Dr. James Naismith would be smiling in his grave.
You know who Dr. Naismith is, don’t you? He’s the guy who took a perfectly good peach basket, cut its base, hung it from the wall of a church gymnasium, and threw a ball into the cylinder thus creating the game now known as basketball.
The Doc was Canadian by the way (that’s right, basketball was invented by a Canuck), and so is this year’s NBA MVP, Steve Nash, the first player from north of the 49th parallel to be garnered with such a distinction.
Bob Cousy, Oscar Robertson, Magic Johnson, Larry Bird, and Michael Jordan all have claimed the most prestigious individual award the NBA has to offer and now . . . Steve Nash?
Born in Johannesburg (South Africa) but raised in Victoria, B.C., Nash’s home always lay on a hardwood court. His website states he used to tape the latches of the gym doors at the University of Victoria so he could sneak in after hours and shoot around.
But it’s a story spoken by Don Horwood, the long-time head coach for the University of Alberta men’s basketball team, that resonates the loudest with me.
I was in Grade 12 and Horwood was a guest speaker at my high school. After an exceptional speech, the floor was opened to questions and my friend asked if he knew who Steve Nash was.
(Nash had just been traded to the Dallas Mavericks from the Phoenix Suns and was Canada’s most high-profile professional basketball player).
Horwood sighed. Smiled. Then told us a story.
All the coaches at the Canadian university level were trying to sign this kid named Nash, dubbed a “flashy version of John Stockton,” and Horwood was no exception.
He flew to Victoria to try to convince him to come to Edmonton (he eventually would commit to Santa Clara, which is a Div. 1 school in the U.S.) but when he got to Nash’s home, he was nowhere to be found.
He asked Nash’s mother where he was and she said the basketball courts that were about 10 minutes away. This was in Victoria so, of course, it was raining outside and Horwood thought she meant a gymnasium.
But when he drove to the specified location, he found Nash all by his lonesome playing basketball on a cement outdoor court—but without a basketball and at night.
The rain was starting to get heavy, Horwood had said, but there Nash remained.
He dribbled as if he had a basketball (shot and passed it, too), then reversed direction and started playing defence as well (with no opponent in front of him).
He fought through invisible screens, shouted instructions to his teammates, and even took a time-out when he didn’t like what he saw.
Horwood thought he was crazy; Horwood was in love.
This guy was a basketball player, he said. This was a person who didn’t live within the normal confines, but it was something Nash had to do because he didn’t have the size (6’3”), the weight (180 pounds soaking wet, though this has since jumped up to 195), nor the citizenship (Canadians don’t play basketball) for others to believe he could do it.
But he believed and that’s why he was outside—in the rain, playing without a basketball—as if it was Game 7 of the NBA Finals.
“I’m not big, gifted, or explosive,” Nash had said upon accepting the MVP trophy. “But this shows there are a lot of different ways to impact a game and a lot of different ways to be valuable to a team.
“Maybe this will affect how people see the game and maybe they will now look deeper.”
Nash is only the fourth point guard to ever win the award, but he is the most unlikely of winners. Statistically, Allen Iverson dwarfed Nash (14.5 points per game) this season. As did Kobe Bryant, LeBron James, Tracy McGrady, and a host of others.
But it was Nash who took a Phoenix team (he signed with the Suns during the off-season after six years with Dallas) and led it to a 33-game improvement from last season en route to an NBA-best mark of 62-20 (they averaged close to 16 points more per game this season than last—the biggest jump in the shot-clock era).
The award is a powerful testimonial to Nash’s selfless personality as well as his sublime skill set, and the genius of his season is that so much of it cannot be measured empirically.
The assists offer a clue (11.5 per game), but they don’t reveal the manner in which Nash made every one of his teammates a better player; how his pass-first mentality permeated the Suns and influenced the very manner in which the game is played.
By the mid-season mark, it became clear MVP honours had become a race between Nash and the 7’1”, 325-pound Shaquille O’Neal, who was having his own remarkable season with the Miami Heat.
But the award is not about dominance (O’Neal is maybe the most dominant player the NBA has ever seen). It is about importance.
So when Nash, 31, edged O’Neal in what was the closest race since the award was born 21 years ago, it was to everyone’s surprise he had won—but it was a welcome one.
A vote for Nash was a vote for the points of old. It was a vote for the scrawny kid who always finds himself picked last for every street ball game he enters.
He’s worthy. He’s worthy on his own merits; and he’s worthy because his energy, style, and skill have done a re-make on the Suns that puts the surgeons and stylists of “The Swan” to shame.
Nash is like Mickey the Magician at the heart of the “Fantasia” storm—the game flows off his fingers, but it’s an approach that comes naturally. Point guards are born, not made, goes the theory.
For all the skills required (and Nash has them in spades), what really makes a good point guard is an innate ability to take the varied and always changing pieces that make up a basketball game and organize them into a seamless, finished puzzle.
So cue the violins! Cue the fat lady! Sit back and enjoy it. Enjoy those no-look-behind-the-back-applause-warranted-passes. Enjoy watching someone who isn’t a brick-filled-me-first player as “Kid Canada” plays the game the way it was meant to be played.
So paint a sign on a wall somewhere. Write in the dust on somebody’s back windshield. Get a tattoo. Put it on your answering machine.
And kids, the next time your teacher asks a question, raise your hand, flip a no-look eraser pass to your friend in the next aisle, and say . . .
“Steve Nash is the MVP.”
Dr. James Naismith would be smiling in his grave.