Setting Sun: Steve Nash's Quitting the Phoenix Suns to Enter Canadian Politics
A mere week into the 2010 NBA campaign and the Phoenix Suns' season hopes have been annihilated for this year and many years to come. Superstar point guard Steve Nash has informed Suns management he's leaving the team permanently November 15 to pursue a political career in his native Canada.
Nash's long-term goal is eventually to become prime minister of Canada, the country's highest position. To that end, he's entering the Victoria, British Columbia, mayor's race and must almost immediately establish residency to run for office.
Stephen John Nash grew up in Victoria, the capital city of British Columbia, and he remains the city's most famous and well-loved son. Just last year, the University of Victoria awarded him an Honorary Doctor of Laws degree in recognition of his athletic achievements and philanthropic efforts. The race for mayor is a formality. The winner will be Nash in a Canadian avalanche.
Says current Victoria Mayor Dean Fortin, "Stevie Nash for Mayor? He's got my vote!"
Nash is more popular in Canada than bacon and is substantially lower in fat. He's been awarded Canada's highest civilian honor, the Order of Canada, and a star on Canada's Walk of Fame. In an often-frozen land that is hockey-centric, Nash thrice has been voted Canadian athlete of the year. At the Vancouver Winter Games this year, Nash became the first NBA player in Olympic history to carry the torch and light the Olympic cauldron.
A week ago, Nash and his agent met with Suns officials to inform them of his plans. Like Nash himself, the meeting was relatively short. There was no hidden agenda. It wasn't a ploy for more money or a contract extension. It was a simple statement — he was quitting basketball to enter Canadian politics.
Unlike LeBron James, who toyed with the affections of most of the basketball-loving cities in North America for months before slaughtering and field-dressing Cleveland, Nash didn't seek a monumentally lame ESPN special to announce "The Decision." LeBron declared, "I am going to take my talents to South Beach."
Nash has gone him one better. He's taking his talents nearly to the North Pole.
Number 13 is already in escrow on a new home in the heart of Victoria, a city of 78,000 nestled within a general metropolitan area of 330,000. The house closes on November 15, and on that day, the two-time league MVP and perennial All-Star will head north.
Suns owner Robert Sarver and Coach Alvin Gentry are, naturally, shattered by the Nash bombshell. Both have begged the veteran to change his mind and are praying he will, but have been repeatedly told by Nash's agent that the decision is final and irrevocable.
Lon Babby, the newly named president of basketball operations for the Suns, who came on board to replace Steve Kerr, has been weeping uncontrollably, insiders tell New Times.
Expect the Suns to deny that their franchise player is leaving until the bitter end. Nash offered to clear out his locker immediately, but owner Sarver pleaded with him to continue playing in the hopes that a few wins can be salvaged from a brutal early schedule.
Suns players and personnel have been threatened with heavy fines and worse if they so much as breathe a word about Nash's imminent defection. Management is deathly afraid the news will immediately impact attendance. In a tough economy, the last thing a team needs is to lose a star player who puts derrieres in chairs. If the Suns fare badly this year, US Airways Center will be so empty, the airline could land one of its 747s in it.
Nobody is better qualified to calmly assess the situation than a Phoenix sports legend — former Suns chairman and CEO Jerry Colangelo. When contacted by New Times, he had this to say: "This is a huge loss for the Suns, but Steve has earned the right to control his own destiny. He's a great guy who truly wishes to make the world better, and he has the will and the gift to change hearts and minds.
"That said, I wish he weren't Canadian. He could go all the way in U.S. politics. He's not the first Sun to go into politics, you know — Kevin Johnson is the mayor of Sacramento. Charles [Barkley] always threatened to run for office, but seriously, what the hell is he going to fix? Chuck can't even straighten out his golf swing."
As Colangelo confirms, the departure of the franchise's brightest Sun is a dagger to the heart of an organization that lost free agent power forward Amar'e Stoudemire to the New York Knicks and then stumbled through a series of embarrassing lopsided losses in the pre-season. The team's very expensive off-season acquisition, Hedo Turkoglu, has looked hopelessly lost on the offensive end, and total team defense has been abysmal. Meanwhile, Stoudemire has been throwing down thunder for the Knicks.
The Suns' chances this season were questionable even with Nash running the show. Without him, the Gorilla's public-service TV spots might advocate just saying "yes" to drugs.
Nash's exit is far more than the loss of a great basketball player. NBA stars routinely trade uniforms in search of the fattest paycheck and the chance to win a championship ring. This incites owners to go shopping and buy themselves another colossus or two, and life goes on. In recent months, Miami grabbed LeBron from the Cleveland Cadavers and Chris Bosh from the Toronto Raptors; Carlos Boozer left Utah for Chicago for five years and $80 million — and Amar'e saw Boozer's $80 mil and raised him another $19.7 for five years with the Knicks.
The difference is, these guys are just very tall, talented athletes settling in to their new towns and safe-deposit boxes. After their sports careers end, they probably will spend the rest of their lives signing overpriced replica jerseys for fat guys.
Nash won't be going that route. In 2006, Time magazine named him one of the 100 most influential people in the world. That's Oprah territory, folks. That's hiya, Bill Gates; yo, what's shakin', Warren Buffett? Little Stevie is playing with the big kids now. So why wouldn't he want to be prime minister of Canada, eh?
Maybe he's setting his sights too low. Maybe he should be supreme ruler of the universe. Let's review his qualifications for that gig . . .
For starters, he's everything that's good about sports. He plays his heart out every minute, loves and mentors his teammates, speaks intelligently in complete sentences, truly appreciates fans, and is a passionate global ambassador for the game he loves.
Additionally, he's a scrawny regular-size guy. The NBA lists him at 6-foot-3, but the league also claims Commissioner David Stern is 5-9. Please! In the off-season, Stern works as a garden gnome. However short in height, Nash challenges Goliaths every night and usually slays them. He's the rare great white player in a black dominated-game and never has been anything but a color-blind, unifying figure.
In a sport notorious for bad boys, his name and scandal are never linked. Sure, years ago, he dated two Brits — singing condiment Ginger Spice and actress Elizabeth Hurley — but that was strictly because of his heritage. Canadians always worship English royalty.
No piece of the Nash perfection puzzle is missing. He's been married since 2005 and is the father of beautiful twin daughters. He likes other people's kids, too. His Steve Nash Foundation benefits underprivileged children in British Columbia and in Phoenix. The Steve Nash Youth Basketball League in British Columbia now boasts more than 10,000 participants.
He's affiliated himself with GuluWalk, a Canadian-operated charitable organization that raises awareness and money for northern Uganda's war-impacted children.
There's more — there always is with Nash. He joined the Houston Rockets' Yao Ming and other NBA players in journeying to China to play an exhibition game against that country's national basketball team, and they raised 2.5 million for needy Chinese children. He also provided the time and money to create a new pediatric cardiology facility at a hospital in his wife's native Paraguay.
Don't you get the feeling that, if you had a cold, Steve Nash would come over and make you chicken soup from scratch? Really, other than a couple of awful haircut choices over the years, is there anything wrong with the guy?
Well, he may be clinically insane. What kind of creature walks away from one of the world's most glamorous jobs and leaves a two-year contract worth $10,338,000 annually on the table? Answer: the exceedingly rare Canadian mutant gym rat. Truly, NBA experts have serious doubts that Steve Nash is even human. Consider the evidence:
Nash didn't even start playing basketball until he was 12 or 13 years old. He then led his high school basketball team to the British Columbia AAA provincial championship title and was honored as British Columbia's player of the year.
Undersized and under-appreciated, he wasn't offered a scholarship by any of the 30 universities his high school coach sent letters and highlight reels to. Finally, the coach at California's Santa Clara University took a chance on him after working out Nash personally. Earning a sociology degree, he was twice named the West Coast Conference Player of the Year and was the Jesuit school's all-time assists and free-throw percentage leader.
In the 1996 NBA draft, he was the 15th pick in the first round by the Suns. His game was still in its infancy, and he was buried on the depth chart behind three of the game's all-time greats: Kevin Johnson, Sam Cassell, and Jason Kidd. In 1998, he was traded to the Dallas Mavericks. In his third season there, he made his first All-Star Game appearance and was named to the All-NBA team. In 2000, he led Team Canada in the Sydney Olympic Games.
That's already far more than most people ever accomplish in their entire lives. Nash was just warming up.
Nash and his best friend, Dirk Nowitzki, proceeded to set the league on fire, taking the Mavs to the Western Conference finals in the 2002-03 season. He became a free agent after 2003-04 and signed with the Suns. Mavs owner Mark Cuban wouldn't match Phoenix's offer, allegedly because he wanted to build his team around the younger Nowitzki rather than signing the aging Nash to a long-term deal.
At this point, Nash began aging better than a French cheese.
In his first season with a Suns team that had gone a woeful 29-53 in its previous campaign, Steve Nash steered them to a startling 62-20 record and a trip to the Western Conference finals. For his efforts, he was named the NBA's Most Valuable Player, the first Canadian ever so honored. He was only the third point guard to win the award. The other two: Earvin "Magic" Johnson and Bob Cousy.
Nash captured the MVP the following season, too. Only nine other players have won back-to-back MVPs. A few of these names you might know: Magic, Michael Jordan, Wilt Chamberlain, Larry Bird, Bill Russell, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, LeBron James, Tim Duncan, and Moses Malone.
Although arguably even better the next year, he was genuinely happy to finish second in the MVP race to former teammate Nowitzki.
That's the short, sanitized, non-violent version. The real deal is written in blood. Nash has sustained blows uglier than Rosie O'Donnell in a pie-eating contest.
Fast-forward to the 2007 Suns-San Antonio Spurs second-round playoff series. In the opening game, San Antonio leads 100-99 with 2:53 left to play when Nash and Spurs guard Tony Parker meet in a head-on-head collision. Nash sustains a deep cut to the bridge of his nose that would require six post-game stitches. There isn't sufficient time for needlework during the game, and the Suns' only option is to patch him sufficiently to pass the NBA's infectious-control standards. Trainers blast through a box-full of gauze pads, Band-Aids, and Steri-Strips on the bench. For good measure, they apply a highly flammable liquid adhesive called collodion. The fumes from the collodion force Nash to pour water over his eyes as he writhes in pain. He misses 45 seconds of the game's final three minutes as Suns staff fail to stop the blood gushing down his face, onto his shorts, and staining the court. The Spurs win by five.
In game three, Spurs defensive specialist Bruce Bowen commits a flagrant foul in the most offensive way when he knees Nash in the groin. The game 4 Suns win becomes one for the books. The Suns take a substantial fourth-quarter lead, and the Spurs must foul. Mission accomplished when Robert Horry delivers a vicious hip check to the speeding Nash. Steve slips the surly bonds of Earth, crashes into the scorer's table, and proceeds to slither to the floor. He goes after Horry, and in the turmoil that follows, Amar'e Stoudemire and Boris Diaw leave the bench area — a violation of league rules. Both are suspended for game 5, which the Suns lose at home. Disheartened, they drop game 6 in San Antonio. Series over.
Full speed ahead to the rematch with the Spurs in 2008. In the third quarter of game 4, Nash catches an inadvertent elbow from Spurs center Tim Duncan between his eye and his eyebrow. A deep and bloody gash results. He enters the locker room holding a handkerchief over his eye and returns with his customary six stitches, the eye swollen shut, and an ice pack on his noggin. Re-entering the fray with his one eye completely shut, "Cyclops" finishes with 20 points and nine assists. Most of his stats come in the fourth quarter as he nails outside shots and delivers bullet passes with only a single eye functioning. Suns fans pay tribute to his heroics the next game when they show up wearing eye patches.
Last year, the Suns lost the conference finals in a tremendous six-game series to the eventual league champion Los Angeles Lakers that will forever be remembered for a winning put-back basket by former loony thug and now golden boy Ron Artest in game five. For Nash, it was more sweat, more tears, and of course, more blood when Lakers guard Derek Fisher fractured the two-time MVP's nose.
Nash will turn 37 in February, ancient by NBA standards. The classy and timeless Grant Hill soldiers on at 38, but he doesn't play the minutes or take the constant punishment that Nash does. Laboring at the point-guard position on a team that runs the floor at a breakneck pace is not for the faint of heart — especially when you're a little guy weighing 178 pounds in a violent land of T. rexes.
Besides the usual aches and pains caused by running into 7-foot sadists, Nash suffers from a medical condition called spondylolisthesis, which causes back pain and muscle tightness. To keep his muscles from stiffening when he's not in the game, he usually lies on his back on the sidelines rather than sit on the bench.
He may be old and hurting, but Nash's numbers last year were spectacular. He led the league in assists per 48 minutes and total assists; scored 16.5 points a game; led the league in free-throw percentage with a career-best .938, and became the first man to join the 50-40-90 Club (an average of more than 50 percent from the field, 40 percent from the three-point line, and 90 percent from the free-throw stripe) in five consecutive seasons.
So why's Steve Nash leaving when he still has major game?
His decision is the end result of a perfect storm. When last season was over, he started giving serious thought to his dream of entering Canadian politics. When Stoudemire left, he sensed it might be time for him to follow.
Election Day in Victoria, British Columbia, is January 20. Any candidate for mayor must reside in the city for at least 60 continuous days before the election. Nash had to either act now or wait three years for another shot at the job.
He decided to let the pre-season determine his decision. If the team showed promise, he'd stay. The Suns went a horrendous 2-6 with the final game a humiliating 144-106 massacre by a Denver Nuggets team made up almost entirely of their scrubs. Following the carnage, Steve and his wife, Alejandra, spoke at length, and the next call was to the movers. Adios, Phoenix.
Nash says he leaves with only gratitude and no hard feelings. He says he fully understands management's decision to let Stoudemire go, but also knows the Suns can't truly compete without the All-Star power forward. It was therefore unrealistic to think the Suns could win a championship this year, he says, or anytime soon. He has no desire to join forces with other superstar friends just to snag a ring. Like Bird and Magic, he's old school — he wants to beat other stars' brains out, not wear the same uniform and do hip-hop dance routines together.
"Look," Nash tells New Times, "LeBron and Dwyane [Wade] and Chris [Bosh] did what they had to do, but I don't agree with their philosophy. Since when do you get to choose all your teammates? I've seen a lot of very close personal friends leave. When Raja [Bell] and Leandro were traded, I was professional and kept my mouth shut. Amar'e and I weren't best friends, but we made each other better players, and I was very sorry to see him go. I hated leaving Dirk in Dallas, but does that mean we should all decide to play on the same team together? If that's the only way I can win a ring, I don't want one."
He came tantalizingly close to his first ring last season. Nobody predicted the Suns would burrow their way so deeply into the playoffs.
A sharp-shooting bench and superb pick-and-roll play paid huge dividends, and the Suns made it to the Western Conference Finals. After years of serious injuries to his knees and an eye, Amar'e had fully recovered and become an offensive beast. At times last season he was the best player in the league. More important, he had matured and was no longer an insufferable, pompous prick in the locker room. Previously, if you gave him a penny for his thoughts, he could give you change.
True, "STAT" disappeared in big games sometimes and was a maddeningly chronic underachiever as a rebounder, but his departure leaves an enormous hole in Phoenix's lineup.
Enter Hedo Turkoglu, once a shining star with the Orlando Magic but coming off a horrendous season with the Toronto Raptors. What's amazing is that the normally frugal Suns are paying him $10,215,850 this season — hello, did anyone in payroll actually see him play last year? Another bad year and they'll be tempted to change his name from Hedo to Fredo and take him fishing. Turkoglu's been asked to make the transition from small forward to power forward, and at 220 pounds, he doesn't have the body for the job. On defense, his shortcomings are indefensible.
In the Suns' regular-season opener against Portland, he underwhelmed with just six points and three rebounds while racking up five personal fouls in only 27 minutes. Showcasing his consistency, Hedo notched five fouls a game later, against Utah, and defied the usual drop in production that comes with back-to-back games with five more fouls versus the Lakers. Memo to payroll: So far, Hedon't.
Newcomer Josh Childress broke his right index finger in the exhibition season, and the jury is out on whether he can lend the Suns a hand. Robin Lopez, the team's only 7-footer, needs to do some heavy lifting this year on the boards and improve on his 6.3 grabs per game last year — otherwise most of the Suns' rebounding will be from losses.
Expectations are high for Hakim Warrick, a 10-point per game career scorer with a very high field goal percentage from 2-point range. Warrick hit his average in the Suns first game that mattered this year, and was a bright spot for Coach Gentry. Jared Dudley and Channing Frye will continue draining threes and providing high energy off the bench as the season progresses, though Frye only managed to hit one from downtown in the opener. The streaky Jason Richardson can be spectacular at times and remains the highest-paid Sun at well over $14 million a year.
Lost via trade was fan favorite and Nash friend Leandro Barbosa. Lou Amundson signed with the Golden State Warriors, a blow to Suns fans who bellowed "Loooooouuuuuuu!!!" when he grabbed a rebound or hit the hardwood to grab a loose ball.
Bottom line: spotty to good shooting with no D except from Grant Hill and Dudley, who can be tenacious defenders. The Suns led the league in scoring last year with a blistering 110.1 points per game, but that number has nowhere to go but down without Stoudemire and Nash filling it up. The opposition will probably score more often than John Mayer.
Nash's take on this year's Suns and his personal exit strategy:
"I know my timing is not the best, but the window of opportunity was rapidly closing in Victoria, and with all the new guys here, it was obviously going to be a rebuilding year. Without Amar'e, I was going to have to score more, and forcing shots for myself is not my game. I had 26 points in our opener against the Blazers and we still lost by 14. I had nine turnovers, and I'm not one for excuses, but I think I made some poor decisions because I was looking to shoot instead of pass — that's not Steve Nash basketball. Physically, I can't take the beating I used to. I know I'll get pounded in politics, but that'll be easier on my back than a Kevin Garnett elbow. More importantly, I think Goran's ready. He just needs more minutes, and with me out of the way, he'll get them. There's a time for everyone to leave the game, and this is mine."
His teacher's confidence in him aside, no one will be under more pressure than Dragic, the 24-year-old Slovenian point guard. All he has to do is replace an absolute lock to be unanimously voted into the Basketball Hall of Fame on the first ballot.
There's no doubt Goran has extraordinary skills. Certainly one of the great highlights of last season was Dragic's going berserk in the fourth quarter of second-round playoff game three against the Spurs. In one of the great playoff performances in history, he conducted a clinic, scoring 23 points in the quarter while hitting nine of 11 shots, including all four of his three-point attempts. His moves were dazzling, and several of his shots bordered on supernatural. It was a performance that was nothing if not Jordan-esque. But Dragic can't average 23 points every quarter, every night. In the team's first real game this season, he only managed six in 13 minutes.
Sadly, the Nash era will soon be over, and with it goes former Suns and now-Knicks coach Mike D'Antoni's thrilling "seven seconds or less" shot blitzkrieg; the bruising playoff battles with the Spurs and Lakers; and more than anything else, watching the fearless Nash dribbling madly into the heart of enemy territory and stunning the opposition with a shot from either hand or dishing an impossible jaw-dropping pass.
He's never been the biggest or the fastest or the highest jumper and certainly not the best defender. He just has the smartest and the gutsiest, and that's what made him great.
The Suns have kept his departure plan under wraps, and Steve has confided in only his closest friends. He only reluctantly talked to this newspaper after Canadian sources spilled the maple syrup. As the story unfolds, expect every player and exec in the league to salute the incomparable Steve Nash and wish him the very best.
In the course of reporting this story, New Times spoke to many past and present icons of the game, and they all admire Nash for the way he's played and the kind of man he's been.
Nobody summed up the respect that league giants have for the shaggy little Canadian more elegantly than Shaquille O'Neal, a former teammate of Nash's who now plays for the Celtics.
Boston's Big Shamroq said, "Without Professor Nash, basketball is never going to be as pure and beautiful again, and for that, I am upset to the highest level of upset-tivity."
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