An exclusive interview with basketball hall-of-famer Steve Nash ’96
This is a big year for Steve Nash ’96. He led Santa Clara basketball teams to two NCAA tournament victories before a stellar professional career. And he will be inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in early September 2018. The two-time NBA Most Valuable Player now works for the Golden State Warriors as a player development consultant. But once upon a time it was an uphill climb—in more ways than one. He recently sat down with former San Jose Mercury News columnist Mark Purdy for an exclusive Santa Clara Magazine interview.
An Awesome Place
Mark Purdy: Congratulations on the Hall of Fame induction.
Steve Nash: Thank you.
Purdy: Do you have your speech written yet?
Nash: I do not. People say I need to get that done.
Purdy: I saw the speech you gave last year at the Santa Clara Hall of Fame ceremony, which was extemporaneous and touching. You talked a lot about the University. You’re a parent now. At some point, you’re probably going to be asked by them or by parents of their friends about going to school at Santa Clara. When people do that, what will you say?
Nash: I’d be incredibly proud if my kids went to Santa Clara. I’d be thrilled if they had an interest and (laughs) thrilled if they qualified. It’s a great school. It would be an awesome place for all four of my kids to go. That would be phenomenal.
Purdy: Most everybody knows your story about Santa Clara being the only place that offered you a basketball scholarship coming out of high school in Victoria, British Columbia. Dick Davey, your head coach at Santa Clara, has said you were “deranged” in your basketball focus and desire to become a pro player. But what I’ve always wanted to know is when, during your time on campus, you began to feel you had a legitimate chance to reach the NBA.
Nash: I always thought I could do it. And I also was aware of how preposterous that seemed to people. But the only time I questioned myself was early in my freshman year. John Woolery ’94, who was a junior, was kicking my butt in pickup games and through October and into the season. I was kind of struggling, wasn’t playing a lot. Then John had a knee injury around Christmas and had the knee scoped. I took over for a couple weeks. He came back but I did so well, the coach was like, “We gotta get him more minutes.” So, I ended up playing the two guard and the backup point guard. If you look at the last couple months of the season, I probably played 30 minutes a game as opposed to the first couple months playing 10 minutes a game. And I ended up being the conference tournament MVP my freshman year. I mean, it was a crazy transition, from playing 10 minutes a game to being the conference MVP in the tournament.
Purdy: So that was getting over a hump of some sort in your NBA ambitions?
Nash: I think it was validation—and it was overcoming an obstacle. I always had a belief in myself. But I knew that I wasn’t ready. I knew I had a long way to go. But I knew I could get there. And the only time I doubted it was when John was kicking my butt and I was struggling and learning. But that was a pivotal challenge for me to face, right? Because he had the athleticism, the length, the toughness, and the defensive skills to make it hard on me. That was a great component of my challenge and my struggle was to overcome that. After that, I felt confident that I could do it. I’d have to take my chance when it came. And fortunately, I got to a level where I was a first round pick and I’d have a contract and a window to prove myself as a pro instead of being a second round or a free agent where you have to really prove it in a short period of time.
Purdy: I know you were a self-confident guy. You and I talked five or six times when you were at Santa Clara. And I remember at least once, or maybe twice, you asked me, “What do you think my chances are in the NBA?” And what I remember telling you was, “Well, I’m not a scout but I know this: You’re going to make it hard for a team to cut you.”
The only time I doubted it was when John was kicking my butt and I was struggling and learning. But that was a pivotal challenge for me to face, right? Because he had the athleticism, the length, the toughness, and the defensive skills to make it hard on me.
Nash: Nice. Well, thank you.
Purdy: That was hardly what happened.
Nash: No. At the time I would’ve taken that.
Purdy: My point is, I assume I’m not the only guy that you asked about that. Was there anything somebody said to you at Santa Clara when you asked that question that gave you more ammunition for your belief? Dick Davey always jokes that all he kept telling you was how terrible you were on defense. But I know …
Nash: Dick was tough on me, and it was pivotal for me.
Purdy: But was there somebody at school, either a teammate or classmate or friend, who said something that stuck with you in terms of your belief?
Nash: I think my teammates really believed in me. Not initially maybe, but as we got to junior year, I think my teammates thought I was going to be a pro. Whereas I was like, never count your chickens until the eggs are hatched. Largely I had my own well—a deep, deep well on reserve—of motivation to do this. And as much as anything, I had a love of fighting for something every day. I love that I could try to build and create something and to fight and have this structure in my life at Santa Clara and planning my life. That resonated with me. And that was not a problem.
Some people might have other attributes, and that’s where they can become disconnected. I was all in on building a roadmap for myself, being accountable to it, fighting for it every day. So, in some ways, my greatest gift is that I really enjoyed the climb. The everyday battle for itself. To do the work but also the mental battle and emotional battle to stay confident, stay on course, stay humble, handle the highs and lows. That was all part of it that I enjoyed.
“I don’t care if you play basketball.”
Purdy: Okay, here are some real quick questions that I hope are fun to answer. Where’s your Santa Clara diploma?
Nash: I have no idea. In my mind.
Purdy: It must be somewhere.
Nash: I would imagine my parents have it.
Purdy: What was your favorite place on campus other than the gym?
Nash: Just being with my teammates, wherever it was. Anywhere they were, I was happy.
Purdy: Your favorite class?
Nash: God, it’s been so long—22 or 23 years. I had some great teachers. My major was sociology. I remember my professor, Marilyn Fernandez, who was overseeing my senior thesis. The basketball team went to Maui for a tournament and she was perplexed that I was going to miss classes when part of that process was due. Part of me was frustrated to be handing in a component of my senior thesis from my hotel room in Maui while my teammates were in the water. But part of me also respected that I went to a school where my teacher was saying, “What do you mean you’re going to miss class? And I don’t care if you play basketball.”
I had my own well—a deep, deep well on reserve—of motivation to do this. And as much as anything, I had a love of fighting for something every day.
It was the early days of email, and I submitted that portion of my thesis and it didn’t transmit. You could see the bones of it, but it wasn’t transmitting. I got a “D” on that segment. I ended up passing the class but … you know, a major segment of your work was a “D” because of technology and the fact that I was in Maui with the basketball program did not hold water for her. And I love that in a way. It was a great experience.
Purdy: If you were asked to come back to Santa Clara to teach a class as an adjunct instructor and you could choose the class you could teach in any department, what would it be?
Nash: I don’t know what the title of the class would be. But it would be something on culture building. I think leadership and culture building would be something that I would feel more passionate about. I feel like I could add to a conversation about that.
Beating Arizona, Maryland, UCLA
Purdy: What’s your favorite Dick Davey story or quote?
Nash: Dick had some quick hitters. He’d tell us, “Use your head for something other than a hat rack.” Or, “You know your head is that round thing up there.”
The best story was probably—I think it was over the holidays and late one night, we were practicing. It might have been two-a-day practices getting back off Christmas break. And he told us all to get on the end line to do some sprints. He wasn’t happy with us. And challenged all of us to a fight. I mean, we had Carl Anderson ’93 on the team and Carl was about 6-foot-11 and 250 pounds. And Dick challenged every one of us to a fight. And it was unbelievable. He was an amazing guy.
Purdy: In your Santa Clara Hall of Fame induction speech, you spoke very movingly about assistant coach Larry Hauser.
Nash: I adored Larry and miss him greatly. One time we were playing Cal at the San Jose Arena, now SAP Center. A few of us were taking a van to the arena. And Larry was driving. He has the music up and the song “Brick House” by the Commodores comes on. And we called Larry Hauser “House,” so he quickly was like singing along: “I’m a brick … house!” And he was pointing to himself while singing. If you knew Larry Hauser, you’ll get a good giggle out of that one.
Purdy: What was your favorite Santa Clara victory, other than the two NCAA tournament upsets over Arizona and Maryland?
Nash: Well, in the Maui tournament, it was fantastic to beat UCLA the first game of the season out there—a UCLA team that went on to win a national championship. We lost to Kansas in a close game at Allen Fieldhouse, which was an awesome experience, too—to take them basically to the last minute or two in their own building, which is an incredible place, such an historic college basketball arena and crowd. That was fantastic.
Lloyd, Marlon, and this Beautiful Game
Purdy: Okay, here are some more serious questions to finish this off. How surprised are you that Santa Clara hasn’t returned to the NCAA tournament since you were there? Any thoughts about the team getting back to that level and how soon?
Nash: Yeah, it’s a little disappointing, obviously. But at the same time, it shows how hard it is to do and how great it was for us to go three times in four years when we were there. Obviously, Gonzaga has figured it out. St. Mary’s has done well, too. But largely, it’s difficult in that conference. And hopefully, we have a coach now that can find our way back.
Maybe it’s a 401K type situation rather than paying players while they’re in school. Then it could be more equitable. But I think there’s probably a model to be found.
Purdy: Kind of along those lines, do you have any thoughts about the idea of paying college players a stipend or small salary as has been discussed by the NCAA, and what that might do to a program like Santa Clara one way or the other?
Nash: It depends on the model. Right? I don’t know what the model is and … who knows? Maybe it’s a 401K type situation where money is deposited in that kind of account for later accessibility, rather than paying players while they’re in school. And then it could be more equitable. But I think there’s probably a model to be found.
Purdy: If the college basketball and NCAA climate had been the same way when you played as it is today, would you have thought about leaving early?
Nash: Yeah. I mean, I thought about leaving my junior year. But it was just such a rare thing, especially for a small white kid from the west coast of Canada. I don’t think people really trusted some of those things. And so, I stayed. But today it probably would’ve been a lot more normal for me to leave after my junior year.
Purdy: What would you say is the most Santa Clara thing about you?
Nash: I think my relationships with my teammates. We still are very close and, while we don’t communicate every day, it’s like no time has passed when we connect. We still see each other every year at some point or another.
Purdy: Your Santa Clara teammate Lloyd Pierce ’98 has been named the new head coach of the Atlanta Hawks. And as one of his assistants, he has hired Marlon Garnett ’97, another of your former Santa Clara teammates who went on to also play in the NBA and have a pro career. I am assuming that at no time while you guys were together on campus, did anybody say that on this team, “We have two future NBA players on this team including a future MVP, plus a future NBA head coach”?
Nash: It’s incredible. It’s incredible. I thought that I would play in the NBA. At least I dreamed, and hoped, and believed. And maybe I was naive, but I thought I would. But to think that Marlon would play in the NBA, that Lloyd would become a head coach, that Marlon’s on his staff? It’s a beautiful game—and a beautiful community and school. I’m just thrilled for those guys that they could also represent the program at the highest level.