Happy 40th, Steve Nash!
And it should be a happy birthday for the NBA’s eldest graybeard (who thankfully shaved his recently) and two-time MVP. He’s back where he belongs — in uniform and on a basketball court.
Nash is scheduled to start for the Los Angeles Lakers tonight at Philadelphia. It will be just his eighth game of the season and second since returning from months of relentless, behind-the-scenes work in pursuit of mending a body he won’t dare let fail him.
In reality, the grueling comeback started many months ago. Halloween Night 2012 in Portland, Nash sustained a small fracture to his left fibula. Aftershocks have haunted him ever since. The road to recovery meandered through doctors offices and training facilities near and far as he shuttled between L.A. and Vancouver for the most thorough possible care. Some wondered if a full recovery was possible; if retirement was inevitable.
The latter, never pondered by Nash, came from those unwise enough to doubt the resolve of this future Hall of Famer.
“I just want to play,” Nash said in December. “That’s what gets me through every day. I want to play. I still love to play. I still feel like I have the skills to do it and I’d like to end my career on a positive note. Just fighting every day to get that little bit of joy for playing basketball, being one of the guys, running up and down the court and trying to beat somebody.”
When he finally took the court earlier this week, defeating (at least for now) the needling nerve irritation that stemmed from the initial leg fracture, he doled out nine assists to go with seven points in 24 minutes of action. The Lakers lost to the Timberwolves, but it was a win for Nash, who for a night could laugh in the face of the 40 candles he’ll blow out today.
“It’s been a tough road, but tonight there’s a part of me that feels like a kid, like a rookie that got to play in the NBA,” Nash told reporters. “It’s a pretty cool feeling.”
Nash, an eight-time All-Star, has provided basketball fans with dozens upon dozens of pretty cool moments and countless reasons to admire his determination since he became the 15th overall pick in the 1996 NBA Draft. But the past 16 months — since that Halloween night — might be the most inspirational of his career. He’s played in only 57 games since then, and most of those in pain that would sideline many. Yet, when it would have been so easy to walk away, to tip his cap to Father Time, Nash chose to fight.
You want to talk role model? You want to talk work ethic? You want to talk perseverance? You want to talk loyalty?
Talk Nash. At 40.
The 6-foot-3 guard from Victoria, B.C., and Santa Clara University could have simply hung ’em up. And who would have blamed him? The Lakers are in disarray. The championship vision that took shape with the assemblage of he and Kobe and Pau and Dwight has evaporated.
Nash has earned enough to keep his great, great grandchildren living high. He captained some of the most prolific offenses in NBA history. He beat out Shaquille O’Neal and then LeBron James for consecutive MVP trophies. He is basketball royalty in his home country. His legacy as an all-time great is secure, despite the fact he has never made it to the NBA Finals.
Still, he pushes on, and with any luck, Nash will feel like that kid he described for the rest of this season, and maybe even next (he has one more year left on his contract at $9.7 million). At some point — maybe this season, maybe next — he will have to consider the R-word. He will have to evaluate his body, re-evaluate his desire and come to grips with the decision that every athlete faces.
These past two seasons are not how Nash saw himself going out. Will that drive him to finish this contract, playing a 19th season in 2014-15, matching Jazz Hall of Famer and all-time assist leader John Stockton in seasons and age? Stockton played all 82 games in his final year (2002-03). He turned 41 on March 26 that season. Jason Kidd made it to 40 last March, but by then he was fading fast and, at season’s end, he called it a career with two years left on his deal. Bob Cousy played seven games at age 41 as coach of the Cincinnati Royals, six years after he retired from the Boston Celtics.
That’s it for 40-plus point guards. The demands of the position are so great, so physically and emotionally taxing season after season, that point guards just don’t last that long. Nash knows this. He feels it every day.
But today he will play.