In October, when the Lakers originally announced Steve Nash would miss the season with a back injury that pretty much signified the end of his playing career, I co-authored a piece for ESPN Insider about Nash's impact on the game. It was a column focused on the technical aspects of his game: his decision making, his tremendous ability to make a wide array of shots and, of course, his passing.
He ushered in the golden age of point guards that we are witnessing today, and his exploits on the court served as a blueprint for much of today's great point-guard play. I still remember stories of Chris Paul at Team USA camp in Las Vegas requesting Nash's pick-and-roll video edits to study and master.
This column is not going to reiterate the words I wrote in October. Rather, this is more of a reflection on his impact on my life. A common refrain that used to be repeated was that Nash's teammates who signed new deals owed him a cut of their earnings because he made them look their best. Truth be told, I probably owe Steve a check every two weeks as well, as there's no doubt in my mind I wouldn't have the opportunity to write articles, make podcasts and appear on "SportsCenter" were it not for my time with him.
I don't mean that in the sense that being on one of the most successful franchises of the decade gave me the credibility to work for the Worldwide Leader in Sports (though I'm sure that didn't hurt); rather, I'm talking about the lessons learned about the game, about life, about leadership, about camaraderie simply from observing greatness on a daily basis.
The irony is that while I worked for the Suns from 2006 to 2012 (the last six years of Steve's tenure in Phoenix) and interacted with him regularly, it was always on more or less a perfunctory basis: small talk, jokes, housekeeping notes. It was never deep discussions. As a young front office member, I never wanted to be a nuisance or a pest, and I understood the nature of my role was not to disturb the genius at work, so to speak. Instead, I watched and took note, whether on the practice court, where he never dogged it, or during games, where he always carried himself and his teammates with unlimited positivity. I analyzed how he navigated pick-and-rolls, searching for the seam, the brief opening that would make the decision clear.
I listened during film sessions when he'd chime in with his observations, lessons from a vast, mental library of countless defenses he'd seen try to slow him down. Steve's mind was like basketball jiu-jitsu, using his opponents' strength against them. I remember coaches talking to the team about the importance of catching the ball at the elbow for our "Elbow Series" (appropriately named, I know) and not allowing the defense to fight you off the position. Steve remarked, "If they do fight you off the spot, let them fight you all the way up high, and we'll just go into a pick-and-roll." It was simple and brilliant: Allow the opponent to believe he was successful in his quest to prevent one play and unwittingly fall victim to another.
I saw the amount of work Nash put in just to be game-ready: the solitary shooting sessions on the practice court with Suns head equipment manager Jay Gaspar, the time in the weight room with strength coach Mike Elliott, the endless treatment on the table with head trainer Aaron Nelson. I saw how strict he was with his diet, never indulging in the gameday box of donuts brought by the rookies or the assortment of sports hydrating drinks in the locker room fridge.
I also saw the effect his actions had on his teammates, as one by one they began adopting elements of the "Nash diet," most notably Jared Dudley, who came to Phoenix as a chunky, undersized combo 3/4 and eventually slimmed down to play the 2 (even the great Shaquille O'Neal, renowned for his lack of dietary discipline, cut sugar out of his diet and ended up an All-Star MVP).
Steve was always encouraging but never preachy, and he led by example in the truest sense of the word. He kept spirits high, never berated or scowled at teammates for missing shots (and ruining his stats), like you see some point guards do. He had an unbelievable ability to breed confidence in everyone around him, myself included. I know what a good point guard plays like because I saw one of the best every day, and that experience has helped me in evaluating countless other players.
He was an expert at team building, understanding basketball was more fun when everyone got along and was pulling for one another. I remember, during training camp in San Diego, being enlisted by Steve and Grant Hill to procure full-size costumes (banana, cheeseburger and grapes outfits, if I'm not mistaken) for the rookie initiation rites for the team dinner that night.
Steve was an incredibly tough competitor. I remember "SportsCenter" anchor Steve Levy would say about players injured during games: "He would return -- he's a hockey player," regardless of the sport on the highlight. Well, Nash really was a hockey player playing basketball! Or was he a soccer player playing basketball? Or a ping-pong player playing basketball? Truth is, every one of us grew up with that friend who is just insanely good at whatever game we'd play, and Steve was like that friend times one million -- just absurdly talented at everything. With that talent came an indescribable desire to win.
We often laud players such as Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant for the anger with which they played the game as signs that "they wanted it more than their opponents," but I'd put Steve in that same category -- just without the rage. Bloody noses, bad backs, turned ankles -- it didn't matter. Steve was the monster who would not die and would not only come back but also finish the job.
In the 2010 playoffs, when we were up 3-0 against San Antonio and playing for the sweep in Game 4, Steve got clipped in the eye by an inadvertent Tim Duncan elbow in the middle of the second half. His eye swelled shut, and the lead dwindled as the Spurs surged in his absence. All these years later, I can admit that deep down, I feared the worst, that this was the latest, most excruciating way the Spurs would end our season: by knocking our leader out and making a huge comeback that would eventually culminate in an improbable Game 7 victory.
Except Steve came back, played with one eye (like Rocky) and closed out the series. In an unbelievably gutsy performance, he would not let us lose -- not that game and certainly not the series. Afterward, while we all celebrated the sweep, I saw Steve sitting on the floor in the bathroom, still dressed in his uniform, alone, crying.
I can go on and keep rambling. Six years is a lifetime in basketball, and I'm thankful I got to spend that time with the greatest point guard of the modern era. I know how good Steph Curry, Chris Paul, Damian Lillard, Kyrie Irving, etc. are because I see traces of Steve's brilliance in their outstanding game play.
Years later, after we had both left the Suns, I told Steve I regretted not asking enough questions while he was around, but I'm grateful he has continued to be a there for me as a resource I can call upon for wisdom. Let's just hope he never bills me for everything I got from him.