In the NBA, 2005 was the year of the unlikely MVP: The Phoenix Suns' Steve Nash, a long-haired Canadian who's as comfortable talking politics as he is slashing defenses. GQ's Joel Lovell caught Nash in New York, where he took time out from a soccer game downtown to give GQ magazine some skin, showing off the season's full range of leather jackets. (Photographs by Michael Thompson)

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A friend of mine, a talented soccer player and a pretty excitable guy, left a message on my voice mail last summer that went more or less like this: “Holy f------ s---! You’ll never believe who’s been showing up at that crappy field in Chinatown to play soccer on Saturday mornings: Steve f------ Nash. The f------ MVP of the NBA. I am not s-----ing you. Steve Nash. At first I thought it was just some dude that looked like him—you know, same ‘Cathy’ hairdo—but it’s actually him.”

Around the same time, a few camera-phone photos of Nash playing pickup hoops in Lower Manhattan started circulating online. It’s hard to judge the skills of the guys he was playing with, but there’s something about the body control of the players captured in those pictures that announces pretty clearly: We do not have game.

Why? Why would the guy who beat out Shaquille O’Neal, Dirk Nowitzki, and Tim Duncan for last season’s Most Valuable Player award, who became the first player in NBA history to score at least twenty-five points and dish out at least ten assists in four consecutive playoff games, who single-handedly transformed the middling Phoenix Suns into the most exciting team in basketball -- why would he be playing pickup on an outdoor court with a bunch of yokels? This question consumed me for a while. (“It’s like A-Rod showing up for your offce softball game,” I’d say to anyone who would listen. “It’s like Eddie Van Halen asking, ‘Hey, you guys need a guitarist for the Battle of the Bands? Sweet. I’m in.’ ”)

“I didn’t really plan on playing with them,” Nash told me not long after the photos were taken. He and his wife and their baby daughters were living in New York for the summer, and Nash’s off-season routine consisted mostly of shooting for an hour or so in the morning, then running the stairs of his Tribeca apartment building, then playing a lot of soccer at night. “I just jogged over there to shoot around, and this guy came up and said they needed one more. So I ran with them for a little while.”

Why would the guy who beat out Shaquille O'Neal, Dirk Nowitzki, and Tim Duncan for last season's MVP be playing pickup on an outdoor court with a bunch of yokels? It's like A-Rod showing up for your office softball game or Eddie Van Halen asking, 'Hey, you guys need a guitarist for the Battle of the Bands?'

“Did they have any idea who you were?”

“I don’t know,” he said. “I don’t think so.”

We were sitting on the sidelines of an outdoor soccer field at Pier 40 in Manhattan, where Nash had a game that night. He’d been playing all summer for a team that was sponsored by the owners of Phebe’s, a tavern in the East Village, and tonight was his last match before heading back to Phoenix. He seemed not so psyched to be talking about the photos, like the whole thing was a bit of an embarrassment for a guy who likes to keep his profile low. Apparently, too, a lot of people had been asking him about whether his contract allows him to just walk on a court with any dudes who have a ball. My sense was that this was getting on his nerves.

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“Yeah, I’m not really sure about the contract,” Nash said. “It wasn’t a big deal, but I sort of wish the photos weren’t all over the place.”

A lot has been made about how Nash is the most unlikely of MVPs. The first white guy since Bird ... The only Canadian ... A midget by NBA standards ... And Nash himself says it’s “pretty surreal to be given the same award as Shaq and Jordan and Magic and all the guys going back. It’s like, what’s my name doing being mentioned in the same breath as theirs?” But there’s no denying that Nash plays an extraordinarily beautiful brand of basketball. The fifty-foot bounce passes, the no-look-behind-the-back dishes in the lane, the fall-away shots that float over the outstretched arms of guys a foot taller than he is and drop through the hoop on a line—it’s all such an antidote to the ugliness that prevails in most NBA games. Beyond that stuff, though, Nash is perhaps more remarkable for being so comfortably out of step with the somewhat cartoonish culture of the league. He completely lacks that Jordan quality of berating his teammates on the floor. (“It’s just not my style,” he says. “I try to have fun out there. I don’t really get into bringing other people down.”) He’s developed something of a reputation for being a lefty egghead (due mostly to a reporter for The New York Times noting that Nash was reading The Communist Manifesto on the team plane). And as America was preparing to invade Iraq in early 2003, Nash showed up at the All-Star Game wearing a T-shirt with the logo NO WAR. SHOOT FOR PEACE. “I think Saddam Hussein is a crazed dictator, but I don’t think he’s threatening us,” Nash said at the time. “We haven’t found any nuclear weapons, no matter what anyone says, and that process is still under way. Until that’s finished and decided, I don’t think that war is acceptable.”

When I ask him now about the heat he took for speaking out (he was hammered in op-ed pages around the country, and the San Antonio Spurs’ David Robinson, a former navy man, suggested that Nash “should be in a different country”), he doesn’t express any regret. “I wasn’t trying to draw attention to myself,” he says. “It just felt important to me to say something. We were heading into a war, and there was no real conversation going on about it.”

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Game time came, and Nash apologized for having to cut the interview short, then took the field and started warming up. A few other players sauntered by as Nash took a shot that sailed just over the crossbar. One of them stopped and said he thought that was Steve Nash playing, and the other two said no way; then they watched for another minute and said, “Yeah, holy s---, it’s definitely Steve Nash.” Then two of them flipped open their phones and started making calls. Another guy sitting nearby told me that there were former MetroStars who played in this league, but Nash was as good as anyone out there. He threaded a bunch of impossible passes and scored a few goals, but it was the completely joyful engagement that really struck you, the way you could tell even from the bleachers that this guy possesses some freaky genius that has nothing to do with size or strength or any of the other things that come to mind when we think of great athletes.

"How good are you?", I asked him after his team won. “I guess I could have played professionally,” he said. “If I’d focused on it. Sometimes I wish I had. But that’s probably just a grass-is-always-greener kind of thing.”

Nash and his teammates went back to Phebe’s, where Derek, a part-owner of the bar, plied everyone with drinks. There was a lot of soccer talk and a lot of Canada talk (with a short-lived contest to list as many Canadian players as we could think of ) and a lot of talk about Nash’s twin daughters. “It’s just the most amazing thing,” he said, and then he told a story about putting them to bed and hearing noise coming from their room about an hour later. “My wife and I cracked open the door, and there they were, standing up in their cribs, cracking each other up. It was the first time we’d seen them really connecting with each other. It was really unbelievable. We were out of our minds.”

Late in the night, a buddy of Nash’s from the 2000 Canadian Olympic team, Mike Meeks, showed up. There were hugs and introductions and more drinks. At some point, I asked him about how Nash, during the 2000 Olympics, refused any preferential treatment—no first-class flight to Sydney, no private room—and how he’d quietly given a few thousand dollars in spending money, through one of the coaches, to each of the guys on the team. Meeks raised his eyebrows and smiled. “Yeah,” he said. “He just wanted guys to have a good time there. For most of us, it was the highlight of our lives. And man, we had a good time.”

It got late. The conversation among the group devolved into a series of jokes about the pathetic Knicks (my team), and then Derek handed me one last beer and clapped a hand on my shoulder. “Who’s better’n you?” he asked. I shrugged and smiled, and then Derek grew a little serious and sentimental and pointed at Nash, who was laughing hard and leaning way back on his stool. “Just a regular one of us, am I right?” We clinked our pint glasses. “Cheers,” he said. “Who’s better’n Stevie?”