Steve Nash's drive made him a legend

It's not those two bronze MVP statues he won after rejoining the Phoenix Suns and all the heated debates they spawned. It's not his 10,000-odd assists or those ridiculously accurate shooting percentages. It's not the bloody nose in the playoffs, not the incessant finger-licking to get a better grip and not the haters who focused more on his defensive deficiencies than his unassailable standing as a true roundball revolutionary when he had that leather in his hands.

It's not even the crazy notion that he and best friend Dirk Nowitzki could split up in the heart of their peak years and still both manage to assemble Hall of Fame careers without each other.

The first thing I think of when the name comes up is nothing that will be featured in the Steve Nash highlight reel you're sure to see all weekend.

The image that pops into my head whenever someone asks about Nash, thanks to a seemingly mundane trip to the visitors locker room at the Toyota Center in Houston late in Nash's final season as an NBA All-Star, was seared into my brain on April 13, 2012.

Just outside the trainer's office, I stood in the doorway for a good half-hour, horrified but unable to look away as Suns lifer Aaron Nelson pushed and pulled and twisted and stretched Nash's limbs in a manner that your squeamish correspondent will never forget.

Just picturing the pressure Nelson was applying so close to Nash's crotch, trying to loosen up all the connected circuitry that made him go back then at 38, still makes me wince as I type about it more than two years later‎.

Nash, of course, would eventually rise up off Nelson's training table and laugh at me for being such a baby. The daily toll it took just to get on the floor in his later years, just to be able to handle the rigors of your average Friday in the NBA, never bothered Two Time.

He dribbled his way into major college basketball when everyone back home said it was impossible, then pushed himself to play at an elite level in the pros -- with a bad back the whole time -- nearly as long as John Stockton. Based on the 20-plus seasons I've had the privilege to study NBA players up close, Nash possessed what I would deem inhuman reserves of work ethic, focus and discipline in that battered body of his, all of which took him to unfathomable heights.

That, as much as anything, is what I'll remember about Stevie Nash's career.

The semi-official term for it, as coined by his brother Martin in a long-ago chat with Sports Illustrated's own legendary Jack McCallum, is "Steve Drive."

Martin Nash was an accomplished professional soccer player himself who wound up earning 38 caps for Canada as a winger and occasional striker who would later re-invent himself as a holding midfielder to keep his national-team career going. Yet only with Steve Drive could a kid who grew up worshipping Wayne Gretzky make it all the way from a faraway island city in British Columbia found on no one's basketball map to dishing out a resume bettered by, what, maybe five or six point guards in history.

Nash, at his peak, was that good running a team. For nine straight seasons from 2001-02 in Dallas through 2008-09 in Phoenix, Nash-quarterbacked squads ranked No. 1 in the league on offense, which is why the incessant chatter about what he couldn't do on the other end was always nonsensical and never much of an issue with the coaches all over the league who wished they had someone like him in their locker room.

As a teammate, I'd put him in an exclusive club of two when it comes to on-court leadership over these past two decades. Nash and Tim Duncan are the two finest star players I've ever seen when it comes to the rare art of positive reinforcement, making everyone around them feel good about themselves and galvanizing a group. On his own several years back, well aware of the critics who argued so loudly that Shaquille O'Neal should have won the MVP award that went to the little Canadian in 2005, Nash volunteered that ‎the honor, in his case, was really a Best Teammate trophy -- in a nod to the dramatic impact he had on the 2004-05 Suns -- more than a Best Player trophy.

With his hockey and soccer background, Nash had echoes of boyhood heroes Gretzky and Tottenham's ever-elegant Glenn Hoddle in his one-of-a-kind game. As setup man supreme, Nash combined with Mike D'Antoni's coaching to transform the team that drafted him and then signed him away from Nowitzki's Mavericks into the "Seven Seconds or Less" Suns.

And let's be clear here: Only a force as strong as nerve damage, more than mere age, finally slowed Nash down. As covered in this cyberspace back in November 2013, Nash was the Larry Bird of his generation when it came to managing a bad back, overcoming the vertebra stress fracture that ruined his first season in Dallas and learning to play through the congenital condition discovered at that time -- spondylolisthesis -- which has been forcing Nash to lie down courtside as opposed to sitting on the bench for in-game rest like a normal person in the years since.

Sadly, though, Nash has essentially never recovered from that collision with Portland's Damian Lillard in his second game as a Laker, which left him vulnerable to the heartless whims of nerve root irritation and its habit of zapping him in the back without warning no matter how maniacally he rehabbed to try to beat it. The ongoing nerve issues have basically forced Nash to retire, whether he's really ready to or not, ‎but close associates of the now 40-year-old insist that he's in pretty good spirits despite the gravity and suddenness of Thursday's announcement from the Lakers that Nash's 2014-15 season is over before it started.

He could so easily lament how unlucky he's been -- yet again -- to connect with Lillard in the fateful way he did as opposed to merely suffering the short-term injury that was initially suspected at the time. Yet that would be so anti-Nash. As hard-core as he's been for so long when it comes to offseason training, years and years of extra shooting at nights and the obsessive work (and diet) to maintain the core strength of that new cyclist's physique he unveiled shortly after leaving Dallas for Phoenix in the summer of 2004, Nash also lets the sporting heartbreaks go as well as any athlete I've ever covered.

Honestly? He's as glass-half-full as anyone I've ever encountered. Inside or outside of sports.

No one in Nash's circle, then, is expecting him to slump into a woe-is-me funk. He knows all about those "SportsCenter" graphics listing him and Karl Malone as the NBA's only two-time MVPs who've never won it all. He's more than aware that a large slice of fans in Lakerland will never forgive him for delivering so little in exchange for the $27 million -- and four draft picks -- L.A. invested to drag him away from the desert. But Nash, on top of that peerless court vision, is also blessed with the sort of selective hearing that is particularly good at tuning out the noise. He's been that way ever since Mavs fans booed him on that long-ago night at Reunion Arena ... with Martin laughing at his big bro from the stands instead of sending any signals of sympathy.

So if this is indeed it, Stevie will move on and gradually shift into the next phase of his life, starting with fatherhood and his role overseeing Canada Basketball, as well as that filmmaking fetish which produced last season's wonderfully candid Grantland series.

There's undoubtedly a profound sense of disappointment he has to work through stemming from this latest betrayal of his health, especially after the promising and mostly pain-free summer he enjoyed leading into training camp. But he's never been a guy prone to obsess about what-ifs.

Chances are he'll never play another NBA minute. There's a chance he won't even exit the grand stage as a Laker because, as club sources indicate, management plans to at least explore its options to turn Nash's $9.7 million expiring contract into something useful between now and the February trade deadline.

The only sure thing is that Nash fans and admirers, away from the mumbles and grumbles at Staples Center, will be smothered in sadness as the first NBA season without him since 1995-96 inches closer to tipoff. ‎There was no Hollywood ending, really nothing even close while he was wearing purple and gold, but given where he started and how far Steve Drive took him?

This was much more fairy tale than not.