Deft graceful mastery and athleticism, yes. But maybe something more.
He finishes his professional basketball career as the most accurate shooter ever—a remarkable sentence. He finishes as the best free-throw shooter ever—another startling sentence. He finishes third on the all-time assist list. He was the driving force and presiding genius of the most exciting offensive team of his generation. Twice he was named the most valuable player in the best basketball league in the world, during an era in which easily 10 of the best players who ever played the game were in their primes. Though he was often the smallest, slightest man on the floor, he was, without a doubt, the most creative and generous and relentless and unintimidated of all the players out there. Though he was hammered and shoved and elbowed and kneed and jammed and hacked and slapped and held countless times in efforts to slow or stop his dash and verve and flow, I never saw him assault or deck another player, though I often saw him visibly annoyed, grim, or peeved. He will be elected to the Basketball Hall of Fame instantly, the first Canadian and the first Santa Clara alumnus to be so honored.
But these are not the primary reasons I relished watching Steve Nash ’96 play basketball. It was more than his mere excellence. It was his wild creativity—Nash was one of those handful of athletes who is especially riveting to watch; you were likely to miss something truly unprecedented. Lionel Messi in soccer, Ken Griffey in baseball, Diana Taurasi in basketball, Viv Richards in cricket, Wayne Gretzky in hockey, Barry Sanders in football, James Hird in Australian football … when they appeared on the screen, when they wandered out onto the pitch or the court or the ice, you leaned forward with anticipation, knowing you would almost certainly see deft, graceful mastery. And athleticism, yes, but maybe something more, something deeper—an almost childishly naked joy in the whirl and geometry of the game, a quiet delight in poking and exploring its frontiers and ostensible limits, a consistent curiosity as to how the game could be played better, cleaner, swifter. A forward snares a rebound and gets it instantly to Nash, who is away at full speed before his defender is quite ready for him, and you lean forward, and you gape as Nash whips the ball with one hand toward what appears to be no one at all—until a teammate arrives where Nash knew he would be if he understood the angles, and the teammate catches the ball and lays it gently in the basket, and Nash grins a little, and the game goes on, but I replay this moment over and over again, marveling at how Nash even saw the only possible tiny passageway through a thicket of arms and bodies for the ball, let alone zipped the ball at exactly the right speed through that tunnel, so it could be driven home.
Unbelievable … but this happened night after night after night for 15 years.
He was a mediocre defender, at best. (“The worst defensive player I have ever seen,” said then-Broncos coach Dick Davey after watching Nash’s high school games.) He wasn’t much of a rebounder. He had little in the way of a post-up game. He drove his teams to no championships, although the Phoenix Suns came awfully close. He lost the final three years of his career to savage back pain, years in which he might well have become the best ever at his position by the numbers. He may have dunked three times in his career. And yet, and yet …
In my 50 years of watching American professional basketball, easily the highest level of the sport in the world, featuring the best players (and, I would argue, the best athletes of all), I have seen a handful of players who were some thrilling combination of not just athletic skill and craft mastery but of delight in the game, delight in making teammates better, delight in inventiveness and innovation and creativity: Magic Johnson, Larry Bird, Bill Walton, Tim Duncan, LeBron James, Chris Mullin, and Steve Nash. Something about the way they played went beyond competitiveness, victory, numbers, championships, money, mere excellence, beyond the grim joyless ferocity of superb players like Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant and Oscar Robertson. They spoke the language of the game more eloquently, in a sense. They loved being among their brothers in the work. They loved to invent, to imagine, to dream in ways no one had dreamed before. They loved to give the ball away.
Every one of them would happily have accepted a box score of zero points, if their teammates had carried them to a win. Every one of them was wonderfully skilled and deft and accomplished at the game they loved, but there was something more with every one of them: joy, pleasure almost, perhaps a subtle kind of love in the game, for their companions in the thrill of trying to play it surpassingly well, trying to play it in ways no one had done before. That’s what I will remember best about Steve Nash. He was more than great at a game; he was creative, innovative, inventive, joyous, wildly generous.
A university like Santa Clara is rightfully proud of almost all its alumni, who generally go on to signal accomplishment in every imaginable field of endeavor, most crucially as spouses and parents and citizens; but I would guess that the University is most proud of its alumni who most give themselves away, who marshal their gifts and their talents with wonderful energy and creativity, and then bring them to bear against the ills and despairs and diseases and pains of the world. Steve Nash saved no lives with his work, defeated no thuggish criminal gangs, solved no terrifying fouling of water and air; but if ever there was an alumnus who sparked delight and awe in millions of people who love the theatre and drama and sinuous joy of sport, it was Stephen John Nash, of the Class of 1996. For everything you gave us over these last 18 years, Stephen, our thanks. Our prayers for the health and joy of your children, and our best wishes in whatever it is your work will be in the years to come.
BRIAN DOYLE is the editor of Portland Magazine at the University of Portland. His most recent essay collection is Children and Other Wild Animals.