Great? Steve Nash wasn’t supposed to be good.
How many mid-first-round picks are? In 1996, the Suns tabbed Nash with the 15th overall pick in the NBA draft. There have been 22 drafts since, and No. 15 picks haven’t exactly covered themselves with glory. For every Kawhi Leonard (2011), there is an Antoine Wright (2005) or a Cedric Simmons (2006). For every Giannis Antetokounmpo (2015) there is a Frederic Weis (1999) or Reece Gaines (2003).
On Friday, Nash will be inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in a class that includes Grant Hill, Jason Kidd and Ray Allen. He will go in as an eight-time All-Star, a two-time MVP and an argument to be called the greatest overachiever who ever laced up NBA sneakers. Not because he’s a 6-foot(ish) white guy who doesn’t fit the mold of NBA super athlete, either. It’s lazy to tag Nash as unathletic; what he lacked in explosiveness he made up in coordination, agility and near-perfect footwork.
Nash’s claim to an overachiever mantle is a product of what he had to overcome — and what his body almost refused to allow him to do.
Take college. How many back-to-back MVPs grew up with a box of rejection letters stashed in his bedroom closet? Nash did. Duke, Indiana, Villanova all passed on the slick playmaker from Victoria, British Columbia. Washington — a quick trip on the ferry for Nash — wasn’t interested. Santa Clara was, but only after the head coach, Dick Davey, informed Nash that he believed him to be the worst defensive player he had ever seen.
Take his first go-round in Phoenix. The Suns nearly passed on Nash — scouts preferred John Wallace that year, the story goes, and it was only after a hard sell from then-assistant coach Donnie Nelson that Phoenix took Nash — and then stuck him on the depth chart behind Jason Kidd and Kevin Johnson. Nash had his moments with the Suns, but they didn’t hesitate to trade him to Dallas after two seasons.
Now take Dallas, where Nash became known as a flashy playmaker and Dirk Nowitzki’s dynamic running buddy — after a debacle of a first season. Remember the lockout-shortened 1998-99 season? Nash played 40 games, averaged 7.9 points and regularly drew the ire of his coach, Don Nelson. Nash made his bones as a playmaker; Nellie wanted one who was eager to shoot. Change, Nelson told Nash, or I’m not going to play you. Take at least 10 shots a game, Nelson said, or I’m going to fine you.
Three seasons later, Nash was an All-Star.
Take his second go-round in Phoenix, and how that even happened. In 2004, Nash was close to peaking. He was close to averaging a double-double and banging in 40 percent of his threes. The Mavericks were a 52-win team with an enviable young core. But Nash had back issues, career-threatening back issues, or so the Mavericks believed. They saw the pain Nash played through, they knew Nelson went out of his way to keep his minutes in the low 30s every night. In 2004, they drafted another point guard, Devin Harris, with an eye toward reducing those minutes even further.
They didn’t know how many years Nash’s body would let him play.
They didn’t think it wise to match the six-year, $65 million offer Phoenix gave him that summer.
“I learned an expensive lesson,” Mavs owner Mark Cuban told Rolling Stone in 2014. “It took me too many years to realize that for some GMs, their No. 1 job wasn’t winning a championship, it’s keeping their job. It’s easy to look back and see my mistakes today. I wish I would have been smart enough to know better back then. I loved taking risks to win. Unfortunately, some of them were not as educated as they should have been.”
The rest is history. Nash won his first MVP in 2005 and picked up another the next season. He never won a championship — a Robert Horry hip check in the 2007 conference semis against the San Antonio Spurs, and the suspensions that came out of the fallout from it, likely deprived him of that — but he revolutionized the run-and-gun offense with Suns coach Mike D’Antoni, and inspired a generation of finger-licking, chest-wiping playmakers who grew up mimicking Nash’s game.
“He created a new way to play,” Steph Curry told Sports Illustrated in 2015. “He inspired me to play the way I was comfortable.”
Indeed. It’s fitting that Curry has filled Nash’s sneakers, becoming perhaps the NBA’s most oft-emulated player. Curry had a Nash-like beginning: lightly recruited, earning his NBA bona fides at mid-major Davidson, taken after the likes of Ricky Rubio and Jonny Flynn in the draft. Like Nash, he is an inspiration. Today, skinny kids with silky jump shots dream of being Curry.
Just like Curry, and many others who didn’t emerge from a traditional NBA mold, they once dreamed of being Nash.
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