Welcome home, Steve

Basketball superstar Steve Nash ’96 comes home to Santa Clara for a unique honor: a ceremony retiring his Bronco jersey. In a convocation address, he tells how Santa Clara changed his life.

Back-to-back MVP in the NBA, Steve Nash ’96 returned to campus in September for a ceremony retiring his Santa Clara jersey. He also offered a convocation message for students and alumni alike: Look deeper. Understand for yourself. Get involved. And keep Santa Clara taking over the world.

A desire for global domination isn’t the first quality you’d associate with Steve Nash ’96.

Humility. Hard work. Teamwork. Compassion. These are the traits embodied by the Santa Clara alumnus who now plays point guard for the Phoenix Suns. Still, Nash tends to think big—even though he’s only 6 feet 3 inches tall in a sport dominated by 7-footers. When he enrolled at Santa Clara, he had his sights set on playing in the NBA. And he wants other Santa Clara students to think big, too.

“You feel like one small piece in this world,” he told the thousands of students, faculty, and staff assembled for convocation in the Leavey Center on Sept. 18. “But each of us has such a huge power and part to play in the world. Collectively, this group of Santa Clara students is going to have such a huge impact on the community and our country in the future.”

For the second year in a row, in 2006, Nash was named most valuable player in the NBA. Only eight other players in NBA history have won the award back-to-back, and only two other guards: Magic Johnson and Michael Jordan. The soft-spoken Nash is lauded for his team playing; he’ll opt to pass as often as he shoots. And when presented with the MVP award, he accepted it with his teammates, rather than solo.

He’s far from being the Suns’ top scorer—although he’s consistently a league leader in assists and scoring percentage, and he’s driven up total points scored for his team. This spring, Time magazine named Nash one of the 100 most influential people of our age. NBA hall-of-famer Charles Barkley wrote the tribute and asked, “What has he taught us? It pays to be selfless.”

Nash’s achievements recently garnered him a place amid another pantheon of sports legends-—the Wheaties box. The Steve Nash edition of the breakfast of champions hit the shelves in late April. But if you went to the Safeway across from campus on the morning of convocation in search of your own box, you were out of luck. Thanks to a run by Nash fans, the store was temporarily out of stock.

1 Nash Bannerfinal

In coming back to Santa Clara for convocation, Nash was presented with a unique honor: His Santa Clara jersey was officially retired, and a banner with his name, number 11, and 1992-1996 was unveiled inside the Leavey Center. It’s the first time in Santa Clara history that a jersey has been raised to the rafters. As Nash confessed at a press conference before convocation, having his jersey retired was both rewarding and humbling. “I feel a little awkward,” he said, “because I feel very normal and just one of the guys when it comes to Santa Clara and my four years.”

They weren’t just any four years, though. His first year at Santa Clara, Nash led the Broncos through the West Coast Conference tournament in a run that’s been described as magical. In the NCAA playoffs, he helped the Broncos to a legendary victory over the second-seeded University of Arizona Wildcats. He helped bring Santa Clara back for NCAA Tournament appearances in ’95 and ’96. Twice named the WCC Player of the Year, he finished his career as the Broncos’ all-time leader in career assists, free-throw percentage, and 3-pointers made and attempted. When it was time to see whether his NBA aspirations would materialize, the Phoenix Suns named Nash as a first-round draft pick.

In recent years, his playing style has been described as “magnetic,” “engaging,” “frenetic.” He’s been credited with bringing an unusual acumen and imaginative vision to the court—as if he’s able to see those couple seconds into the future that keep him ahead of the game. Fourteen years ago, though, you might not have guessed there was such a bright future waiting for the lad from Vancouver.

When Nash strode into the Leavey Center, students greeted him with chants of “M-V-P!” The press would comment on his natty attire (gray suit, collarless white shirt, immaculate white sneakers with no socks), and President Paul Locatelli, S.J., confessed, “I didn’t recognize you with your new hairdo.” Indeed, the famed shaggy Steve Nash mane was shorn late this summer to a sleek buzz cut.

Nash on the box. Only the third Bronco to be so honored, he joins college and pro footbal hall-of-famer Tom Fears '45 and soccer star Brandi Chastain '91. Photo: Courtesy of General Mills

Nash was born in Johannesburg, South Africa, in 1974, and his family moved to Canada when he was 2 years old. Growing up, soccer was where he excelled; he didn’t start to really shine in basketball until the eighth grade. In high school, he harbored serious ambitions for a pro career. As he told the convocation audience, “I wanted to go to a big Division I school and become a star—these big dreams. But nobody wanted me to go to their school…”

But Santa Clara’s Dick Davey heard that Nash might have something special and went to Vancouver to see him play. At convocation, Nash paid tribute to Davey and the other Santa Clara coaches for being “extremely honest,” and for instilling in him and his teammates the capacity to be self-critical. “They were hard on us, they pushed us,” he said, “and they were incredible at helping us develop as players—and, as a byproduct, as people. Not a chance would I have had the career, the success, without my coaches.”

Nash also recalled that initial meeting with Davey inside the Agrodome in Vancouver. “The first thing he said to me was, ‘You’re the worst defender I’ve ever seen,’” Nash said. “Which was a real confidence builder.”

In retrospect, Nash said, “I couldn’t have gone to a more perfect university for me. And I think that, in many ways, everyone can find that in Santa Clara…. Even if I had gone to another university, I don’t know if I would have even been a professional basketball player.”

As Davey has told it, after Nash overheard the remark about his lack of defense skills, the high schooler came out of the arena and, instead of offering excuses, asked the Santa Clara coach how he could improve. Davey took that as a very good sign.

At convocation, Nash led a round of applause for the coaches—and another for his fellow Santa Clara teammates. A number of the Broncos he played with came back to campus for Welcome Weekend—”I guess as an excuse to go to The Hut,” Nash said. Monday morning, Nash and his fellow alumni scrimmaged against the current Bronco lineup. The night before saw an extended visit to the legendary watering hole just off campus.

When Nash spoke at convocation, he didn’t bring a prepared talk or even notes, since every time he tries to write something, he said, he winds up with something too sentimental or clichÈd. That was one reason he asked his audience to bear with him in the casual nature of his remarks. He offered another, less philosophical excuse: “I’m feeling a little dehydrated.”

The fact is, Nash’s off-the-cuff remarks hit home with the students. He was real. And he was, as he said, one of them. As for his teammates, “We pushed each other through everything,” Nash said. “I’ll always feel like they’re, without being too cheesy, my family and my brothers…. It’s such a great quality to be selfless and to make people around you better. My teammates were always super supportive, competitive.”

Nash told today’s students, “You guys have the same opportunity, as classmates and through the relationships that you develop, to make each other better, to make the school better, to represent yourself and the school and the community better. All of you have a chance and a decision to make about your attitude and what kind of leader you’re going to be.”

That led to another observation: “I think Santa Clara is taking over the world, by the way…. We have the mayor of San Francisco, a starting outfielder for the Giants.” (Nash was classmates with Randy Winn ’96, who played basketball for a season at Santa Clara before devoting himself to baseball.) “Everywhere you go,” Nash said, “someone from Santa Clara is doing something special. So you will be the next ones to do that. And I really want you guys to take advantage and make the most of your time here…. You will never be able to recreate this atmosphere, this environment. So make the most of it.”

Nash earned his degree from Santa Clara in sociology. While he’s the first to acknowledge that his real major was basketball, he credited his studies in sociology with opening his eyes “pretty wide, pretty quickly, learning a lot about the world, learning a lot about people and society.” And among the book titles that have cropped up in chats with journalists are The Philosophy of Immanuel Kant, the autobiography of Che Guevara, and One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich.

“A huge theme in my life,” he told the audience at convocation, has been “having an understanding and an acceptance of our differences, of individual psychology, but also as a community as a whole.”

Nash Roughriders
"We love you, Steve!" Nash with the Ruff Riders. Photo: Timothy Haskell

In 1999, Nash established the Jim Jennings Memorial Endowment Fund at Santa Clara in honor of an alumnus and volunteer staff member who served the basketball team for two decades. In 2001, he launched the Steve Nash Foundation, which has provided him with “an opportunity and a platform to create change,” he said, “to help people and to be involved in the community, and hopefully, to better it.” The foundation takes as its mission “assisting underserved children in their health, personal development, education, and enjoyment of life,” as its Web site notes. The foundation makes a point of using the term underserved rather than underprivileged, since, the site states, children’s rights to basic nutrition and clean water, and to living in “a safe, loving home environment should not be seen as a privilege.”

Nash’s politics have been described as “progressive,” and he was something of a lightning rod for controversy during NBA All-Star Game week in February 2003, when he publicly came out opposing the build-up to what would soon be the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq. At convocation, Nash wasn’t wading into specifics of U.S. politics. Instead, he reminded students that Fr. Locatelli, in his convocation address, noted “ways that we are failing in this country and in this part of the world, and in our society. You guys can all be a huge part in overcoming that, and whether it’s politics, whether it’s health care, education, poverty, hunger, epidemics, disease—you guys can all make such a huge difference by just doing small things.”

One of the not-so-small contributions that Nash made this spring: Together with MD International, he funded the establishment of a neonatal intensive care ward at the Hospital de Clinicas in Asuncion, Paraguay.

Asuncion is the home town of Alejandra Amarilla, Nash’s wife and mother of his twin daughters, Lourdes and Isabella, who just turned 2.

“For me there has been nothing more rewarding than building relationships with people,” Nash said, “and together helping make the world, hopefully, better…. So I urge all of you guys to try to at least be interested in the world: Take a deeper look, think for yourself, and try to understand maybe a little bit more about the world. Travel as much as you can, and really get a better understanding of what is out there, and what you can do to help because…you have no idea how powerful each and every one of you is.”

Nash concluded by wishing everyone a great year. Then he added, “Let’s keep Santa Clara taking over the world. All right?”

But he wasn’t gone yet. Among those hanging out and hoping to meet their basketball hero were a couple preschoolers from Kids on Campus. Nash obliged, signed a couple jerseys—and he took the time to talk to the pint-sized fans.

—Steven Boyd Saum is the managing editor for Santa Clara Magazine. Simone Billings, Paul Nielan, and Santa Clara Athletics contributed to this report.

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