplished student.

I had heard rumours about this kid with amazing skills at Arbutus Middle School. We went up there for a league game in January of [Steve’s] Grade 9 year and it was a good, competitive game. He got a ball on the right side of the court and drove middle, and off the dribble fired a left-handed bounce pass to a guy cutting back door. He was threading through this impossibly small hole, absolutely on time and on target, and the ball went crashing off the end wall because the receiver had no idea the ball was on its way. But I remember sitting with a guy I’ve coached with for years and years and turning to him and saying, ‘Did you see that?’ It was just a moment when you’re thinking, ‘That was incredibly skillful.’ And to have the vision and the ability to do it at that age was amazing.

Your rank-and-file sports fan looks at speed or how much can you lift or how high can you jump. But there is so much more — balance, vision — and he had those in spades. I mean, he was no slouch. He could run and he had tremendous cardiovascular endurance; he would shatter records [in testing].

But I didn’t really think about it other than you came away from a workout going, ‘Wow, that was not the norm.’ He’d make 20, 25 shots in a row and it seemed effortless. I didn’t give him any real guidance on his ball-handling. He’d be handling two balls running up and down the floor and you’d say to yourself, ‘There’s really nothing I can do to improve this’. In the years since, there have been parents who would say ‘This guy is the next Steve.’ I wouldn’t say anything out loud, but in my mind I’d be saying, ‘No way, not even close.’

Lloyd Pierce has enjoyed a meteoric rise through the NBA coaching ranks since breaking in with the Cleveland Cavaliers as a player development specialist in 2007. He begins his first season as an NBA head coach with the Atlanta Hawks this year. As a Bay Area high-school basketball standout he was considering attending nearby Santa Clara in 1993. Nash was about to start his sophomore season and host Pierce’s recruiting visit. They’re still fast friends today.

You can watch Blue Chips and see one side of the recruiting trip, and then you go to Santa Clara and Steve Nash is your host and you see the other side. It was Saturday afternoon and we were kind of in-between things and he said we have the afternoon free. Obviously, we’re going out and partying that night on campus, but is there anything you wanted to do in the afternoon?

And I said, ‘Well, my high school has homecoming at about four o’clock.’ And he said, ‘Do you want to go?’ And I said, ‘Sure. I mean, yeah.’ And he said, ‘Let’s go then.’ So Steve Nash and I go to Yerba Buena High School in San Jose and we’re at my high school homecoming football game on my recruiting trip. Fast-forward 24 years and I think there are about eight or nine or us from that team that are going out to celebrate his Hall of Fame induction.

He’s always been fundamentally sound; he’s always been one step ahead, if you may, of the defence. Any great point guard sees things before they happen. He fits that mould, but that’s a skill and something he’s worked on. His respect and love for the game allowed him to hone his craft and perfect his craft.

When he’s on the bench and the timeout occurs, he’s the first person out on to the court — he runs out and he’s got his high-five hand up. That’s his opportunity to coach. That’s his opportunity to encourage; that’s his opportunity to criticize. But he presents himself with the high five as, ‘Hey I’ve got some positive reinforcement or some positive feedback. I’m with you,’ — that’s the high five — ‘now let me correct you or let me help you.’ It’s a subtle thing but it’s a very mindful thing. If you’re just watching you’re thinking, ‘Man, Steve Nash is always throwing high fives. He’s always staying positive.’ However, he’s also coaching, educating.

He had a player development approach before it was called player development. He’d come back at night to Santa Clara and bring a couple of guys and play one-on-one and he’d work on his skill set. He was his own player development coach in college. That was 20-plus years ago, that’s not what we were doing back then. It was open gym and a lot of rhythm shooting.

By the time I got to Santa Clara, he was Steve Nash. He already knew how to play pick-and-roll and make reads and hold off his guy and create his own shot and find his guys. He had a skill set that wasn’t quite college — it definitely wasn’t a Santa Clara set of skills. That was Steve Nash as a junior. He was really good. He was our conference player of the year, and then there’s Steve Nash who just returned from Team Canada as a senior [Nash played for Canada at the World Championships in Toronto in 1994] and you’re saying, ‘How did he get so much better over the summer? I was playing with a really good college player, now I’m playing with a pro.’

The game slowed down a lot, he just completely controlled the floor. So I knew he was a pro, there was no doubt about it. I didn’t know he was going to be an MVP, all-star player until he got to Phoenix. The Suns created this style of play, it was almost tailor-made for Nash. Now, all of a sudden, he was like, I’m free and I can play.’

There is isn’t an NBA coach in today’s game — there is probably not a college coach — who hasn’t studied Steve Nash. How do you run a pick-and-roll? Let’s look at how Steve and Dirk [Nowitzki] did it. Let’s look at how Steve and Amar’e [Stoudemire] did it.’ How do you keep your dribble alive when the play breaks down? Let’s look at Nash. There’s a term — ‘Nash it’. It’s a term of respect. Everyone knows what ‘Nashing’ is. He’s become a case study, in a lot of ways, of how to play the game.

Michael Meeks is one of Canada’s most successful basketball players. He is the second all-time leading scorer among Canadians in NCAA Division I history, was Canada’s leading scorer at the 2000 Olympics and played professionally for 14 years in Europe. He is currently the manager of youth player development with Canada Basketball and an assistant coach with the senior men’s national team. He first met Nash when they were trying out for the U-20 national team preparing for the World Championships in Edmonton in the summer of 1991. Nash was just 17. Neither of them made the team.

I twisted my ankle and was an alternate, and Steve was released. I remember being on the bus with him back to the airport and Steve was like, ‘Meeks, we’re never getting cut again. This sucks. I hate it. it’s never happening to me again’ — he was pissed.

I was looking at him and saying, ‘All right buddy, you got cut. I sprained my ankle; I’m an alternate. Get it right.’ But he was right, it sucked. No one likes that rejection, but the real players use that to fuel them. He never got cut again, from any team, after that.

He had a lot of energy. It was almost like he never got tired. How much better he got each year can be attributed to how much more he can work, compared to the next guy. It’s almost like if you can run 10 sprints, he can run a 100, so he’s just going to get that much better. His endurance was so good he’s going to get in so many more reps after you quit.

“The coach was like, 'Mike, how come we're not getting the same performances from you as in the Olympics?' I'm like, 'You don't have Steve Nash here.'”

It was almost like [his improvement] he never slowed down. Guys’ [physical] development starts to plateau around 22, 23 and then their IQ gets there at 28 or so. But he just kept on going until maybe the last year or two [of his NBA career], when he was trailing off. He didn’t have that plateau until really late. He was always adding a couple of more things to his game and getting better and stronger.

That he was a two-time MVP really plays into that idea that it’s all mental. Athletically, he’s pretty exceptional at a few things but he’s not an athletic phenom. But he’s methodical and his attention to detail was ridiculous and he strived for perfection on the court.

He was extremely confident, but it never touched the point of cockiness. He was ‘we’re going to win this game because everything is under control’ and he’s going to make it happen, but he never looked down to his opponents.

He was extremely down to earth. He’d come to my house with my sister and brothers, that kind of thing. I cut his hair once. I’d never cut a white guy’s hair in my life and he’s like, ‘Mike give me a haircut,’ and I’m like, ‘You sure?’ I took out my shears, started cutting and it looked okay to me, but it was kind of jacked up when I really think about it and he was like, ‘Yeah, okay.’ And he put a hat on and was out the door and that was it. He didn’t care.

Don’t even get me started on playing with other point guards. Playing with Steve spoils you. I went to Russia after the Olympics [in 2000] and I was playing for the coach of the Russian national team and with the Russian national team point guard and the coach was like, ‘Mike, how come we’re not getting the same performances from you as in the Olympics?’

I’m like, ‘You don’t have Steve Nash here. When I’m open, that ball is in my hands. I could close my eyes and know it’s going to hit me on time, on target. We’re not playing with Steve Nash, so you’re not going to get my best performance unless you put me with a guard who can get me those kinds of passes.’

I shot 52 percent from three at the Olympics. When we ran pick-and-roll or pick-and-pop, I’m concentrating on hitting Steve’s man, that’s it. If I take care of that guy, my guy has to help; he has to stop the ball, he has to stop Steve because Steve will shoot it. And that’s all I did. I set a screen, I took Steve’s guy out, my guy had to help for half a second, maybe less, and by that time the ball was flying over his head and hitting me in the hands and I’m wide open for an open shot or attack. It was the easiest basketball I’ve ever played.

Nowadays, I don’t want to be guy who cuts the next Steve Nash!

For me, the No. 1 thing I like to see when players are young is they love the work, they love coming to the gym and getting after it. For Steve, the work was easy. It wasn’t, ‘Ugh, I’m going to the gym today, I gotta do 1,000 shots.’ For him it was, ‘What time is it? I’m not in the gym yet? Let me get my shoes, let me get my ball, who’s coming with me? We’ll just take a quick 500’ — and it would end up being 1,500. He loved it. He got to the gym and it was like heaven for him.

That’s what so special about Steve. He just looked like an ordinary guy. You would never know. But he more than maximized what God gave him. There were no talent resources left untapped. Somehow he got bonus.

Photo Credits

Design by Drew Lesiuczok.
Andrew D. Bernstein/NBAE/Getty Images (2); Nathaniel S. Butler/NBAE/Getty Images; Rocky Widner/NBAE/Getty Images; Matt York/AP Photo (2).