PHOENIX -- Certainly, Steve Nash has no objections to being voted to start next month's NBA All-Star Game in Dallas, but what the league's two-time Most Valuable Player really wants to do is direct.
It was just after midnight, Dec. 12. The Phoenix Suns were in the midst of back-to-back games. After a 106-103 home win against Orlando, the team flew to Denver. On the long bus ride from Denver International Airport, which, if you've been, you know is located in western Nebraska, to the team hotel, Nash broke out his video camera. The man who has directed Phoenix's offense the past five-plus seasons proceeded to direct his teammates in an improvised rendition of Lionel Richie's "All Night Long," a fitting song for the evening.
"That took us about 20 takes," Suns reserve forward Jared Dudley says. "Nobody knew the words. But we had fun."
What stands out in the video, besides Leandro Barbosa's uncanny ability to mimic a goat, is that the star of the Suns never appears on camera. He is behind it. "I try to put my teammates in the best situations to be funny," Nash says, "because I know what makes them funny."
Take just the first 10 words of that quote and you have the essence of Nash, who at 35 years old is having the best season of his career, while assisting numerous teammates to have the best seasons of theirs.
"Steve's the best shooter on this team," says Suns owner Robert Sarver, who on the night he purchased the franchise in 2004 flew to Dallas to sign Nash. "He could score more (Nash already has five 30-point games this season) but he wants his teammates to shine so that we can win."
The Shaqtus has left town. The Suns are once again a loose and levity-infused team (you watched the video, no?). Not coincidentally, Steve Nash is once again without question the face of the franchise. And it is a smiley face.
Nash will turn 36 on February 7. He leads the NBA in both assists (11.3 per game) and free-throw percentage (.945). He is on pace this season to break the magical 90-50-40 barrier (90 percent free throw percentage, 50 percent from the field and 40 percent from beyond the arc) for the fourth time in his career. Only one other player in all of NBA history has achieved the feat even twice, and that player was Larry Bird.
"I tell people all the time, 'Appreciate what you have here'," Suns broadcaster Tom Leander says. "Ten years from now, when Steve is retired, maybe then fans will understand just how good they had it."
Judging from the All-Star Game balloting, the 13-year veteran still needs to win over a few fans. As of now Nash stands third in the balloting among Western Conference guards behind Kobe Bryant of the Los Angeles Lakers (the league leader in points) and Tracy McGrady of the Houston Rockets (the league leader in salary).
Apprised of the latest results in voting, Nash rolls his eyes, smirks and says, "I'm heartbroken."
"Steve could care less," Suns coach Alvin Gentry says. "But I think it's important that he start because he deserves it. At his age, there hasn't been any guard who's done what he's done."
Gentry is correct. As the table below shows, no player considered among the greatest point guards of all-time ever had a season at the age of 35 or beyond the likes of which Nash is currently compiling. Nash has a higher scoring average, assists average, and shooting percentages (from the field, from beyond the arc and from the free-throw line) than John Stockton, Jason Kidd, Magic Johnson or Mark Jackson ever put up after reaching the age at which Americans are eligible to run for president (which Nash, who was born in Johannesburg, South Africa, cannot do).
|Best Seasons After 35||Age||Season||PPG||APG||FG%||3PT%||FT%||W-L|
Center Channing Frye, who played his high school ball two miles north of U.S. Airways Arena, hit 20 3-point shots in his first four seasons in New York and Portland. Signed in the offseason by Phoenix, Frye is second in the league with 95 3-pointers and has a top-10 percentage, .438.
In fact, eight different players in the past five years, including Joe Johnson of the Atlanta Hawks, have had career seasons from beyond the arc while playing with Nash.
"Steve delivers the ball to shooters in the ideal spot for them to make plays," says Toronto Raptors coach Jay Triano who, like Nash, is Canadian. "He got all those guys their contracts."
Steve Being Steve
Maybe if Nash promoted himself more. A couple of weeks ago, when it first became apparent to Nash that he might not be voted to start in Dallas, a city in which he played six seasons and twice was named to the All-Star team, he took matters -- and his video camera -- into his own hands. But first he sent out an e-mail to friends soliciting their help.
"Steve let us know that he was putting together a low-light reel," says Jenny Miller, a childhood friend who is also the executive director of the Steve Nash Foundation. "In the reply box I just wrote, 'Kobe dunking on Steve.' Then I sent another one: 'Ricky Davis dunking on Steve'. You could do a lot of those."
Nash took the suggestions of his friends -- the same friends who, when he was with Dallas, advised him against stepping out in the velvet pants he had purchased -- and produced this video. He may just be more intent on becoming the next Suns MVP to host Saturday Night Live (Charles Barkley did so last Saturday) than on starting in the All-Star Game.
Nash is listed at 6-3 (he may be an inch shorter). While exceedingly fit and nutrition-conscious (in the past year he has cut out all refined sugar, saying that it is "complete crap"), Nash has dunked as many times in a game as the Phoenix Mercury's Diana Taurasi, which is to say never.
"Steve has a bet with Al Whitley, the Dallas Mavericks' equipment manager, that if he dunks in a game, Al will streak," says Miller. "I hope Steve never dunks."
Maybe if Nash were more a man of the people. "Steve Nash is the only NBA player who ever came over to my house for dinner," says Leander, whose wife invited Nash over to the house during Nash's rookie season in 1996-97. "I tried to explain to her that NBA players don't just come over to the house, but then Steve did just that. He even tucked my then 3-year-old son, Keaton, into bed."
Triano, who coached the Canadian national team at the 2000 Olympics in Sydney, recalls Nash insisting that he be seated with his teammates on the flight over.
"I explained to Steve that it was out of my hands, that he's an NBA player and that they dictate that he be seated in first-class," Triano says. "About midway through our 17-hour flight, I see Steve seated in economy class, in a middle seat. He looked at me and said, 'I switched seats with one of the bigger guys.' "
The popular theory as to why McGrady leads Nash in the voting is that, as a teammate of Yao Ming, he is the NBA's Manchurian candidate at that position. Never mind that the Rockets placed a healthy McGrady, the league's highest-paid player, on leave in the interests of maintaining peace in the locker room."I wanted what was best for the team and not one individual," coach Rick Adelman said.
That Nash might trail McGrady in voting among Chinese fans makes you wonder about the dissemination of information in that nation. Last summer, Nash spent six days in China on behalf of the NBA. One afternoon he donned a disguise, albeit a poor one, and showed up unannounced at a playground to play pick-up hoops. He even waited his turn to play, as if he were just some schmo who 'balls against weekend warriors, not Golden State Warriors.
Maybe if Nash were...generous. At the Olympics in Sydney, Nash approached the Canadian coaching staff and handed them multiple thousands of dollars in cash. "I make more money than I know what to do with," Nash told Triano. "I want all the players on the team to have a good time while they're here. You can distribute the money to them. Nothing more needs to be said about it."
Five years later, Nash knew exactly what to do with his money. In January of 2005 Nash, in the midst of the first of his two consecutive MVP seasons, phoned Miller. "People are returning my phone calls," Nash told Miller, an attorney whose twin brother, Adam, was one of Nash's closest childhood friends growing up in the Gordon Head district of Vancouver Island (so too was the Mavericks equipment manager, Whitley). "I need more time in my day to do everything I want to do. I feel that you could be that more time in my day."
Nash, with countless assists from Miller and others, has since become the Bono of basketball. The Steve Nash Foundation has constructed both a pediatric ward and a cervical cancer screening clinic in his wife's native Paraguay. It has given away at least $100,000 a year to programs in his native British Columbia. Nash's latest venture, EduCare Arizona, intends to provide educational access to as many pre-school children as time and money will allow.
"And we don't have to worry about what percentage of a donation gets to the program we earmarked it for," says Miller. "That's because Steve pays all the expenses for the foundation."
"My parents always had a sensitivity toward others," says Nash, one of three children, "and toward the inequality that can exist in terms of both status and opportunity. I've always been keenly aware of that."
Even philanthropists can make an enemy or two, though. Before this season, Nash and Miller launched the "13 Club." In order to join, donors agreed to pledge $13 for every assist that Nash (No. 13) makes. Then, in the Suns' home opener versus Golden State, Nash dished out 20 assists (he has done so twice this season; no other NBA player has topped 18).
"We got a few angry e-mails," says Miller. "People thought they'd been swindled."
No. They just hadn't followed the NBA closely the past half-decade.
Fun facts about Steve Nash the two-time MVP to collect and trade amongst your friends.
1) Nash is the only league MVP to never have appeared in an NBA Finals.
2) He is the shortest multiple MVP award winner in NBA history (the next-shortest was 6-6 Michael Jordan).
3) He is the only multiple MVP award-winner to have been born outside of the United States or a U.S. territory (Tim Duncan was born in the U.S. Virgin Islands).
4) While a player of African-American heritage has won the Maurice Podoloff Trophy (the award's formal name) 80 percent of the time in the 55 years it has existed, Nash is only the second player to win it who was actually born in Africa. He was born in Johannesburg, South Africa. Hakeem Olajuwon (1994 NBA MVP) was born in Lagos, Nigeria.
5) Steve Nash is the first Caucasian player raised in North America to win the MVP award since Larry Bird (1984-86). Will he be the last?
Maybe if Nash had more personality. Last summer a reporter asked Nash what we can look forward to in the fall. "An all-new season of 'Curb Your Enthusiasm'!" Nash replied enthusiastically. Beat. "Oh, did you mean what are you looking forward to or what am I looking forward to?"
Nash, who lives just a few miles north of the boyhood home of a more renowned camera-toting Steven (Spielberg), has a genuine fascination with film. It is no passing fancy for this fancy passer. Along with his cousin, Ezra Holland, Nash has formed a film production company, Meathawk Productions. In the past couple of years, he has become the NBA's answer to Andy Samberg, producing and often starring in comical videos that quickly go viral.
"Someone sent me a video clip a couple of summers ago," says Miller. "They asked, 'Is this really Steve Nash on a tandem bike with Baron Davis'?"
Indeed, it was. When Miller phoned Nash to ask about the video, entitled "Step Brothers," he was surprised. "That's already on the internet?" he asked. Then, after a pause: "Cool."
You don't have to search long on YouTube to unearth video of Nash skateboarding through lower Manhattan, where he, his wife Alejandra and their twin daughters spend each summer. Or making mockumentaries in which the character being spoofed is Nash himself. Or playing pranks on world-famous soccer stars such as Kaka and Thierry Henry. "That one lasts just over two minutes, but it was five European cities in six days," says Nash, who had the talent to play soccer professionally. "Still, I was like a kid in a candy store."
In some ways Steve Nash is the world's oldest 12-year-old.
"I asked him once for a 'No' clause in my contract," says Miller. "I want to be able say 'No' to his ideas 400 times a year. Thus far the only thing Steve has agreed to is to stop doing 'The Worm' on camera."
Maybe if Nash were ... maybe the problem isn't with Steve. Maybe the problem is us. "I don't know that Steve really wants to be popular," says Suns owner Robert Sarver.
"Are we just more about the slam dunks?" asks Triano.
Steve Nash is 35 years old ... and in the midst of the greatest season of his career. MVP? Maybe. All-Star starter?
It's your call. Balloting ends Monday.