By Darryl Howerton
There are three words that come up repeatedly when you have a conversation with Steve Nash. The first is “balance.” Commend him on his outside shooting, and the 6-3, 180-pound guard will tell you how he works on it to help his overall game-to stay balanced. Talk about the Dallas Mavericks’ rise to prominence, and he’ll explain that it’s due to their improved defense, which combines with their already-League-best offense to make them a “more balanced team.” He’s also fond of “continue.” Compliment the Mavs’ top-dog status for the ’02-03 season, and he won’t rest on any laurels. Instead he’ll tell you how they “continue to work hard” and that they’ll “continue to improve.”
Another favorite word: “friendship.” Name any teammate, and the word “friend” comes up before a discussion of his game. Dirk Nowitzki: “friend.” Michael Finley: “friend.” Nick Van Exel: “friend.” Balance. Continue. Friendship. These three words that the 29-year-old Nash uses so often in fact describe the man himself. They contain the essence of Steve Nash and reveal more about his nature than most stats.
“Balance” applies to how he tirelessly works on all facets of his game and life. He wants to be not only the best overall basketball player possible, but the most well-rounded man. n “Continue” exemplifies his work ethic. Every aspect of his game is in progress. When he was one of three point guards to earn All-NBA status last year-earning Third-Team honors-it was a result of his continued improvement. This year, he’ll likely earn Second-Team honors, another sign of his effort.
“Friendship” is what makes Steve Nash the man he is; it is also the reason he is so loved, not only in Dallas, but everywhere. He is just as loyal to his Canadian childhood friends as he is to his Mavericks teammates, who have known him for as little as a few months to as long as six years. Because many of these Mavs come from foreign lands (Germany’s Nowitzki, Mexico’s Eduardo Najera, France’s Tariq Abdul-Wahad and Antoine Rigaudeau), it is not uncommon that one of their first bonds in the new land is with Mr. Canada, who goes out of his way to make all feel at home. This friendship factor may be the real secret to not only Nash’s success, but to the Mavericks’ as well, since the atmosphere on this squad is unlike any other.
As the team piles off the team bus, shuttling in from one airport to yet another hotel, Nash exits the bus differently from the others. He is the only one with lady at hand, literally, as he and girlfriend Alejandra walk together, holding hands and looking oh-so-cute in complementary sports attire. Not matching sweatsuits, mind you-hers is of the sleek blue-and-light-gray variety; his consists of blue bottoms and a red Nike shirt with “JDI” stitched on it. (Nash: “It stands for ‘Just Do It.'”)
The two have a private moment together. She is beautiful, a very-fit personal trainer from Paraguay whom Nash met in New York’s SoHo. He is grunge cool with flowing hair, long bangs and eyes that convey sincerity.
Steve explains that he has to do an interview, but that as soon as he is done, they’ll escape for a casual dinner somewhere nearby. Both are hungry. They say their goodbye words of love, she goes up to her room and he stops in the hotel lobby to conduct an interview-and hear a few more words of love.
Nowitzki: “He became my best friend here immediately. I was homesick, always calling home to Germany. And Steve was the first one who made me feel really welcome here.”
Finley: “Me and Steve go way back, to when we played together in Phoenix six years ago. We were tight then, and we’re even closer now.”
Van Exel: “When I came over here from Denver, he made me feel at home right away.”
Nash takes in the lovefest and analyzes it for what it’s worth. He agrees that friendship is very dear to him, but as a point guard, you know he’s gonna dole out the credit to others.
“I think the reason I’m this way is primarily because my family was very close,” says Nash. “They’ve always been that way, and they’ve always been very supportive of me. And I think because I’ve always had such a great family, I’ve always really placed a lot of importance on friendship, and I [still] have a lot of the same friends from childhood today. Friendship is important to me. Relationships you build are as important as anything in life. So I definitely feel blessed to have the relationships I do with my teammates, that’s for sure.”
Nowitzki elaborates on the subject. “When I first got here five years ago, I’d be in my room, missing my family, missing my friends. And I’d get a call from Steve saying, ‘Let’s go out.’ To the mall. To the movies. Anywhere. I wouldn’t want to go. But he wouldn’t take no for an answer. Soon we’d start going everywhere together. And as time went by, I wasn’t as homesick as I once was. I started feeling better. I started playing better. And Steve’s friendship was the main reason for that.”
Nash shakes off his role in Nowitzki’s development with a no-big-deal head wag. “Dirk and I just became friends,” says Nash in matter-of-fact fashion. “First, I tried to reach out to him because he was a 19-, 20-year-old kid who had never lived anywhere but home, coming to this crazy world of the NBA. I sympathized with him and just wanted to help [make] his assimilation as easy as possible, regardless of whether we had a lot in common and would become friends. But soon our friendship totally overcame that feeling of having to be a tour guide. We became really great friends.”
Nowitzki has observed that Steve is that way with everyone, and it’s true. It’s not just new teammates, but old ones-like Finley-and old friends. The latter includes everyone from boyhood bud Duck a.k.a. Chris Isherwood to high-school pal Al Whitley-now the Mavs assistant equipment manager-to Hemsa Nosh, a Vancouver peace activist. Nash is loyal, accessible and real-three more words that also describe the Dallas Mavericks.
“Sometimes it’s difficult maintaining my friendships, but to me, it’s well worth it,” says Nash. “My friends have to have a lot of patience because sometimes I don’t talk to them for months. It makes me feel guilty in one respect. On the other hand, you just don’t have the time and energy to stay in touch with everyone and take care of your responsibilities. My friends have a lot of patience; they understand me, and they know it doesn’t reflect on the way I feel about them. But it goes both ways, too. I need my old friends and my new friends in Dallas. Even though Dirk and I came to the team at the same time, the main reason I chose to come to Dallas was because Michael was here and we had played together in Phoenix for half a year.
“Dallas wasn’t gonna take me in the trade if I wasn’t going to commit to staying here,” says Nash, who signed a lucrative, long-term deal following the June ’98 trade that sent Pat Garrity, Martin Muursepp and Bubba Wells to Phoenix. “So a lot of my commitment to Dallas was because of Michael, whom I’m sure I’ll be friends with the rest of my life. I knew I would like it with him here because he’s got an incredible work ethic, he’s a great competitor and more than anything, he’s honest. He’s a really truthful person. He doesn’t mince words. There’s no pretension. He’s just great. I just think he’s a great guy and a great teammate.”
If there’s anything that symbolizes Maverick attitude, it’s that lack of pretension that drew Nash to Finley-and in a greater sense, drew him to Dallas.
When owner Mark Cuban bought the team in January ’00, the point guard felt even more at home “because he, too, was like one of the guys.” In the NBA, where showmen and superstars dominate (e.g. razzle-dazzle wonders like MJ, Shaq, Kobe, AI and T-Mac), Nash and Company seemed to fit in better with the casual-cool club of Tim Duncan, Mike Bibby et al. After all, Nash’s blue-jeans-&-white-T-shirts attire has been dubbed the “new NBA style” by GQ. Finley and Nowitzki? They’re of the same cloth. The three immediately meshed “because of our easygoing ways,” says Nash, who believes that five years later, their bond is even tighter. “This was always the plan,” says Nash, of the three men who form the nucleus of this 2003 NBA Championship contender. It’s been a long-anticipated strategy of “continued improvement,” says Nash, referring to the team’s steadily improving records since the ’98-99 season-19-31, 40-42, 53-29, last year’s 57-25 and this year’s stellar showing (an NBA-best 51-16 at presstime). “People probably didn’t look at our plan four years ago when we all came. We all had goals to be top players in the League and for our team to be a top team in the League. I thought four years was plenty of time to get there.” So what’s it like in year five?
“Every day, the chemistry continues to get better and better, but overall our chemistry is set. We all love playing together and really like each other, one through 12. We’re all developing still. We’re all getting better. We’re still all hopefully improving and extending to our peak years. I think that’s why our team continues to get better-because, individually, we’re improving.” There’s that word “continue” again. For Nash, it’s always about improving. The eternal gym rat did decide to spend less time on basketball last summer, but only because he thought it would make him better.
For the first time in 11 years, Nash declined to play with the Canadian National Team in the 2002 World Championship, promising his friends he’d be back next summer for the Olympic pre-qualifying tournament. Why? To be in better shape for this year’s Mavericks run for an NBA title. He hit the weights, added muscle, ate better nutritionally, thanks to his new girlfriend-and lost eight pounds. “Recently,” says Nash, “I’ve been trying to find a balance of not trying to spend too much time on the court but just training physically so that I could stay fit an entire season and not break down, which I haven’t [done] in the last three years. So it feels great to go out there and play that many minutes.
“At the same time, I really want to work hard on my game. But I have to pick my spots. So I would say my overall development has been a combination of just working on my fitness and athletic ability, and at the same time continuing to develop all my skills and add that to experience, which is really the most important thing…maintaining that balance.”
The balance shows in his overall game. He’s the third scoring option on the team, averaging 17.7 a game, but could score 25 a night if he chose to. His True Shooting Percentage (a statistical invention by Mike Dunleavy that factors in three-pointers as 1.5 field goals) was a Mark Price-like 55.4 percent last year, the best for any point guard. It illustrates that a Nash shot from anywhere on the court-whether it’s his trademark running 15-foot floater or a 23-foot perimeter trey-is almost as good a shot as Shaq getting the ball down low (O’Neal’s TSP was 57.9).
Factor in the 7.1 assists a night-he quickly crosses up all defensive guards on his way to the hoop and sets himself or a teammate up for a basket-along with a 91.5-percent free-throw mark, and you quickly see why he doesn’t have just one spot. Steve Nash owns the offensive halfcourt.
“I just try to be balanced,” says Nash-again. “I struggled with my three-point shooting early this year. It didn’t concern me because I work at it and I knew it was gonna come around. Overall, I’ve been a really good shooter because I’ve worked on it. I’ve tried, like I said, to have balance. I want to be able to shoot a three. I want to be able to pull up and shoot midrange shots and take it all the way to the basket. And at any point, hopefully, be able to set up my teammates as well. My goal is to continue to eliminate positions where I can’t function. So being able to shoot from anywhere on the floor is a goal of mine.”
Perennial All-NBA point guards Jason Kidd and Gary Payton may be better at one thing (Kidd at passing) or another (Payton at defense), but Nash is now demonstrating superior shooting and deserves to be mentioned in the same sentence with both.
“I really don’t think about all that stuff to be honest,” says Nash, who is currently featured in Nike commercials with the two future Hall-of-Famers. “Sure, you become a lot more recognizable and your life changes in that respect a little bit, but for the most part, I try to just stay focused not on my play but on our team. And our goal, which is to win an NBA Championship.
“I think last year, I learned that there’s a very fine window of opportunity in the playoffs and there’s a very fine opportunity to win a championship and you just have to make the most of it. [It’s important to] continue to be disciplined and focused and not let things stand in your way.”
Which reminds Nash. Alejandra is hungry and waiting. And rather than let a long interview stand in the way of their dinner, Nash wants to wrap things up. Which leads to the question, How does Alejandra relate to Nash’s balanced life and the team’s continued improvement?
“It’s something that inevitably touches on my career, but for the most part, our relationship is outside my career,” says Nash.
“She’s very supportive, but our relationship in many ways, it’s kind of contradictory to say this, but it’s kind of mutually exclusive to my career. She’s very supportive, and she’s understanding. But at the same time, our relationship, I try to keep separate from my career, and just try to allow that to be something great, and allow that to be a source of balance.”
Interview’s done; now it’s time to take care of one of his friends. With that, Nash rises.