The second-most famous Canadian to land a starring role on the Los Angeles sporting scene is trying to do something that Wayne Gretzky ultimately could not – help bring a championship to the City of Angels. Gretzky was responsible for broadening the depth and scope of hockey interest in California, but there will be no need for the newest Laker, Victoria’s Steve Nash, to do the same for basketball. The Laker brand is as bullet-proof in Los Angeles as the Yankee brand is in New York.
Here, in L.A., Nash – the two-time NBA most valuable player – is the new ring master of a long-running circus, one that features an eclectic cast of basketball talent. There is the mercurial and sometimes moody Kobe Bryant, who was forced to go it alone offensively for long stretches of last season. There is Pau Gasol, all size and muscle. There is Dwight Howard, who came over from the Orlando Magic in a complicated four-team deal that ultimately cost the Lakers the services of centre Andrew Bynum. And just to keep things interesting, the former Ron Artest, aka Metta World Peace, is there to provide defence and sound bites.
At 38, and in his 16th season, Nash had a chance to sign with the Toronto Raptors this past summer for more money than Los Angeles could offer. Gretzky actually helped the Raptors make their pitch to Nash. Their lives had overlapped for half-a-dozen years in Phoenix, when Nash played for the NBA’s Suns and Gretzky coached the NHL’s Coyotes, two Canadian ex-pats, occasionally crossing paths in the Arizona desert.
“I want to preface this by saying, Wayne helped to recruit me to go [to Toronto],” explained Nash, in an interview about his current life and times, conducted last week at the Lakers training facility.
“They asked him to because they could and because we’re both proud Canadians. Having said that, when I decided to come here, he said, ‘You’re going to love it here and they’re going to love you here. It’s going to be great.’ I consider him a friend and a mentor. He’s been unbelievable to me. We were supposed to hook up a couple of times here and we haven’t – but I’ll see him before too long.”
Ultimately, Nash opted to join the Lakers, after years of running up against them in the playoffs, for two reasons, one professional, one personal. On the opening day of camp, he acknowledged that it was “difficult to think about coming to the Lakers because of the history we had against them. The No. 1 reason I couldn’t pass the opportunity up was my children being so close in Phoenix. Frankly, that was the tipping point in me deciding to come to the Lakers.”
By moving to Los Angeles, Nash is a short flight away from his children, who are living with his ex-wife, back in Phoenix. The commute is far more manageable than if he’d moved to the East Coast or north of the border.
On a Lakers team that had a lot of trouble putting up points last year – at one time, they went 13 consecutive games without scoring 100 points, a record for the shot-clock era – Nash’s presence is expected to make their offence far more multidimensional.
“You’re talking about a possible top-50 all-time greatest player,” assessed Lakers coach Mike Brown. “We want to give him the keys to the car and say ‘Hey, go ahead and drive us.’ He’ll have the opportunity to come down the floor and play pick-and-roll every time he wants to, or to go to some other action, where he may give it up and then get it back. His shooting is basically second to none – either off the dribble, or from three, or from range.
“His intelligence is very high, so he has a great feel for what you’re trying to do as a coaching staff – and it can translate very easily for everybody else because he’s putting them in the right spots on the floor. I can’t say enough about the guy. He’s going to bring a lot to the table – some of the stuff that we were missing last year and some of the stuff, he can bring it a little better than what we had.”
On this day, in the final 15 minutes of practice, with a scrimmage against the second team under way, the chemistry is slowly starting to show. Once, Nash – wearing a long-sleeved black T-shirt under a Lakers’ practice jersey – drives down the lane, draws a double team and dishes off to Howard for an easy bucket. That ability to play in traffic is what made Nash a two-time NBA all-star and clearly the greatest basketball talent ever to emerge from Canada.
And throughout a career that began in 1996, Nash’s championship path has constantly crossed the Lakers. The Suns, in 2006, eliminated the Lakers in seven games; the Suns, in 2007, knocked off L.A. in five. But in 2010, Phoenix lost the conference final to Los Angeles. So there is lots of history to overcome and Nash is the first to acknowledge it: “It’s definitely different. It’s different colours. It’s a different city, different team, different offence, different defence, coaches, players, the style of play – there’s a lot of adjustments for me. But I’m enjoying it. I’m having a blast living in southern California playing for the Lakers.
“I feel at home. I try to live pretty simply. I try to get my rest and live pretty quietly. It’s a great place to live, a beautiful part of the world.”
According to Gasol, Nash is fitting in well with the Lakers.
“He’s such a nice guy and a classy guy, just so talented and so gifted,” Gasol said. “He’s a great point guard. He sees the court extremely well. He pushes the ball very well. He’s very unselfish. I mean, he’s a player who will give us balance on the offensive end. He’s another great leader. He’s going to help us a lot.”
So even though the Lakers are a work in progress at the moment (the Lakers lost their first seven exhibition games), Nash has played long enough to know that patience will be required, while they sort things out. Bryant has been in and out of the lineup, because of a variety of ailments. Howard played a game on Sunday and then sat out Wednesday. Instead of two-fifths of their re-imagined Dream Team, Jodie Meeks and Robert Sacre were in the starting lineup.
Ultimately, teams grow and develop over the course of an 82-game regular season and then need to be healthy and in sync come playoff time.
“There are glimpses at both ends of the court of how good we can be,” said Nash. “For me, people can get really carried away looking at the starting five. This is about a team. We’ve got to find combinations. We got to find a bench, and rotations, and a lot of different aspects of the game that fall outside of your starting five. It’s a team first.
“We need time, just time. We need to inch our way to the start line and we need to win games out of the gate, even though we’ll be far from a finished product.”
The starting line is Tuesday, at home, against the Dallas Mavericks. The finish line, they hope, is sometime in June, when they try to get back to the championship after a two-year absence.
Nash has fought back problems in recent years, but says health-wise, at the age of 38, he feels “as good as he’s ever felt.”
But he is cautious too about the effects of Father Time (and in fact, has used that expression, Father Time, quite a bit these past few weeks, most notably to explain how he’s fending off his effects).
“I have to work hard to continue to play at a high level at this age,” Nash said. “You can’t take any short cuts. So while I do feel good, it’s a very tenuous position because you have to stay healthy and you have to stay effective, so it takes a lot of work. But I just love playing the game and being able to do this for a living for at least these next three seasons is phenomenal, so I’m willing to make the sacrifices and if I enjoy it and we’re successful, it’s going to be amazing.
“To have to go out there every day and either put up or shut up, that’s something I still enjoy doing.”