NBA fans shared a moment of celebration last Tuesday when Steve Nash announced that he was coming back to the Los Angeles Lakers after nearly three months on the injured list. Nobody (except, perhaps, Nash himself) expected the point guard to look much like the fire of old in his return from the nerve root irritation that stems from the left fibula fracture he suffered in November 2012, limiting him to just 52 total appearances during his first season in L.A. and derailing him for the lion's share of this season, but Nash showed flashes of finding his famous feel for the game — lofting a picture-perfect long-distance lob for Wesley Johnson, repeatedly finding teammates to the tune of nine assists against two turnovers and making half of his shots in 24 1/2 minutes. The Lakers still lost by 10 to the Minnesota Timberwolves, but Nash looking at least fairly Nash-y represented a definite silver lining in defeat.
The silver lining was short-lived, though. After an off-day in the Lakers' bizarre-as-heck road win over the Cleveland Cavaliers and a strong 19-point, five-dime performance in a win over the Philadelphia 76ers, Nash came up hobbling during L.A.'s nationally televised Sunday loss to the Chicago Bulls, short-circuiting his comeback bid and stoking retirement chatter. Nash managed just 16 1/2 limited minutes in Tuesday's loss to the Utah Jazz; he will miss Thursday's nationally televised matchup with the Oklahoma City Thunder, and is officially listed as day-to-day, a designation that very well might apply for the remainder of Nash's NBA career, however long it lasts.
This, to put it mildly, is a bummer; it is painful to watch one of the greatest, most creative, most singular facilitators (and, as always comes second when discussing Nash, one of the greatest shooters) of all time struggle, stumble, stammer and limp his way toward the uncertain conclusion of a first-ballot Hall of Fame career. And if we allow ourselves a second thought on the matter, we might wonder: If it's this hard for us, how hard must it be for Nash, a man whose mind and spirit can envision playing at a level that wins MVPs, but whose body refuses to reach that level?
Well, now we don't have to wonder.
On Thursday afternoon, the folks at Grantland debuted the first episode of "The Finish Line," a series of documentary shorts aimed at tracing Nash's attempt to come back from the injuries that have cost him the better part of two seasons and make an improbable return to his former All-Star form. Not only do we see the grueling workouts that he endured to get back on the floor, but we also hear Nash put the process into his own words, describing the feeling of being "stuck in no man's land" and the encroaching doubt as to whether he really can make it all the way back. We experience the distance between the shorthanded Lakers' struggle on the floor to win games and Nash's struggle in the training room to get fit enough to help them do so: "I mean, the game is being played like a hundred feet behind us, and it feels like I'm watching from Europe."
There might be a bit of forward-looking business savvy nestled into the nine-plus-minute feature by Ezra Holland and Jonathan Hock — Nash's discussion of rediscovering the "glimpses" of his game is placed within the context of the Lakers having to make a decision on whether to move on from his $9.7 million 2014-15 salary this offseason and includes some hedging on the future (he can't reach elite levels on a night-in/night-out basis, but he could once or twice a week, which would seem to translate to a lower-tier role as a reserve for a contender). Even if some piece of "The Finish Line" intends to lay the groundwork for Nash's life after the Lakers, though, it seems packed with potential to provide a level of real-time insight about the end of an all-time great's career that we rarely, if ever, get to see. And that, frankly, might be kind of hard to handle at times.
"Every athlete, when they lose their skill, they lose a big part of themselves — a part that they build their life around, a part that has been a huge part of their purpose, self-esteem, identity," Nash says. "So when the skill or ability goes, it's like there's been a death. So on the one hand, I'm lucky I've gotten the better part of 18 years of it. On the other hand ... it'll never be the same again."
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