Steve Nash rode his skateboard over from his Manhattan Beach, Calif., home and arrived to the restaurant early. He picked out a nice corner table on the patio with his back to the plaza behind him so he could enjoy the sun but also keep some anonymity. He scanned the menu and ordered a sensible lunch, consisting of a watermelon salad and a light fish dish.
Jared Dudley showed up late after a morning workout went long, bringing his trainer along for the meal. He announced his presence by giving handshakes and fist bumps to the table. He pulled out his phone to check his Yelp! app to see what people recommend at the restaurant. He settled on lamb chops. He brought up a photo of the chops on his phone and showed the screen to the waitress when she came around to take his order. It was a dinner entrée, but she made an exception to serve it during lunch.
"At least it's not a burger," Nash quipped.
Their tie began back in 2008 when Dudley, a late-first round draft pick -- who had underperformed through his first season and a half in the league with the Charlotte Bobcats -- was traded to the Phoenix Suns along with Jason Richardson for Boris Diaw, Raja Bell and Sean Singletary.
For Nash, it was saying goodbye to two teammates with whom he had shared a lot of success -- winning an average of 58 games over the four previous seasons as well as five playoff series in that span -- and receiving a bit of an unknown in return.
"No offense to Jared, I didn't know what kind of player he was going to be, but J-Rich was a pretty proven player at the time, so I knew we had a talented guy coming over," Nash said. "And I'd know from watching Jared play in college he was a smart player, which was always valuable on our team. Any basketball team needs smart players."
As heady as Dudley's play was, his true intelligence came from recognizing what he needed to work on in order to thrive alongside Nash. "I basically changed my game," Dudley said. "Because on that team, for me to be able to play, I had to be able to space the floor. You had restrictions because I was somewhat limited defensively compared to Grant [Hill]. I'm looking at people I was competing with and I wanted to do something different, so that kind of gave me my niche. I knew, hey, if I can become an elite shooter, I'll be able to play in the NBA for 10-12 years. If not, I could be out."
Dudley was 12-for-49 from 3 in his time with Charlotte (24.4 percent). In his first full season with Phoenix, he shot 120-for-262 from downtown (45.8 percent).
"He really was an undersized 4 in Charlotte, and he became almost a 2-guard," Nash said. "So that's a huge swing."
Nash, an unheralded first-round pick himself when he entered the league, respected Dudley's transformation.
"Quickly, we became really good friends," Nash said.
Nash might have lost guys like Diaw and Bell -- peers with whom he shared his prime -- but in Dudley, he found an almost mentor-mentee dynamic. "The bottom line is he deserves a lot of credit because he worked really hard," Nash said. "Not everyone is willing to work hard, let alone have the foresight to say, 'I'm going to adjust, change because I might not be here.' Usually, I think people are insecure to the point where they're like, 'I don't want to admit that I have a weakness that I have to change to stay in the league.' He was like, 'I get it. This is what I'm good at. This is what I'm not.'
"Two things he improved big-time on is shooting and his body. He had a pitiful diet when he came to Phoenix [laughing]. The bottom line is he worked really hard, and he slimmed down and became a better athlete and just more versatile. He can play different positions, and he changed his mentality of instead of, 'I got to be relentlessly crashing the glass,' to 'Let me guard my position. Let me run the floor and pick my spots and shoot when I get it.' You add that to being a smart player and his game kind of blossomed in a way, and he became a real everyday player in the league."
And on the first day of the 2013-14 season, Dudley will be an opponent of Nash's when the Lakers play the Clippers.
It's a matchup that's new for both of them. Dudley remembers hearing the news of Nash being traded to L.A.
"Where was I?" Dudley asked rhetorically. "Probably in San Diego."
"Probably on Twitter," Nash interjected.
"Yeah, I was probably on Twitter somewhere," Dudley said. "I was happy because you always want to have Steve to have a chance to win. [Los Angeles is] close to Phoenix, and if you're going to leave a franchise where you have that emotion, you want to go to a big-time franchise. If he had gone to the Knicks, I would have been happy. That's the thing for me, I don't want to s--- on a team, but I didn't want to go to Milwaukee. You want to go to a team that has history and prestige, and L.A. was a perfect fit. You were happy for him. There was no sadness."
Even though they were no longer suiting up together last season, they kept tabs on one another. Nash knew all about the difficult times in Phoenix from talking to Dudley and members of the Suns' training staff.
"To be honest, it was kind of like a continuation of what was already happening, so I knew without knowing, you know?" Nash said. "You could see where it was going. I think I was pretty aware of what was going on."
Dudley could simply tune into the Lakers' drama on his TV.
"Everyone watches the Lakers, let's be honest," Dudley said. "Especially with the whole Dwight Howard thing and everything that was going on."
It will be even easier to keep track of one another this year, being in the same city. They've even talked about enrolling their children in the same schools. And, of course, they'll be sharing a home arena.
"It's interesting now, too, because the Clippers are good," Nash said of the contentiousness between the two teams. "The Lakers have the history. The Clippers have the team right now, so in the past, it was kind of like, 'Good luck, Clips.' Now, it's like they're the ones that are in pole position, so it kind of adds a new dynamic to it and it's probably good for basketball in the city."
Said Dudley: "I don't think the Clippers go in thinking, 'Hey, this is our rivalry.' They already know it's a rivalry. Obviously, they've been second fiddle and probably most likely always will be. There's always the history behind the Lakers. You can't change that. It's kind of like Brooklyn and the Knicks. But I think it's a good rivalry. I think it's a mutual respect on both ends. And I think because the Lakers have been so dominant, it's just kind of a time where the Clippers are right there with the Lakers, if not a little bit ahead, where they want for the next couple years try to stay ahead and start their own little history."
The odds might seem remote, but Dudley still wants to see Nash win a championship before the surefire Hall of Fame point guard calls it a career.
"For Steve to win," Dudley said, trailing off. "Obviously, Steve has accomplished everything. I think that's the one thing that every athlete tries to go for. Any time you see someone you've played with -- if it would have been Grant, if it would have been J-Rich -- you're always going to be happy for someone, especially beating someone like Miami and knocking them off. So, to see that, unless it's beating us, he can go ahead and have a good time. I would love it."
Nash said he would root for Dudley and watch every game if the Clippers get to the Finals.
"I would be excited to watch and tune in every night hoping every ball goes in," Nash said. "It would be fun."
"There was a big picture in the Mavs' locker room of J-Kidd [Jason Kidd] and Dirk chest bumping after a big play in the Finals, and the whole crowd is wearing white [T-shirts]," Nash said. "They're at half court, and the photo was taken from [the baseline], so you see the full length of the court and the crowd behind them, and there's one guy kind of in like a plaid, blue-and-red checked shirt …"
"He's drinking a beer," Dudley said, stealing the punch line. "It's hilarious."
"It's me like emptying my cup!" Nash said. "You can barely make it out. I had no idea. I went in [the Dallas locker room] one time and their equipment manager is one of my childhood friends, and he's like, 'Nashy, come here.' He's like, 'My favorite Mavs picture of all time.' I'm like, 'Yeah, that's a nice one. I mean, Finals, chest bump …' He's like, 'Look at the f---ing idiot in the background skulling his beer!' I was like, 'Oh, s---.'"
The story caused both Nash and Dudley to break up in laughter, and you know it's not the first time they've laughed about it together. They have easiness around one another. It's a sort of a trust that if Nash rags on Dudley's eating habits, Dudley will be sure to come right back with a joke about Nash's ill-timed beer chug, or some other story to put the star back in his place.
"I think we'll be friends forever, regardless of how much we cross paths," Nash said. "We became real friends, so it's like you'll always be friends, not just teammates. Whether I see him or not, we'll always be friends. It's cool that he's here. It makes it fun that I can bump into him. I plan on living here [in L.A.] probably forever, and he lives just down the road [in San Diego] forever. So, sure. We have kids who are similar ages. I'm sure we'll probably bump into each other more when we're done playing then we do while we're playing."
Who is he kidding? They'll always be playing. Maybe not in the NBA, but they'll be playing around. Maybe playing with their kids. Maybe playing another sport together, like they did in Nash's soccer game for charity this past summer in L.A., when Dudley scored a late goal and tore off his soccer kit to reveal his new Clippers No. 9 jersey underneath.
"I think I assisted the goal," Nash said.
"Yeah, I think he did," Dudley said.
"That was the biggest mistake I made," Nash said. "I should have made him rot with his Clippers jersey in the heat."
Yup, even friendship has its place in the Lakers-Clippers rivalry.