The summer of 1996 was perhaps one of the most tumultuous times for the Phoenix Suns since a series of drug-related indictments in 1987. After their shortest playoff appearance in five years, injuries forced star guard Kevin Johnson to mull retirement while former NBA MVP Charles Barkley was asking for a trade (in his usual direct manner). It was a sobering time for a franchise just three years removed from faltering in The Finals.
With no clear-cut solution presenting itself just yet, the Suns entered the 1996 NBA Draft armed with only the 15th and 43rd overall picks. Then-owner Jerry Colangelo knew who he wanted to get if the dominoes fell the right way.
“As things were coming to a head at the Draft, Kobe Bryant was a player that we had considerable interest in,” Colangelo said. “It appeared to us that there was a great shot at him falling to us.”
Phoenix’s longtime nemesis, however, also had its eyes on Bryant. The Lakers executed a trade with the Charlotte Hornets to move up in the Draft and take the high-school prospect, leaving the Suns with their original depth chart at No. 15. With Johnson’s future in doubt and with promising young forward Michael Finley in tow, the Suns' next decision was an easy one.
“Despite who was up on the board in terms of position,” Colangelo said, “we felt that the best player available to us was Steve Nash.”
Suns fans didn’t agree. They booed the pick when it was announced. They only remembered the nondescript, 6-foot-3 guard from Santa Clara’s trouncing of the University of Arizona in the 1993 NCAA Tournament.
“I don’t look like I’m going to be a tremendous basketball player on appearance,” Nash said good-naturedly after the Draft. “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.
While the Suns felt they had acquired a keeper in Nash, they were not necessarily expecting legendary stuff from the under-the-rim kid from Canada.
“At that time, the Suns felt that Steve was a player they could bring along,” remembers longtime Suns radio man Al McCoy. “They didn’t know what his capabilities were going to be.”
Whatever Nash’s abilities at the time, they weren’t enough to blunt the trauma of the post-Barkley era. Phoenix’s franchise face was gone, traded to the Houston Rockets for a package of lesser talented role players. The Suns' 0-13 start to 1996-97 proved the team needed to find a new star to right the ship. Luckily for the Suns, one had just become available.
The Dallas Mavericks hadn’t been relevant in nearly a decade, and their woes were continuing well into '96-97. This was despite the presence of Jason Kidd, 23, who was fresh off his first All-Star season. The Mavericks were owned, managed and coached by an entirely new staff, one that felt a change in direction was needed.
Phoenix leapt at the chance to acquire Kidd, who was just one year older than Nash and already an established star. They dealt Finley, Sam Cassell, A.C. Green and a second-round pick to get him.
The cost for Kidd was steep, but perhaps even more so for Nash. Despite Phoenix’s propensity to play multi-guard lineup, Nash found it difficult to earn minutes behind Kidd, Johnson and Rex Chapman. By the end of the 1997-98 season, it was clear that Nash would remain a backup with the Suns.
So when Nash approached Colangelo and asked for a better opportunity via trade, he couldn’t help but understand.
“I think you have to capacity to do that Steve,” Colangelo told him frankly. “Let’s see what we can do.”
Less than two years after acquiring Kidd from Dallas, the Suns sent Kidd’s backup to the Mavs in exchange for Pat Garrity, Martin Muursepp, Bubba Wells and a first-round pick that became future All-Star Shawn Marion.
Transition game in Dallas
Nash may have known he had the talent to be a starter, but unearthing that talent on a starter’s basis proved even harder than guarding Kidd and Johnson every day in practice. The burden was also physical, for Nash’s back was beginning to experience the first throes of pain that would threaten him for the rest of his career.
Mavericks fans reached their limit with their point guard of the future on March 24, 1999. For reasons they could not understand, Dallas had just signed Nash to a multi-year extension. This was despite the fact that Nash was averaging an abysmal 7.9 points per game on 36.3 percent shooting.
That night, against (of all people) Barkley and the Houston Rockets, Nash was booed by his own fans. Hard.
Nash didn’t understand any of it, including his own lack of success.
"But I've worked hard," Nash said afterwards. "I really have. I don't know what else to do. I've never seen anything quite like that."
The Mavericks, however, continued to back Nash and several of his former teammates knew they would be rewarded for that faith.
“We had a glimpse. This guy was good,” Johnson said. “If he could ever put it together out there on the court when he got minutes, it was going to be over.”
Slowly, it began to happen. Nash began using preventative exercises to keep his health intact. His efficiency increased. So did his production. By the end of the 2003-04 season, the former Suns backup and once-booed Maverick was a two-time All-Star, a fan favorite and a key reason behind Dallas’ return to relevance.
Now, Nash was also a free agent.
In April of 1988, Colangelo was seated at a Board of Governors dinner that would change the fabric of the NBA. Then-commissioner David Stern was speaking, and the subject at hand was free agency -- specifically, unrestricted free agency.
Colangelo, now 78, still recalls the tense energy in the room. He wanted to finish the overhaul he had started with his team just two months earlier, when he traded All-Star forward Larry Nance to the Cleveland Cavaliers for a package of players including Johnson and a first-round pick in the 1988 draft that became Dan Majerle. All he needed now was an established star to lift Phoenix from its longest playoff drought since the early 1970s.
“As it was being discussed,” Colangelo recalled, “I just took a view of the room. I remember looking at Barry Ackerley, who was the owner of the Seattle SuperSonics. I just caught his eye for a moment. Almost instantaneously, I thought in the back of my mind, ‘I’m sorry Barry, but you just lost Tom Chambers.’ ”
Colangelo made good on that mental promise less than three months later when he, coach Cotton Fitzsimmons and assistant coach Paul Westphal put on one of the NBA’s first-ever no-holds-barred free-agent recruiting pitches.
“At the stroke of midnight, when it was officially possible to reach out, we were on the phone,” Colangelo said. “We were on our way to L.A. the next day. While I’m there at [agent] Howard Slusher’s home – he had also represented Paul Westphal, who was our coach – I basically said to Slusher, 'What do you want? I want him in Phoenix. What is it that you want and we have a contract.' ”
Rising anew in land of Rising Sun
Colangelo signed Chambers in '88, the first unrestricted free-agent signing in NBA history, and that move helped the Suns to a 27-game improvement in 1988-89 as they reached the West finals. Sixteen years later, Colangelo put on another full-court press for an established veteran he hoped would return the struggling Suns to their former glory.
“What stays the same [in free agency] is always the requirement to be aggressive,” Colangelo said. “Secondly to be the first in the door. The early bird gets the worm, so to speak. But you need to be aggressive and stay on target. Those things are consistent.”
The Suns had kept their eye on Nash throughout the 2003-04 season. Much as they had the year before landing Chambers, Phoenix was struggling through an identity crisis. The Suns had talent in the versatile Marion and 21-year-old dunking machine/Rookie of the Year winner Amar'e Stoudemire. However, Kidd was long gone, and his replacement (Stephon Marbury) had been dealt in exchange for the cap space Phoenix was now preparing to use on a different guard altogether.
“There were two players that we had interest in in free agency,” Colangelo remembers. “Steve Nash and [Manu] Ginobili. But we felt that Ginobili for sure was going to stay in Stan Antonio. We had the relationship with Steve.”
That relationship had remained intact despite its six-year separation. Nash knew the Colangelos well as they had been the ones to Draft him. Phoenix had retained Chapman, a former Nash teammate, as a scout. Head athletic trainer Aaron Nelson had become fast friends with Nash during his first stint in the desert.
Though they couldn’t arrange to be the first through Nash’s door (he allowed Dallas that courtesy), the Suns managed to be the first ones on the phone.
Colangelo’s call was first, expressing interest to Nash’s agent. The second call was Chapman’s, and he did get through the door first, albeit in an informal setting before negotiations set in on July 1.
The Suns didn’t mince words or man power. New owner Robert Sarver was in tow. So was general manager Bryan Colangelo. Throw in Chapman, Stoudemire and a plethora of other front office faces, and it was clear to Nash that his old team wanted him back.
He wasn’t sure the Mavericks felt the same way. His earlier meeting with them had produced a less-than-compelling contract offer, one he felt did not match his production, past or future.
“Dallas was kind of hesitant and hadn’t really stepped forward to the financial level that Steve was looking for,” Sarver said. “As we spent the day with him, you could tell he felt good about coming back to Phoenix. We had a nice day with him. At the end he felt he had an obligation to Dallas and gave them a call for a last chance.”
The Mavericks remained conservative with their offer to Nash, who made at least one other important call as he wrestled with the decision.
After a healthy amount of time that kept the Suns contingent on pins and needles, Nash walked back out to greet the biggest recruiting team of his basketball career.
“Okay, I’m a Phoenix Sun,” he said simply.
Over the next eight seasons, Nash and the Suns would make NBA history.
'He always knew who was open'
The moment when each member of the 2004-05 Suns realized that season would be special depends on who you ask.
“It was training camp,” Stoudemire said. “That training camp was spectacular because the environment completely changed. You have great young players like myself, Joe Johnson, Shawn Marion, Leandro Barbosa… we had young guys that were ready to work. Steve fit right in, but to have a true point guard elevated the entire team.”
“When I really thought we probably turned the corner and had something special is when we got into the preseason games and were just dominating some teams,” Sarver said.
What he saw even in informal practices excited then-assistant coach Alvin Gentry, but he hesitated to buy in until the regular season.
“Once the season started and we played about ten games,” Gentry said. “We would run and the other teams would get tired and we would just have these runs in the fourth quarter, very similar to what Golden State does in the third quarter now.”
Nash was at the center of every run, which was often since the Suns were running at a historic pace. They were also running in a way the league had never seen before. They had discarded the notion of starting a traditional center by using Stoudemire in that role. He and Nash became a nearly unstoppable pick-and-roll tandem, while shooters (like Johnson, Barbosa, Raja Bell and others) ran to the 3-point line instead of the rim for open shots on the fast break.
The result was an offensive onslaught that changed the league. Phoenix was at or near the top of the league rankings every season in pace, 3-point shooting and Offensive Rating.
That Nash was the engine of the Suns machine was impossible to ignore.
“Steve would just dissect the defense,” Stoudemire said. “He always knew who was open, where that guy was, where he wanted the ball. We never had to talk about it.”
“I was really, really fortunate to be the athletic trainer and have the front seat,” Nelson said. “I watched Steve throw passes where I was like, ‘What are you doing? Where he is throwing that to?’ It would go right between two guys’ heads right into the hands of Amar’e. He made some of the most unbelievable passes.”
Colangelo still marvels at how Nash repeatedly surprised defenders and onlookers with the angles he was able to find.
“He was a treat to watch,” Colangelo gushed. “To see the combination of he and Stoudemire on the pick and roll was a treat. He continually surprised you with his ability to get things done on the floor the way that he did.”
Volume is easier to appreciate than efficiency. Nash ranks third all-time in the NBA assist annals. Reminders are often needed that he is the career leader in free throw percentage (90.4 percent) and ninth all-time in 3-point accuracy (42.8 percent).
That skill was a dream come true for Stoudemire – and a nightmare for opponents trying to defend what became the most feared pick-and-roll duo in the game.
“Defenses didn’t know what to do,” Stoudemire laughed. “Steve was already such a good shooter. I rolled to the basket so fast, and if they tried to take my roll away, Steve had an open shot and he was a drop-dead shooter.”
Deadly his shot may have been, but it was never Nash’s weapon of choice. Early on in his career -- even during his MVP seasons -- defenses would occasionally make a point of trying to make Nash score instead of pass. The ultimate case study occurred during the 2005 Western Conference semifinals, when Dallas almost encouraged Nash to a 48-point game -- and a Game 4 loss.
In Game 5, the newly minted NBA MVP wrenched the gameplan back to his control. After sinking a 3-pointer with 5.7 seconds remaining to send the game into overtime, Nash finished with a more acceptable 34 points -- along with 13 rebounds and 12 assists. More importantly, Phoenix won the game (and eventually the series).
“He was always capable of doing something,” McCoy reflected. “Whether he had to score, set up teammates for quick hoops – you just felt that the Suns always had the capability of winning the game no matter what was taking the place in the first three quarters.”
Keeping Nash in MVP form
Nelson had vowed to keep Nash healthy, but he knew -- as every trainer knows -- that the athlete ultimately determines the ceiling of his or her physical well-being. For the 18-year head athletic trainer, that is what stands out most.
“He knew he had to do extra work to make sure his back and everything was moving the way it needed to move,” Nelson recalled. “Some days the manual therapy and the stuff we were doing with him would go on for hours and would be extremely, extremely painful for him. A lot of people wouldn’t be able to endure it. But he did what he had to do to play well.”
Exercise and preventative therapy was just one part of it. Nash also took ownership of what went into his body. Food became a conscious and resolute decision. He cut out fried foods and synthetic sweeteners completely.
In an effort to keep his basketball career as stable as possible, Nash incorporated balancing and core exercises into his routine.
“He was the kind of guy that if his shot drifted a couple centimeters to the left, he would spend days trying to correct it,” Nelson explained. “He just felt it was a body imbalance. That’s how finely tuned he was into his game.”
Nash leads (and entertains) his way
The optimism surrounding the 2005-06 Suns was invested greatly in Stoudemire. The exclamation point to Phoenix’s pick-and-roll was coming off an All-NBA season and averaged more than 37 points per game against Tim Duncan and the Spurs in the 2005 playoffs.
Then Stoudemire felt knee soreness during training camp -- and it didn’t go away. A microscopic procedure revealed the need for microfracture surgery, an operation that sidelined Phoenix’s leading scorer for the entire season.
“Steve told me, ‘Just be strong. Take your time on the recovery. Don’t worry,’ ” Stoudemire said.
Nash was even more supportive seven months later, when the pass-first Suns took on the NBA's leading scorer, Kobe Bryant, and the Los Angeles Lakers in the first round of the 2006 NBA playoffs.The Lakers’ physicality and Bryant’s patience nearly upset the second-seeded Suns, who found themselves mired in a 3-1 series deficit.
After losing Game 4 on a Kobe Bryant buzzer-beater in overtime, Nash spoke to the team in the locker room.
“Guys’ heads were down,” Sarver said. “Everyone was upset. Steve just stood up and said, ‘Hey, you guys got about five minutes to get this out of your system. Then we’re not going to talk about this game anymore. We’re better than this team and we’re going to go beat them three times in a row.’ ”
Led by Nash, Phoenix did. He scored 22 points in a Game 5 blowout and put up 32 points and 13 assists in Game 6 road win before the Suns cruised to a Game 7 victory at home. Two days later, he hoisted his second NBA MVP.
“That’s great leadership,” Sarver said. “If we had any chance, that’s what we needed.”
Nash’s leadership was never more evident than during physical injury. When a collision with Tony Parker in the 2007 playoffs split his nose open, the two-time MVP stopped playing only when his heart rate kept preventing the blood from clotting sufficiently. When Nash broke his nose a few seasons later, he snapped it back into place himself while still on the court. When he chipped a tooth in a game, he tossed the broken piece to the training staff and played on.
His most dramatic example, however, occurred during the 2010 playoffs against his long-time rivals in San Antonio. Nash’s Suns teams had lost to the Spurs three times in the previous five years, but Phoenix had jumped out to a suspiciously easy 3-0 series lead. Surely quitting the San Antonio curse would be harder than this?
Suns fans who wondered felt their hearts drop in the third quarter, when Nash found himself on the wrong end of a Tim Duncan elbow. The blow cut open the area above his right eye, causing it to bleed and swell almost immediately. The injury was serious enough to require a lidocaine injection.
But Phoenix was only up single digits with a chance to finally vanquish the Spurs.
“Doc, I don’t want the injection,” Nash said
“Steve, this is going to hurt a lot if I just sew it up without anything,” the team doctor replied.
“I don’t care,” Nash insisted. “I’ve got to get back out there.”
And so, with his eye barely sewn together and nearly swollen shut, Nash posted 10 points and five assists in the fourth quarter to finish off San Antonio.
“That guy would play through anything for his guys,” Gentry recalled fondly. “You couldn’t ask him to do anything more for you because he was already doing it.”
Most everyone liked Nash’s game and work ethic, but those who knew him quickly grew to appreciate his personality. A few weeks after he was drafted, the team staged a photoshoot for its new rookie centered around his Canadian background: Nash in the full Suns uniform, complete with ice skates and a hockey stick.
After the photo shoot, Nash dropped everything to indulge in a few full-speed laps around rink, terrifying team employees who feared he would get injured on their watch.
Former Suns coach Mike D’Antoni fell victim to that fear during a game against Oklahoma City. Nash had sprained his ankle and went to the locker room to get it checked out. There was no swelling, but the team decided to hold him out for the rest of the game anyway.
But Nash wasn’t content to let his day end in so dull a fashion. Instead he had laytex gloves wrapped around his ankle, which was then bandaged up. The result was what looked like an extremely swollen, injured ankle.
Nelson played along and somberly notified D’Antoni.
“I told him, ‘It’s not looking good. It’s got a lot of swelling,’ ” Nelson laughed. “Mike looked down and saw Steve’s foot all wrapped up and turned white as a ghost. Steve was prankster. He loved to play along.”
The Canadian prankster could tug at heartstrings as effectively as he tickled funny bones. An incredibly passionate soccer fan, Nash turns every World Cup into a pilgrimage. Between matches, he will play with friends on asphalt courts and have a blast for a few weeks.
When Nash found out Nelson was going to marry his long-time girlfriend during the 2006 World Cup, he was devastated. Knowing his friend’s affinity for the game and its defining event, Nelson shrugged it off.
Nash didn’t. He flew to England, then Newark, survived weather delays and finally arrived in Phoenix the morning of the wedding. Nelson and his groomsmen met him at a local restaurant (so Nash could keep an eye on the World Cup). Nash then attended the wedding and reception before hopping back on a plane back to Europe.
“Who does that?” Nelson laughed.
The same guy that invited all of his teammates onto the podium when he received his MVP trophy. The same guy who has received an honorary degree for humanitarianism. The same guy who weeps with his team when an unexpected playoff run falls just short of the ultimate goal.
“He had a tremendous outlook on life, including making everybody feel special,” McCoy said. “Whether it was a teammate, broadcaster or fan, he always had time to talk to whoever was approaching him. We don’t always accent the success of an ahtlete by saying he was also a special person. I think with Steve, you may even have to start with that.”
Hall of Fame moment arrives
On Friday, Nash will receive the ultimate honor of his sport. He will join the company of those to whom he aspired, those against whom he has been compared, and, eventually, those who even now try to replicate and build upon the best parts of his game.
“I talk to my children about Steve when I talk about what it takes to be a Hall of Famer. How to persevere. He’s the epitome of a player who works to become great.”
The work and greatness never yielded the NBA’s ultimate prize. Then again, this week -- like other Hall of Fame inductions were for others -- is proof Nash didn’t need a title to cement himself as one of the greatest in the game.
“I’m just happy for him as a person,” Gentry said. “Forget about the player. We all know he’s a great player. I don’t think it could happen to a better person.”
McCoy, who has called some of the biggest games and witnessed the biggest legends in NBA history for over 40 years, summed it up best.
“He’s where he belongs.”