Twice NBA MVP, and now the first Santa Clara grad to join highest ranks of basketball nobility
In the autumn of 1992, Steve Nash ’96 showed up in Santa Clara to attend class and play basketball. On that morning, only one person on campus believed that Nash had a future as a NBA player.
His name was Steve Nash. “He was always deranged about the game,” said Dick Davey, Nash's head coach with the Broncos, chuckling at the memory.
Nash's derangement was mandatory, at least in retrospect. A less obsessed and more practical teenager might have surrendered to lower expectations. Nash was a scrawny, intense kid from Canada who had dominated the gyms and playgrounds of Victoria, British Columbia. This meant zero in the United States. Santa Clara was the only NCAA basketball program to offer him a scholarship after Davey saw videotape of Nash's prowess.
At that point, a pro career was a fantasy for Nash. Nevertheless, against all odds, fantasy ensued. And now, 25 1/2 years after attending his first Santa Clara class, Nash has become officially certified basketball nobility.
Official word came Saturday, March 31, with an announcement at the NCAA Final Four in San Antonio. But ESPN broke the news in a report on March 29: Nash was named to the 2018 induction class of the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame, his sport’s highest honor.
Nash is the first Santa Clara player to join the Naismith Hall, named for the founder of basketball. That's no small thing, considering the talents and achievements of other historic Bronco hoop names such as Bob Feerick ’41, Kenny Sears ’55, Dennis Awtrey ’70, Bud Ogden ’69, Ralph Ogden ’70, and Kurt Rambis ’80.
There’s no question, however, that Nash deserves to be first Bronco inducted. As a two-time NBA Most Valuable Player who still ranks among the league’s top 10 in several career categories, he is certainly the most accomplished Santa Clara basketball alum in history.
“Santa Clara was the perfect place.”
Bill Duffy ’82, the fellow Santa Clara grad who has been Nash's agent and advisor since his rookie season, goes one step farther. Duffy calls Nash “the most famous Santa Clara alum ever.”
If that sounds over the top, feel free to consult basketball fans worldwide. Who are the most prominent other famous Santa Clara alums? California Governor Jerry Brown ’59? Former CIA Director Leon Panetta ’60? They would not be recognized in sports arenas of Beijing or Buenos Aires or Munich. Nash would.
Nash, who has never hid his affection for the University, might be embarrassed to think of himself as Santa Clara’s ultimate ambassador. But that’s what he is—and will be again at the Naismith Hall’s induction ceremony on September 7 in Springfield, Massachusetts.
“I know he’s proud of being from Santa Clara and Santa Clara people are proud of what he's done,” said Davey, now retired in Hawaii. “We can all kind of puff our chests out a little.”
Duffy, who has represented multiple NBA All-Stars from multiple countries, has often pondered why his most celebrated client wound up springing from their own mutual alma mater. He's developed a theory.
Santa Clara was the perfect place for Nash to gestate, Duffy believes, because of what the agent called “the simplicity” of the experience. There weren’t the distractions and bright media lights and shoe company reps that can complicate matters at blueblood programs in apex conferences. As a Bronco, Nash could attend school and play basketball without any folderol getting in the way of his strong-minded mission to improve and reach his NBA goal. Plus, from the beginning, Nash possessed a sports gene that others didn’t.
“There are a lot of people who can play basketball,” Duffy said. “There are not a lot of people who really know how to win.”
Most prominently, as a Bronco freshman point guard, Nash led the 15th-seeded Broncos to a stunning upset of second-seeded Arizona in the first round of the 1993 NCAA tournament. Nash made six free throws in the game’s final 30 seconds to seal the victory.
Three years later as a Santa Clara senior, Nash orchestrated another major NCAA upset by scoring 28 points in the Broncos’ victory over seventh-seeded Maryland. Davey, though, relates a story about the night before that game. Without the coach’s knowledge, Nash either borrowed or stole the key to a gym near the team hotel. He rounded up his teammates to play some 3-on-3 ball and get them properly focused for the next day’s tipoff.
In Davey’s mind, it was another example of Nash's deranged leadership en route to his 1996 sociology degree and NBA first round draft selection.
“Having him in the program was a gift,” Davey said. “I remember I was so mad at him because of his one-handed passes. I wanted him to use two hands. But he told me, ‘It takes me three-tenths of a second longer to make a two-handed pass. And that means the guy I pass it to has three-tenths of a second less to shoot.’ Steve was just that precise. His understanding of the game was at another level. He kept me in my job longer, I know that.”
Come September at the Hall ceremony, Nash can be expected to revive the themes he touched on during his Santa Clara Athletics Hall of Fame induction in May of 2017.
That evening at Leavey Center before a large crowd, Nash chose not to give a prepared speech, explaining: “Like many of the faculty here did, I deplore myself as a writer.” Instead, Nash improvised sincere and heartfelt remarks. Nash repeatedly complimented Davey and his predecessor as Broncos’ head coach, Carroll Williams, who together had spanned 36 seasons of Santa Clara basketball.
“I came into a stable culture, climate, and vision here,” Nash told the audience. “That meant so much … You understand you’re part of something special here. It allowed us to become the best possible versions of ourselves that we could become … I feel so far away from the school sometimes. But my heart always feels so close to the school.”
Which means there is now a Bronco heartbeat in Springfield. It just goes to show: Derangement can pay off.
MARK PURDY is a former sports columnist for Bay Area News Group.
Story updated March 31, 2018.