There’s been a lot of ink spilled in the last week about the retirement of Canada’s finest-to-date basketball export Steve Nash.
For much of the basketball press the focus is deservedly twofold. First, the numbers. Nash retires as one of the greatest shooters to ever play the game. He is the greatest free-throw shooter in the history of the sport, and one of two players to average more than 90 percent at the line for their careers. And as Bruce Arthur notes in his must-read column on Nash’s career, Nash recorded four seasons shooting at least 50 per cent from the field, 40 percent from three-point range and 90 per cent from the line. That’s happened only 10 times in NBA history and Nash did it four times. He won two MVP awards and finished third all-time in assists. On stats alone, Nash is a surefire hall-of-famer.
Second, and this is even more important, Nash is responsible for a tectonic shift in the way NBA basketball is played. Throughout the 1990s the game was dominated by huge 7-footers posting up, or hero-ball wannabes trying to dribble circles around the defense. The result was one guy with the ball and four others standing around.
During his years with the Phoenix Suns, Nash’s teams shattered that mold with a frenetic pace, ceaseless passing and flurries of three-pointers and dunks (a handful of rule changes by the league also helped). This style has been widely copied, and combined with a wave of advanced statistics, is the new normal: ball movement is vital, dunks and free throws preferred, and three-pointers are valued over two-point jump shots. For those interested in the X’s and O’s of all this, Grantland has an excellent piece that explains Nash’s influence on the game.
But the Nash story that hit closest to home was the one that Deneze Nakehk’o shared with Loren McGinnis on CBC North the other day. In 1997, Nakehk’o was a member of the NWT’s basketball team taking part in the North American Indigenous Games in Victoria, Nash’s hometown. Nash, coming off his first season in the NBA (where he was buried on the Suns bench behind Kevin Johnson and Jason Kidd, two other legendary point guards), was in the stands taking in the action. He graciously chatted and posed for photos with Team NWT. It’s a great story and the entire interview is worth a listen.
Nakehk’o’s story is just a tiny example of how Steve Nash helped build the sport in this country. Canada has always been an also-ran in international basketball, but that figures to be changing, with a growing crop of NBA and international pros. And while in past years it’s been a tough sell convincing our best players to suit up for the national team, Nash’s role as general manager of the senior men’s team has made that job easier.
Look, this country will always be a hockey country first and foremost. Which is fine: that sport is important to our national identity and, in international competition, a tremendous national unifier. But those of us who, for whatever reason, have fallen in love with basketball and the grace, intelligence and power of the sport when it’s played at its best no longer feel like outcasts in Canada’s sporting landscape.
The youth basketball camps that bear Nash’s name take place all over the country, including all three territories. His pro career took off around the same time Vince Carter was blowing minds with the Toronto Raptors, whose (albeit fleeting) success inspired a wave of young players from the Toronto area.
Some of those players are now pros themselves. There are now 10 Canadians on NBA rosters and one of them, last year’s first overall pick Andrew Wiggins, looks to be so good that he’s already being dubbed Maple Jordan.
This season there are more than 100 Canadians from seven provinces playing NCAA ball. Most won’t make the NBA or even play professionally, but some will, and they’ll contribute to a growing Canadian imprint on the game.
A common refrain about retiring sports greats is that we’ll never see their like again. The best part about Steve Nash’s legacy is that it’s possible we will.