How Steve Nash Made the Leap
Posted: Feb. 17, 2012
There has never been another NBA All-Star like Steve Nash.
Over the years, it’s been well-chronicled that he was only offered one scholarship to play college basketball, was drafted out of a tiny Division I school and was the first Canadian player to make a major impact on the NBA. But Steve’s story is much more than that.
It’s even more than the fact that he’s performing at an incredibly high level at such an advanced age for an NBA player; widely considered ancient by point guard standards. And it’s even more than the fact that he’s doing all of this without ever having a 44-inch vertical leap or an Olympic sprinter’s speed.
No other NBA superstar has ever had the career arc that Nash has had. It wasn’t until he was 28 years-old and had already put in six seasons in the NBA that he made the first of his eight All-Star appearances; which is a fact that is odd in and of itself. However, by being selected to play in last month’s 2012 All-Star Game at the age of 38, his career officially entered the Bermuda Triangle.
“I was trying to think of anybody whose career has blossomed after about their seventh or eighth year in the league and I don’t know anybody who can even come close to what he’s done,” Suns Head Coach Alvin Gentry said.
The only other players to ever make an All-Star Game at 38 years-old or older were Michael Jordan, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Karl Malone. But in contrast to Nash, Jordan was first named an All-Star at 21, Abdul-Jabbar was named one at 22 and Malone made his first appearance at the ripe old age of 24.
So that means that Nash began his most productive seasons four years later than any of those superstars, and at least five years later than most NBA players. While most players enter their prime around 25 and exit it around 31, Nash not only entered his a lot later, but has extended his a lot longer.
“I’m not surprised by the way that he’s playing,” Gentry said. “I’ve seen him now for eight years and there hasn’t been much of a drop off, if there has been any at all.”
The popular Malcolm Gladwell book, Outliers, talks about anomalies like Nash. In fact, the statistical definition for an outlier is “one that appears to deviate markedly from other members of the sample in which it occurs.”
That definition pretty much epitomizes Nash and his late-budding career. But the question is: how is that possible? It wasn’t as if his first step became much quicker at 28 or it took him six seasons to add 20 pounds of chiseled muscle. No. For Nash, his career was altered by skill, will and wisdom.
“Well, I wasn’t one of these guys that was heralded since the 10th grade, or a No. 1 pick,” Nash said reflectively. “I had to work to improve my game and get better and better every year until I got to that level.”
The two-time MVP believes that at around 28 years-old, all of the collective modifications made to his training, nutrition, fitness level and mental approach were what allowed him to reach an All-Star level. It was a gradual process of fine-tuning that allowed him to go from the Suns’ third point guard as a rookie to an All-Star in his sixth season.
“I think he’s somebody that came in and didn’t accept some of the labels that were placed upon him,” Suns forward Grant Hill said. “I think people thought he could be good, but I don’t think anyone anticipated him being this good. It takes a certain kind of player that has the intelligence, the belief and the work ethic to not fall into the certain kind of label that’s put upon you.”
One of the factors that Nash points to for his success is simply the era in history that we find ourselves immersed in. During this Information Age, more knowledge has been made available than in any other time in mankind, and Nash has done incredibly well in seeking it out.
Nash only takes a few days off a year from working out.
But after learning in college how proper nutrition affected the body and performance, Nash began to keep his eyes and ears open for new information. It just so happened that during the course of his career, enormous advances have been made in the field of nutrition, which the Suns’ playmaker has greatly embraced. Now, according to teammates, Nash eats 95 percent perfect during the season. And much like his eating habits, his training habits are all done with a singular focus in mind.
“I’m training every day for a purpose,” he said. “I’m not just going to the gym and doing a circuit for the heck of it.”
Nash’s incredible fitness level is well-documented, but the magnitude of it, really isn’t. During the offseason, he will work out two or three times a day, giving some experts concern that he’s overtraining. But he is in such pristine shape that during conditioning drills at training camp this past December, the Suns’ training staff had a difficult time elevating his pulse to where he was enduring a strenuous enough workout.
“I think the condition he gets himself into is second to none,” Gentry said.
Nash is a fanatic about his fitness because he had to be. Diagnosed with a degenerative back issue during his third year in the league, he discovered that he had zero margin for error when it came to his body’s mechanics.
“I think my back issues taught me a lot about the body and movement,” Nash remembered. “That’s when I first met (Nash’s personal physical therapist) Rick Celebrini, who I’ve worked so closely with. So in some ways, it’s been a great thing that’s happened.”
Although he only takes about three days off a year from working out, once Nash reached his 30s, he began taking the summers off from playing pick-up ball. Although, he compulsively practices his shooting, he stays sharp competitively by playing a ton of soccer.
“After playing basketball for 20-some years now, not playing as much basketball in the summer allows my mind, and my body a little bit, to have the desire and the will to get through a season and feel good and strong,” he said. “I think that has been a big factor in allowing me to play this late into my career. Because if you don’t get away for a little bit, I think you lose the passion for it and you’re not going to want to make that sacrifice in the season.”
Although his core strength and hand-eye-coordination are off the charts, it’s readily apparent that much of Nash’s success can be attributed to his psychological makeup.
“He has an awareness of the task at hand,” Hill said. “And his ability to succeed is a talent that can take him places. But it is his intelligence, understanding and an adaptability that has allowed him to consistently excel throughout the years.”
Hill has noted the way his teammate and friend has continued to tinker with his training methods in the five seasons they’ve played together, always looking to adapt to whatever makes him better. In short, that is always Nash’s singular focus.
“If you have the same goal and the same vision, you’re going to do whatever you need to do,” Hill said.
For Gentry, the character attribute that stands out most about his point guard is his cool demeanor.
“He’s an unbelievable competitor,” Coach said. “But there’s also a calmness about him that makes him seem very much in control for the majority of everything that he does.
“I think it allows him to be more stress-free than it would be for another guy in the same situation. I don’t think there’s a whole lot of stress involved in his game or the way he approaches the game, and because of that, I think he’s able to play at a high level and it doesn’t take its toll on him.”
So in order to make a leap to an All-Star level like Nash did and sustain that excellence over a decade, a bevy of variables must be aligned. Sure, it was important for him to be in excellent cardio-vascular condition, improve his shooting and approach nutrition in a scientific manner. But unlike those abilities, the main quality that has made Nash a perennial All-Star player is immeasurable.
Like his teammate Hill alluded to, there are no known instruments that can quantify Nash’s resistance to being labeled. The only thing he ever wanted to be labeled was the best.
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