Friday, March 27, 2015

J-Speaks: Nash Reaches End

In the summer of 1996, the Phoenix Suns drafted an unknown guard Canadian guard out of the University of Santa Clara. Nearly two decades later, he not only became a great player in the league, he helped to revolutionize how the game is played, especially from the point guard position. Unfortunately, the final act of his career saw him fighting back from injuries leaving him short of claiming the ultimate prize. On Saturday, this great guard made the most difficult decision any professional athlete has to make.
Los Angeles Lakers guard Steve Nash, who was the 15th pick in the 1996 NBA Draft by the Phoenix Suns announced his retirement on Saturday in a letter on The Players’ Tribune, a website where he is a senior producer of. He averaged for his career 14.3 points, 8.5 assists on 49.0 percent from the field; 42.8 percent from three-point range and 90.4 percent from the free throw line, the highest in NBA history.
Nash, who played 19 seasons with the Suns, Dallas Mavericks and aforementioned Lakers wrote, “The greatest gift has been to be completely immersed in my passion and striving for something that I loved so much visualizing a ladder, climbing up to my heroes. The obsession became my best friend. I talked to her, cherished her, fought with her and got knocked down on my ass by her.” 
The 41-year-old from Vancouver Island, British Columbia was an eight-time All-Star, two-time Most Valuable Player (2005 & 2006); seven-time All-NBA selection and five-time NBA assists leader (2004-07, 2009-11). Only Hall of Famers John Stockton (15,806) and Milwaukee Bucks head coach Jason Kidd (12,091) had more career assists in NBA history than Nash, who finished third with 10,335. Four times in his career he finished a season shooting 50-plus percent from the field, 40-plus percent from three-point range and 90-plus percent from the free throw line, the most in NBA history. Boston Celtics Hall of Fame forward Larry Bird did it twice and five other players did it once.
His final act with the Lakers was riddled with injuries, which included a persistent back problem that has kept on the shelf this entire season. In total, he played in 65 games for the Purple and Gold.
“I finally realized it wasn’t happening. I’ve been rehabbing and fighting to get back on the court for the majority of 18 months,” Nash, who was training twice a day during the aforementioned span, said to ESPN’s Marc Stein this past weekend.
“If you want to enjoy and be happy the rest of your life, you have to in some ways say goodbye to your former self and that’s not easy. I think just knowing that, I’m going to have to deal with this and I’m going to have to accept it and find new ways to challenge myself and enjoy myself. I think I’ll get there.”
In the off-season of 2012, the Lakers acquired Nash in a sign-and-trade with the Suns and they also acquired center Dwight Howard from the Magic. With the two new additions along with future Hall of Famer Kobe Bryant, it was believed that the Lakers on paper were a serious championship contender again.
However in the second game of the season of the 2012-13 season at the Portland Trail Blazers, Nash suffered a non-displaced fracture in his left leg after he collided with Blazers’ guard Damian Lillard.
Nash managed to play in just 50 games two seasons ago averaging just 12.7 points and 6.7 assists per game. The Lakers were swept by the eventual Western Conference Champion San Antonio Spurs in the first round that season. They played that series without Bryant, who sustained a torn Achilles near the end of the season.
Continuous nerve problems stemming from the same leg injury the season before limited Nash to just 15 games the next season, where he averaged 11.7 points and 9.9 assists.
The dream of two of the best guards, who were in the same 1996 Draft class to ever play, trying to win a championship never came to fruition and that is something that really frustrated Nash. However, he said to Stein that he was very grateful for the experience of being a teammate of Bryant, all be it in a limited capacity.
“It was a great experience for me to see how he works. At the same time we barely played together,” Nash said.
“Frustrating. Disappointing in the big picture. It was also a great experience just to be around him. See how he approaches the game.”
While the final chapter did not end well for Nash, his basketball career was one to marvel.
It all began back in Canada when in 8th grade, the former soccer and hockey player traded in his soccer cleats and ice skates for sneakers and became a star at St. Michaels University School.
It all came together for Nash in his senior season when he nearly averaged a triple-double of 21.3 points, 11.2 assists and 9.1 rebounds per contest in leading the private boarding school team to the British Columbia AAA title in 1991-92. On top of that, he was named the province’s Player of the Year.
Despite his great high-school career, no American Universities recruited Nash, except for Santa Clara University, who had not appeared in the NCAA Tournament in five years.
That all changed when Nash joined the team as he lead the Broncos to the West Coast Conference (WCC) in his freshmen season. In the tournament, the Broncos upset the No. 2 ranked Arizona Wildcats of the opening round thanks to six straight free throws by Nash in the final 30 seconds of the contest. The dream season ended in the next round as the Broncos were defeated by the Temple University Owls.
After a disappointing 1993-94 season where the Broncos were just 5-7 in the WCC, the bounced back the next season lead by Nash, who was named the Conference Player of the Year. The team were ousted by the Mississippi State Bulldogs in the tournament.
The Broncos had another solid season the following year and Nash became the first back-to-back WCC Player of the Year since four-time NBA champion, Santa Clara alum and current New York Knicks assistant coach Kurt Rambis.
In the NCAA Tournament, the No. 10 seeded Broncos upset the No. 7 seeded Maryland Terrapins as Nash led the way with 28 points. The Broncos season ended at the hands of the Kansas Jayhawks.
Nash would finish his collegiate career as Santa Clara’s all-time leader in assists with 510; free-throw percentage (.862) and in three-pointers made (263) and attempted (656). He today remains third on the school’s all-time scoring list with 1,689 and holds the single-season record for free throw percentage in a season, which Nash accomplished in his senior year of 1995-96 as he shot .894 percent.
In September 2006, became the first student-athlete in Santa Clara history to have his jersey (No. 11) retired.
As mentioned earlier, Nash was selected at No. 15 of that summer’s NBA draft by the Suns.
He played a supporting role in his first three seasons in the Phoenix behind star lead guards Kevin Johnson, Sam Cassell and then Kidd.
Nash’s career would take shape when he was dealt to the Mavericks following the 1998 NBA draft.
After a rough 1999-00 season, where he averaged just 8.6 points per game and 4.9 assists, Nash averaged 15.6, 17.9, 17.7 and 14.5 points per contest the following four seasons and the Dallas Mavericks won no less than 50 games during those seasons.
Unfortunately Nash, fellow All-Stars Dirk Nowitzki and Michael Finley, could not lead the Mavericks to the championship as their season ended three times in the Western Conference Semifinals and once in the Western Conference Finals.
After the 2003-04 season, Nash became a free agent. He wanted to stay in Dallas, but owner Marc Cuban did want to sign a 30-year-old Nash at the time to a long-term deal when he had $50 million in combined salary into Antoine Walker, Finley, Nowitzki and Antawn Jamison.
Nash’s former team the Suns offered him a six-year deal worth $63 million and he took the deal.
In his second stint with the Suns, Nash went from an All-Star to a household name. He also brought out the greatness of Shawn Marion, Joe Johnson and Amar’e Stoudemire and ran Head Coach Mike D’Antoni’s famed “Seven Seconds or Less” up-tempo offense to perfection as the Suns produced a 62-20 record, the best in the league in 2004-05.
Nash won his first MVP Award of his career as he averaged 15.5 points and 11.5 assists per game, which lead the NBA. He shot 50.2 percent from the floor, 43.1 percent from three-point range and 88.7 percent from the free throw line. He became the first Canadian to ever win MVP and the third point guard to ever win the award joining Hall of Famer Bob Cousy and Earvin “Magic” Johnson.
In the playoffs, the Suns swept the Memphis Grizzlies 4-0 in the opening round. In the Semis, they defeated Nash’s former team, the Mavericks 4-2, but lost to the eventual NBA champion Spurs 4-1 in the Western Conference Finals.
The Suns went 54-28 the next season, winning their second straight Pacific Division title and Nash won his second straight MVP Award averaging a career-high of 18.8 points and 10.5 assists on 51.2 percent from the field, 43.9 percent from three-point range and 92.1 percent from the charity stripe, which lead the NBA. After defeating the Lakers and Los Angeles Clippers in seven games respectably in the first two rounds, the Suns lost in the Conference again falling to the Mavs in six games.  
In 2006-07, the Suns won 61 games capturing their third straight Division title and the No. 1 Seed in the West for the third year in a row. Nash averaged 18.6 points and 11.6 assists on a career-best 53.2 percent from the floor, 45.5 percent from three-point territory and 89.9 percent from the free throw line. They efforts to win a title would come up short again losing to the Spurs in the Semis 4-2.
The Suns won 55 games in 2007-08, but lost to the Spurs for the third time in the last four seasons, falling in the opening round 4-1, which cost D’Antoni his job.
They missed the playoffs the next season despite a 46-36 record.
The 2009-10 season saw a return of the Suns’ “Seven Seconds or Less” offense under then head coach Alvin Gentry, who took over for Terry Porter midway through the prior season and the Suns won 54 games. Nash averaged 16.5 points and 11.0 assists on 50.7 percent from the field, 42.6 percent from the three-point line and 93.8 percent from the free throw line, which lead the league.
They defeated the Trail Blazers in the first round in six games and swept the Spurs in the Conference Semis. For the third time though in six seasons, the Suns lost in the Conference Finals, this time to the eventual NBA champion Lakers in six games.
Changes to the roster over the next two seasons weakened the Suns and they missed the playoffs.
This past Saturday, the NBA said goodbye to one of the best floor generals to ever step on the hardwood. This man for nearly a decade with the Mavericks and in his second tour of duty with the Suns led the best offenses in the league.  
He showed the value of having a team on the court who can space the floor with consistent shooting on the floor. The ability to have a team that can make and take three-pointers at the drop of a hat.
He has had a major influence on many of the NBA’s lead guards like Stephen Curry of the Golden State Warriors and Kyrie Irving of the Cleveland Cavaliers.
That greatness came from a never ending noise to the grindstone hard work, dedication and relentless determination that not only made himself great, but every teammate that took the floor with him and every coach that coach him.
Fellow Canadian, three-time NBA champion with the Lakers and NBATV analyst Rick Fox said during NBATV’s “Gametime” on Saturday that Nash is “Canada’s greatest basketball player ever.”
Not many players get a chance to leave the game on their own terms. Whether it is not being able to finish their career with a certain team or not being able to win the ultimate prize. Some can deal with it better than others and Nash is one that is not fazed by the fact he did not lead the Suns, Mavericks or Lakers to a championship.
“That’s fine. That’s fair game. I don’t hide from that. I didn’t win a championship,” Nash said to Stein.
“I don’t get caught up in legacy or where I fit in. That’s never the reason I play the game. I always play the game for the moment. For the opportunity. The challenge. To try to get better and transform myself into a better player.”
He started off as any Canadian. Playing soccer and hockey. He then found basketball he used relentless determination and commitment to be the best collegiate player in the country and then one of the best basketball players on the planet. He became a multiple All-Star, multiple All-NBA selection and a two-time MVP. More than anything else, he showed what a focused mined mixed in with tremendous talent and never giving up can do. He might not won a championship on the hardwood, but Steve Nash performed, worked and conducted himself like one.
Information, quotations and statistics are courtesy of 3/22/15 1 a.m. edition of “NBA Tonight” on ESPN 2 with Cassidy Hubbarth and Bruce Bowen; 3/22/15 1 a.m. NBATV’s “Gametime” with Jared Greenberg, Vinny Del Negro and Rick Fox, report from Vince Cellini;;;

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