Phoenix Suns guard Steve Nash is a hoops junkie first and a two-time NBA MVP second. Proof: Given a free afternoon in Beijing last Sunday, he headed to Dong Dan Park, the famous outdoor basketball/soccer playground in the heart of the nation's capital, primarily for the satisfaction of being able to add "Played pickup hoops in Beijing" to his list of life experiences.
"When I travel, I really like to get a sense of the people and the culture," he said after returning stateside this week. "It's hard to do that in China with the strong language barrier. But ball can break down that wall. It always does."
His body clock also was telling him it was time to end his usual offseason sabbatical of not touching a ball except for shooting sessions. Of course, when you're one of the most famous and recognizable athletes on the planet, the insanity that grips star-struck fans can create an even more formidable wall. This being Nash's second trip to China, and having Bill Sanders, Yao Ming's marketing manager, with him, he was aware that an impromptu appearance could result in a mob scene that would preclude any chance of getting some run.
To placate Sanders, he offered to disguise himself by tying a bandanna around his head, wearing a pair of clear goggles, brown cutoffs and knee-high soccer socks. He resisted adding a Cap'n Crunch mustache or Elvis sideburns. "I didn't want to offend anyone by overdoing it," he said.
It didn't matter. The hundred or so ballers spread across the dozen outdoor courts recognized him and began murmuring his name the second he stepped into the park. He walked down to the one court being used for warm-up shots and, Pied Piper-like, half the players abandoned their games and followed him.
Local park custom is that you buy a $3 entry ticket and wait for your number to be called to play, which Nash dutifully did. But the crush to play with and against him was so overwhelming that, through the help of a bilingual Chinese native, Nash organized a knockout 3-on-3 tournament, going undefeated while alternating teammates. The disguise lasted about 15 minutes before it became both uncomfortable and pointless with the crowd around the court deepening and cameras starting to appear.
The competition and style of play reminded him of his pickup days at Santa Clara University. "I could've been playing somewhere in California," he said. "Chinese kids are so much like us on the court and their knowledge of the game. It was one small glimpse, but it felt really familiar."
However, competition wasn't his primary objective for being there. Few words were spoken during the hour Nash held the court and then switched over to a soccer pitch to indulge his other passion for 45 minutes, but there are multiple levels of non-verbal communication in both sports. Through it all, he got a sense of the cultural whipsaw in which the current Chinese generation finds itself.
"I was reminded of what a fascinating time it is in China right now," he said. "You're playing ball but there's no mistaking that you're in Beijing. There's such a clashing of East and West, a thirst for knowledge and a willingness to accept Western culture. It was just really fun to be there in a exciting, unique period of time for the young generation."
Nash made it back to his hotel safely after the experience. He neglected to tell the Nike and NBA officials who sent him on the six-day trip, as an ambassador to participate in NBA Cares and several other programs, about the venture. For good reason. Chances are they would have insisted on security or nixed the idea outright, fearful of the potential risks for injury or mayhem.
But that's the thing about building bridges, big or small, real or imaginary. You need someone willing to get out on the edge and, unprotected, extend himself into the void. Only then is it possible to touch the other side.
Ric Bucher covers the NBA for ESPN The Magazine.