The Canadian Kid
Originally Published: Sept./Oct. 1996
The recollections are a bit hazy. The memories a tad worn. But one thing everyone remembers is Steve and Martin Nash going after each other in the middle of a game.
The two brothers were skating down the ice. One had the puck, the other called for the pass. And called. And called. And called again. Suddenly the sticks hit the ice and the siblings skated right for each other, fists ablaze.
“The puck just kind of skidded down the ice to the goal keeper while they were having a row in the middle of the ice,” laughs John Nash, the boys’ father.
No one remembers who refused to pass or who started the fight. No one’s even quite sure what age they were at the time. John says Steven was probably in third or fourth grade. Maybe fifth. Whatever grade, he was two years older than Martin. It didn’t matter. It wasn’t the first or the last time their competition would turn to a scuffle, it was just the first time it happened during a real game.
“Everyday we would play some sort of sport or game and a lot of times the games would just end in fights, sometimes verbal, sometimes physical,” says Steve. “There were never any big brawls, he knew I was bigger than him, so he just went away.” Through the years, the two have become close, “As good I think, as a brother’s relationship can be,” Martin says. But now there are no more family feuds, for the two have gone their separate ways, sports wise. Martin is now a 20-year-old professional soccer player with the Vancouver 86ers and Steve is a 22-year-old rookie in the National Basketball Association, and the newest member of YOUR Phoenix Suns.
In the sixth grade, Steve Nash and his schoolmates were assigned to write a report entitled “Me.” The students were supposed to write about their lives and what they wanted to do with their futures.
Stephen, who played several sports in his hometown of Victoria, British Columbia, pinned a photo button of himself in a hockey uniform to the front of his report. Inside, he wrote about his sports and how he wanted to go to college one day on an athletic scholarship. And after that, he was going to be a professional athlete.
His childhood dreams were of little surprise to his parents though, after all, their first son had always loved sports. In fact, all three of their kids enjoyed participating in sports and still do. Joann, Steve’s 16-year-old little sister, is on her high school soccer and basketball teams.
But as their mother Jean Nash admits, her children’s interest in sports may have grown from the seeds she and her husband planted in them when they were young. Steve, for example, was given a soccer ball for his first birthday.
“We’ve encouraged them from an early age,” John explains. “We felt it was a good way for them to meet people and develop their social skills as well as their sporting skills. Also it kept them off street corners. You know, kids idle hands are the devils playground. We intended that their hands never be idle.” Stephen John Nash was born on February 7, 1974 in Johannesburg, South Africa, where his father played semi-pro soccer. Soon after, the Nash’s, who were originally from England, decided to emigrate, for Jean didn’t want to raise her son in a country afflicted with apartheid.
The family ended up in Regina, the capital of Saskatchewan, Canada, where the winters were so freezing, they had to play baseball indoors with their 18-month-old son — using imaginary bats and balls of course. But as he got older, imaginary equipment wasn’t good enough, he wanted big boys’ toys.
“We’d go to the store when he was really little and I’d want to buy him Legos and Fischer Price and I’d say ‘Oh, let’s try and get this down the road. We’ll save up and get this,’ like a Fischer Price garage or farm or something and he’d say ‘No way,’” Jean recalls. “If it wasn’t a bat, a ball, a puck, a racket, something to do with sports, he always was like that. He’d be really happy if you’d go and buy him a 50 cent ball or a 10 cent ball, whatever, and that’s all he wanted.”
When John was offered a new job in the much warmer Vancouver, the Nash’s quickly packed up and moved, but soon after relocated again, this time to Victoria, a small city on the southeast tip of Vancouver Island, in the province of British Columbia. There, Steve’s parents signed him up to play soccer and tee ball at the age of five. In elementary school, he took up hockey, lacrosse and also chess, in which he won several championships. But in fourth grade, he decided to give up the game of checkmates after he made an opponent cry.
“When Stephen came home, he wasn’t worried about the winning or losing, he was upset that he’d beaten this kid and the kid had cried,” his dad says. “I don’t think he played after he made that kid cry. He’s very sensitive. I mean, it’s kind of unusual to find somebody who’s competitive and sensitive at the same time.”
What was perhaps even more unusual was the child’s determination to improve in his different sporting endeavors. Both his parents can tell story after story about how hard their son would practice. And practice. And practice some more.
There was the time John found the 10-year-old collapsed from exhaustion in the backyard after he’d juggled a soccer ball with his feet more than 600 times. Or all the days they would look out their back window and see him shooting hundreds of free throws on the court at the junior high school behind their house, just so he could figure out his shooting percentage from the charity strife.
So when Steve came home one day after playing a new game with his friends in the eighth grade and told his mother he was going to play in the NBA, she didn’t just nod, smile and give him an encouraging pat on the back like many parents would.
“I didn’t doubt him,” she says. “Whether he’d make it or not you don’t know, but I knew he was going to give it a heck of a try, because he works hard for what he gets.”
Even though the game of basketball was invented in Canada and the first game in NBA history was held in Toronto, growing up in the Great White North was by no means a leg up for those with pro aspirations. That is unless those pro aspirations were of playing pro hockey.
Since that first game 50 years ago this November, only twelve players born in Canada have ever made it to the NBA. Rick Fox of the Celtics and Bill Wennington of the Bulls, are the only two currently in the league, but both played their high school careers in the U.S..
No, Canada was in no way a hoops haven, and Steve knew better than to tell but a select few of his dream, for he was afraid that people would laugh at him and put him down.
“He always told me he was going to, so I just believed what he told me,” his sister says. “When he started talking about it, I was too young to know any better. But for a while there, I was kind of wondering. After Sports Illustrated and stuff and he started to get more attention, I didn’t think there was anyway he couldn’t.”
The article in SI, Steve’s baby sister refers to, was in the December 11, 1995 issue. The feature which included a photo of his old bedroom wallpapered in posters of Isiah Thomas, Michael Jordan and his other sports idols, documented the challenges he faced of getting noticed, first by college recruiters in the United States and then by those in the basketball know, for Santa Clara was a school known for its academics not its athletic programs. But Steve’s toughest challenge came more than a year before his high school coach sent out even the first of dozens of letters to university’s about the talented senior.
During his junior year at Mt. Douglas High School, Steve’s soccer team won the state championship in the fall and he was named the Province States’ MVP. But because he was absent from class time and time again as his team competed, several teachers refused to allow him to retake missed exams and his grades subsequently plummeted. His parents, extremely worried, decided they would enroll him in a private school.
“If we weren’t going to get the support from teachers at the school, we decided that we had to go somewhere else,” Jean explains. “We wanted Stephen to get a college education — a university education. We knew he wanted to go to play a sport, but we were more interested in him getting a degree.”
Dec. 1, 1990, Steve began school at St. Michael’s University School, but because of the mid-year transfer, was not allowed to play basketball at his new school.
“I just loved basketball so much and played so much and worked so hard — to be punished for transferring schools — it was a difficult year,” he says. “But it was something I had to do. I wouldn’t be where I am today if I hadn’t made that move. It’s that simple.”
But it really wasn’t quite that simple. Steve’s friends and teammates at his old school gave him a hard time for deserting them and the media devoured the story because he was the Province’s best player and there were those who claimed he had been recruited by St. Michael’s. “Steve Nash Changes Allegiances,” the local newspaper read.
Steve didn’t let the allegations or ban from his favorite sport halt his hopes. In fact, the forced sabbatical may have helped, as he had more time to study and improve his scholastic skills.
“When he came in, he lacked a lot of the fundamentals,” says Bill Greenwell, who was Nash’s math teacher as well as the assistant coach of St. Michael’s basketball team. “It was quite obvious that he hadn’t put much effort into it. But he made a decision when he came here to our place that academics were going to be a fairly high priority to him and he had a lot of catching up to do, not just in mathematics but in his sciences and all the other courses. He was behind in all of them and he worked hard.”
The teenager went in for extra tutoring before and after school, and on more than one occasion, even spent his lunch break studying. He wasn’t going to let algebra, trigonometry and physics keep him from getting into a university in the States. He wasn’t going to let anything stop him.
“He was just really intense,” says Martin, who was always a grade below his big brother. “He always wanted to improve in everything he did. I remember days when he’d just dribble the basketball to school. He’d play between classes, at recess, in the gym; every chance he’d get, he’d be out playing.”
After working on his game and building his confidence during pick-up games with the Canadian National Team his junior year, Nash was ready to explode his final season of high school ball with hopes of getting noticed by colleges south of the border.
“He came into our school, into a really well-established, dominant athletic group, a team that would’ve been very successful in its own right and immediately became the leader,” says Ian Hyde-Lay, the coach who inherited the point guard transfer. “The tougher the situation, the more he wanted to be right in there taking the last shot or whatever. There was just something about him. There was just kind of a sparkle in his eyes that just tells you he’s a little different than most guys.”
A little different? How about a lot different. Steve nearly averaged a triple double his senior season putting up digits better than 21 points, 11 handouts and nine boards. But it wasn’t enough.
Hyde-Lay and his assistants wrote letter after letter to college coaches across America on behalf of their senior phenom as his final season was coming to a close. But, letter after letter of rejection followed. Thanks, but no thanks.
“It was frustrating because I was watching college basketball on TV all the time thinking that I could play with this guy and that guy, that I could play at certain schools and no one would ever show any interest,” Steve says.
Finally, Santa Clara head coach Dick Davey made a trek North to take a look at the young Canadian. And once he got there, he took another look, around the gym to make sure there were no other scouts around waiting to stake a claim to his new found golden boy.
“After seeing him I was nervous as hell just hoping that no one else would see him,” Davey admits. “It didn’t take a nobel prize winner to figure out this guy’s pretty good. It was just a case of hoping that none of the big names came around.”
They didn’t and so when the time came that it was legal for recruiters to talk with high school players, Davey made his pitch, but it wasn’t quite what Nash had expected. “You’ve got to be the worst defensive player I’ve ever seen,” he told Steve and his family as they all walked out of an arena in Vancouver together after a game.
The coach and the student then went and sat down privately at a nearby coffee shop. Santa Clara was the only school recruiting Steve and there may never have been another. Yet the senior was quick to attack the coach on his observation. “Why do you think I’m such a bad defensive player?” he quizzed. “What don’t you like about my ‘D’?” After hearing the coaches view of some of his weaknesses, Steve boldly and confidently stated “Well, it’s going to change then.”
“Just the tough mindedness about him as a kid was really kind of refreshing,” says Davey, who was an assistant coach at SCU for 15 years before taking over the head coaching reigns in ‘92. “He’s demanding of himself. He doesn’t like to fail in anything he does. We had another one like him in Rambis. Different position, different guy, different skills and all that, but they’re the two most deranged players I’ve ever been around as far as wanting to see themselves improve.”
If Davey didn’t realize that his new recruit would one day end up wearing a Phoenix Suns uniform like former Santa Clara products Kurt Rambis, Nick Vanos and Dennis Awtrey, it wouldn’t take him long to at least see Nash’s potential for a future career in the NBA.
Although coming off the bench his frosh season, Nash stepped up in the NCAA Tourney and led his No. 15 seeded Broncos to the upset of the tournament, defeating No. 2 seed Arizona by knocking down six straight free throws in the last 31 seconds, sprinting to the line for each one. Practicing alone late into the nights at the school’s gym and dribbling a tennis ball around campus for coordination, Steve worked hard on his game while at Santa Clara.
Over the next three year in the states, the point guard would take his team to the big dance twice more and would be named the WCC Player of the Year in 1995 and 1996. Along the way he set a number of school records and led the conference in both scoring and assists his junior year, an achievement first accomplished by Gonzaga’s John Stockton more than a decade earlier.
While many including Davey compared Nash to the Utah Jazz All-Star, there were still doubters and questions about his game. Was he quick enough to be able to defend other point guards at the next level? Sure he was a great shooter, but would he be able to get his shot off? Was he athletic enough to compete in the NBA?
Despite a strained hamstring, the guard had an impressive showing at the Nike Desert Classic in April silencing many of his critics. But anyone who had seen him during pick-up games last summer in San Francisco, would’ve know what to expect way before he would be named to the Classic’s All-Tournament team. It was in the Bay area, that Nash would get his first tastes of the NBA, in the forms of the Mavericks’ Jason Kidd and the Sonics’ Gary Payton.
“Last summer it was new to him, he had never worked out that kind of way against us, but he was OK,” says Payton. “I think he’s got a lot of skills. He’s a real, true point guard to me because he can pass the ball. He can play defense too. He’s going to be OK.”
The fans in Victoria, as well as Canada, who have grown in number as Stephen has grown in age, believe their hometown hero will be more than “OK,” in the big leagues. There’s even a book about his journey entitled “Long Shot” in the final editing stages, that will be released in October.
“He’s always been kind of a — what would you call him — kind of a star here in Victoria,” his mom says. “He’s been on TV so many times it’s crazy.
Everybody’s always looked up to him because he’s done so well. It’s weird to think that everybody’s so proud of him, not only us.”
Only a month after graduating with a degree in sociology, Steve made his family, school and country even prouder when he finally reached his childhood goal of making it to the NBA.
The world famous Butchart Gardens and Royal British Columbia Museum were likely slower on the afternoon of June 26, and all of the ferry’s and double-decker busses were likely busier as residents of Victoria scattered to the local sports bars to catch the satellite broadcast of the draft, live from New Jersey.
There was also quite a flurry around town eight picks into the draft as those watching at home suddenly leapt off their coaches and headed out their front doors.
“They only showed the first hour and after that, they cut off and put on the Simpsons or something like that,” Jean reports. “Everyone was so mad, so everybody had to rush out to the pub.”
Luckily, the group of about 30 of Steve’s family members, friends and teammates didn’t have to scurry about looking for a place to watch the on-goings, for they were all in attendance at the Continental Arena when NBA Commissioner David Stern made it official. “With the 15th pick in the 1996 NBA Draft, the Phoenix Suns select... Steve Nash.”
Meanwhile out west in Phoenix, the announcement by Suns assistant coach Danny Ainge was met with a storm of jeers and catcalls from fans gathered at the America West Arena who knew little of the 6-3, 195 pound Canadian.
“I don’t look like I’m going to be a tremendous basketball player on appearance,” the rookie says with a smile. “I probably would’ve booed myself too, but I’m going to be a really good player and I’m going to help the team a lot. I have a lot of faith in myself and hopefully they’ll enjoy watching me play. They want to win and I wouldn’t want fans who just sat back and didn’t care, so I’m excited to be in a passionate city.”
Most college athletes who make it to the pros, no matter what the sport, are just as excited about their new-found wealth as their new city and new team. But Steve, who asked his father to “just give him an allowance,” doesn’t want to worry about the money.
“I mean, sure I want to spoil myself a little bit,” he said after signing a three-year contract with the club. “But I’m not the type of person that material things will ever make me overwhelmingly happy.
“I’ll probably just get some furnishings for my parents house first of all. They have this little rinky-dink TV and you have to turn it on by putting little tweezers in the whole because the knob’s broke. So I’ll probably get some things for my parents and my brother and sister’s comfort first and then we’ll figure something out for me.”
The first thing Steve plans to figure out is where to go from here. He graduated high school. He made it to a university in the United States. He graduated from college and now he’s made it to the NBA.
He knows the journey has just begun and it won’t be easy. He will likely see limited minutes in his first year, as he will be coming off the bench in back-up role to Suns’ captain Kevin Johnson. But at least he’s found the right road and from now on will be an arrow pointing the direction for other kids in Canada who, when are given an assignment to write a paper about what they would like to do with their life, they can proudly answer “I want to be a professional athlete. An athlete like Steve Nash.”