MAVERICK NASH

He’s a modest star who prefers a low profile, so his risky anti-war stand says a lot
By James Deacon
Source: Maclean.CA
March 10, 2003

AT A MEXICAN food cafeteria on the edge of downtown Dallas, they know right away it’s Steve Nash coming in the door. He’s in jeans, a long-sleeved T and a light jacket, but you can’t miss the shaggy hair, the shy smile and the fact that, in this town especially, he’s a major dude. So the guys behind the counter who take his order and serve up his chicken burrito (with tomatoes, corn and lettuce) do double-takes and the manager at the till insists “This is on me” when Nash pulls out his wallet to pay. Nash thanks him profusely, and nods his appreciation to the counter crew before carrying his tray out to a table on the sunny patio.

With a contract that’s paying him US$5.75 million this season, not to mention endorsements, Nash can eat anywhere he wants. So it’s at least a little intriguing that he chooses to eat at a fast-food cafeteria. And a little risky: most times he goes out, he gets mobbed by autograph hounds. He’s not thinking about that. After a hard morning workout, he’s ready to dig in and, looking dubiously at me in my sports jacket and light-coloured dress shirt and pants, he’s kind enough to warn me about what’s to come. “These things are healthy, the stuff in them is fresh, and they taste great,” he says, preparing to bite into the overstuffed tortilla. “But they’re really messy.” By his smile, it’s clear that appeals to him, and it’s a good thing other patrons leave him alone because otherwise he’d be signing autographs and posing for pictures with salsa on his chin. “I’ve never had the discipline to eat these neatly,” he says with a shrug.

The Nash we usually see is the one in the number 13 Dallas Mavericks singlet, sweat-drenched and intense on TV. We know he’s 29 and from Victoria, has a gym-rat work ethic, is fiercely competitive and is all business from pre-game shoot-around to final buzzer. He’s been a huge contributor to basketball in Canada as the leader of the national team, and he’s been a generous sponsor of a grassroots participation program in B.C. that was funded by the Vancouver Grizzlies and then abandoned when the team moved to Memphis.

And he’s always had game. As a teen he led Saint Michaels University School to the B.C. senior boys high-school title in 1992. He was twice named conference player-of-the-year while at Santa Clara University in California. And this season, averaging 18 points and seven assists per game, he was selected as an NBA all-star, has his team in first place overall, and is touted by some as the league’s most valuable player. “It’s a close call since I think his teammate Dirk Nowitzki is right there with him,” says NBC analyst Matt Guokas. “But my nod goes to Nash because he makes so many good things happen for all his teammates.”

Despite his celebrity, the man himself is a bit of a mystery. What little is widely told of his private life — that he “dated” singer Geri Halliwell and actress Liz Hurley, not simultaneously — is either wildly exaggerated or just plain wrong. He shies away from most publicity except for post-game and post-practice scrums by his locker-room stall, and you’ll never hear him complain that, though well-paid by most any standard, he earns about half what his backup, Nick Van Exel, receives (it’s a long story). Agent Bill Duffy, in whose interest it would be for Nash to have a higher profile, respects his client’s desire to dial down the hype. “He really values his time, for his family, his friends and himself,” Duffy says.

So it was a shock to some that, at all-star weekend in Atlanta last month, Nash actually went out of his way to get attention. This is a guy who insists that charities keep his generous contributions anonymous because he doesn’t want to seek credit for helping others. Yet at an all-star press session, he wore a T-shirt that discreetly read, “NO WAR: shoot for peace!” Nash thought long and hard before making the statement; he doesn’t think much of celebs using their positions to foist their opinions on others. But he did it anyway. “I didn’t take a stand on the war to tell people how to think, or to tell them what to believe in, or to draw attention to myself,” he explains. “I just feel that in the present international state of affairs, it’s important for people to educate themselves on what is happening so that they can make informed decisions.”

Un-Steve though it seemed, the gesture didn’t surprise people close to him. “It’s something he believes in, that he’s thought a lot about,” says Nash’s soccer-playing brother, Martin, a midfielder with Macclesfield Town in the English League’s Third Division. “He’s a quality person, very intelligent,” says the Mavs’ respected assistant coach, Del Harris. The two first met at a Canadian national team camp in 1993 when Harris was a consultant to then-coach Ken Shields. “Steve’s very mature,” Harris adds, “and he always thinks before he speaks.” Deep in the heart of Texas, though, it took guts to stand against former governor George W. Bush’s plans for war. Evan Eschmeyer, a backup centre with a strong interest in political history, applauded Nash for speaking out. “I was really proud of what he did,” said Eschmeyer, sitting in the locker room with ice on his knees. “But surprised? No.”

AFTER PRACTICE on a non-game day, Nash has been asked to pose for a photographer in a corridor beneath the stands at the American Airlines Center. He agrees, but pushes the planned time for the shoot back — from asking around, I get the sense he doesn’t want to be singled out while his teammates are still there. Doesn’t enhance the all-for-one, one-for-all environment that winning teams try to cultivate. But he’s easy to work with once the shoot is underway, and at the end, he turns the tables, asking if he can take the photographer’s picture. She’s a bit startled, but says yes and explains how to focus the camera through the viewfinder. He intently adjusts the focus, determined to get it right, and finally takes the picture. He’s happy and the shooter’s delighted, too. Talk about a cool souvenir.

There are image-conscious stars out there who have perfected a made-for-TV false modesty, and whose smiles disappear when the Betacam lights are turned off. But if there is one Nash attribute that stands out, it’s that he keeps things in perspective. He deflects the impact of his celebrity in subtle ways, and his style of dress is vastly more casual than the custom, four-button suits worn by the guys he runs with in the NBA. He’s bugged by the fundamental lie that celebrities deserve their disproportionate share of wealth and attention. “What is celebrity anyway?” Nash asks. “I’ve seen how it works in my own life and with other celebrities, and it’s a horribly distorted view of the world. These are normal people.”

Keeping it real isn’t easy in Dallas. Folks here get up close and personal with their sports stars. When the football Cowboys star running back is negotiating a contract with the team owner, the papers and call-in radio shows refer to Emmitt and Jerry because no last names (Smith and Jones, respectively) are required. And while pro, college and high-school football are still number 1, 2 and 3 in fans’ hearts, the Mavs are gaining and Nash’s image, along with Nowitzki’s and Michael Finley’s, is everywhere. They’re the guys who turned around a laughingstock franchise that hadn’t made the playoffs for 10 seasons, a team fans called the “Mavwrecks.” Now, sellout crowds at the AAC groove to the pounding house rap “Mavs fans for life!” and the big three are idolized. Especially Nash and Nowitzki, leaders of the foreign legion (in addition to a Canadian and a German, the roster includes a Mexican, two Frenchmen, a Yugoslav and a Chinese): women in the stands hold up signs offering the two longhairs their undying love, among other things. Asked about it, Nash just shakes his head with a look that says, “Don’t even go there.”

The city is just being grateful. And it should be. The Mavs are a bit like the early-’80s, pre-championship Edmonton Oilers, when Gretzky and the boys played fast and loose and won a lot of thrilling 9-7 barnburners. Head coach Don Nelson likes an uptempo offence and, with Nash, he has a floor boss whose pedal’s to the metal pretty much all the time. In a league full of fluid point guards, Nash is sharp angles and sweat, a look that led some opponents to underestimate him at first. But while it appears he wins battles by out-hustling opponents, he’s out-thinking them, too. He has terrific vision and court sense, a great shooting touch, and he breaks down defences with fearless drives to the basket or with sharp passes to Finley, Nowitzki and company.

Bobby Jackson, a Sacramento Kings’ guard, once said the problem he and so many others have with covering Nash is that “he’s just so creative,” and that’s true. But Nash doesn’t just put pressure on the guy marking him. Though comparatively small at six-foot-three and 180 pounds, he wears down entire teams by relentlessly pushing the pace of games. He pays a price: “I’m struggling right now,” he admits. “We’ve played 52 games in 100 nights, and at my size and the way I play — I throw my body around a lot out there — I’m thankful I don’t have a major injury. I’m just stiff and sore all the time.” But he doesn’t let up. In a key game against conference rival San Antonio recently, Dallas’s lead slipped while he was getting a rest on the bench. “But Nash came back in and calmed everything down and pushed the lead back up,” Van Exel said. “He really controlled the tempo.” And the Mavs won.

Finley, who like Nash was drafted by Phoenix before being traded to Dallas, knows all about his friend’s talent. “When he and I were in Phoenix and playing on the second team, we were always determined to beat the first team — and we had fun doing that,” Finley says with a chuckle. When they were reunited in Dallas, they were determined to win a championship, and build a compatible team. Standing by his locker-room stall, Finley waves an arm. “Look around here,” he says. “We get along real well, and we’re winning. Everything we worked hard for is coming together right now.”

Nash used to find motivation in opponents who took him too lightly. Now he plays to impress himself. Either way, his competitiveness is deeply ingrained. His parents — they’re now retired, but Jean worked as a special-ed teacher’s assistant, and John, who played semi-pro soccer in England, was marketing manager for a credit union in Victoria — encouraged all three kids to play various sports. Martin, a long-time member of Canada’s national team, and sister Joann, captain of the University of Victoria women’s team, eventually stuck with soccer. Steve, the eldest, excelled at soccer and hockey, too, but decided to concentrate on hoops in his mid-teens. “I love to compete,” he says. “It’s in my nature, or my family influences, or maybe both. I used to be competitive off the court as well, but I’ve grown out of that. In a lot of ways, I’m really laid-back, but I also want to grow and succeed and prove to myself that I can get better.”

NASH WANTS to dispel one myth. Being unattached and rich and famous has its merits, but it gets old. “I went through being that young single guy, having what everyone else thinks is the world in my hands,” he says, smiling in a way that suggests he had a lot of fun. But his current life suits him better, having found happiness in domesticity with his girlfriend, Alejandra Amarilla, whom he met a year ago in New York and who now shares his townhouse. Amarilla, 27, is from Paraguay, knows little about basketball — she lived in Manhattan for three years without knowing the Knicks were the home team — and studies Romance languages in Dallas. He’s smitten. “A lot of it is maturity,” he says of his new lifestyle. “You know you’re ready to make a commitment when you grow to long for stability and for someone to share your life with. Human nature, I guess.”

When he’s got time, Nash indulges a voracious curiosity. “I have a lot of interests, in books, music, current events, sports — I find things fascinating,” he says. “I don’t feel like I have to go back to school and become a professional student necessarily, but I like to learn.” Will it lead to another career? “I’m not really sure what I’ll do after basketball, and part of me worries that it’ll be an incredibly difficult transition,” he says. “But another part of me feels like it’ll be incredibly exciting. And hopefully, I’ll have a family to spend time with after basketball.”

His curiosity about politics sparked his concerns about an imminent Gulf war. A high-school friend with whom he’s stayed close is involved with a Vancouver-based activist organization called the UBC Coalition Against War On the People of Iraq. She’s been sending him stories and books to read, and he’s found a lot that resonates with his own “borderline pacifist and humanitarian” leanings. “I don’t want to single out the United States, because we’re not perfect in Canada either,” he says. “I think war is wrong. You’d think we’d have evolved to the point where we’d stop shooting one another. Maybe that’s just wishful thinking, but that’s what I hope.”

Strangely, his all-star stand didn’t get much play in Dallas. A few season-ticket holders threatened to cancel their subscriptions, but there was very little negative reaction beyond that. Positively, a Dallas newspaper columnist applauded Nash for taking an unpopular stance — big-name athletes such as Michael Jordan and Wayne Gretzky have generally avoided choosing sides on political and social issues. Nash knows there could have been a backlash. “It was a risk I was willing to take, because I feel it’s a time when all of us need to take more of a role in things,” he explains. “Politicians are elected by people, by us. President Bush and his people have their reasons, but I’m not sure anyone really knows what those reasons really are. And I think that’s a shame, because we have allowed the political climate to be such that our voices aren’t heard.”

Now that he’s had his say, his head’s back in the game. The playoffs begin next month and the Mavs are in tough. The defending-champion Los Angeles Lakers are coming on, and San Antonio and Sacramento will make it difficult for the Mavs to win their conference, let alone the NBA championship. Yet Nash knows this might be the Mavs’ best chance — free agency and injuries can dismantle even the deepest of rosters. “We have a strong group that’s selfless by today’s standards, but we also have the ego to win,” he says. So he’s doing what he’s done since he was a kid — practising, preparing, competing. He has his priorities. “Some day, I’d like to have a much bigger impact with charities and other things,” he says. “But right now, I have to make the most of this because, in basketball, the window of opportunity is so small. It’s a short career, so I can’t let down.”

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