The Art of Playing Point Guard
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In his final game of an injury-plagued 2013-14 campaign, Steve Nash vaulted further up the NBA's PG hierarchy to third place on the all-time assist list, behind only John Stockton and Jason Kidd.
The two-time NBA MVP joined Lakers.com on the final Lakers road trip of the season to delve into the mental and physical aspects of playing the position, and stuck around to wax philosophical on the relative yet meaningful place of sports within the world and more.
Below is a transcription of the conversation:
Mike Trudell: Let me start here, Steve: who do you think is the greatest point guard of all time?
Steve Nash: I think Magic Johnson has to be the greatest point guard. My favorite was Isiah Thomas, because I knew I was never going to be Magic, so I always tried to emulate Isiah.
Isiah Thomas and Magic Johnson
MT: You won't get any argument from me - or most people living outside of Salt Lake City - on Magic. When did you first start watching NBA games? Magic the first PG you saw on TV?
Nash: Yeah, I started watching when it was Lakers-Celtics and it's hard to remember now, to be honest. I remember bits and pieces, but I loved it ... I was swept up in it. That was a long time ago, man.
MT: Your dad was a professional soccer player and I know you grew up playing the game, and you obviously had to play hockey since you were in Canada. When did you first realize you were pretty good at basketball?:
Nash: I really didn't get exposed much to basketball as a kid. I played soccer from the time I was born, I played hockey from when I was 4 or 5 until I was 12 or 13. But when I went into the eighth grade in Canada, I went to a new junior high school and all my friends played basketball. I was playing on this soccer and hockey team and traveling every other weekend to Vancouver and missing out on all those times my friends were having playing pickup basketball. I really stopped playing soccer and hockey so I could be with my friends and play basketball.
MT: If you look at Kobe when he was 13, he'd already been playing basketball for years, following his professional-hooper father into arenas all the time. How did you see your learning curve develop so quickly for basketball after getting exposed to it later in your childhood than most?
Nash: I was lucky that I played every sport. Nowadays it's ridiculous how kids are asked to specialize so early. They talk about the 10,000 hours thing...
MT: Popularized by Malcolm Gladwell in "Outliers," yes?
Nash: Well, it's not even Gladwell, actually. It was a psychologist from the University of Florida in the 1960's, and Gladwell talked extensively about it in his book. He cited the (psychologist), but when you cite a guy in one sentence and go on for paragraphs people think it's his theory. It's quite a popular thing in sports science and psychology, but it's very debatable. To get back to my point, if you did subscribe to the 10,000 hours, that doesn't mean it all has to be in basketball if that's your pursuit. My time on the soccer field, playing hockey, baseball, lacrosse ... all those pursuits, the mobility, dexterity, anticipation, endurance, coordination, footwork ... I was developing even though I wasn't playing basketball. So I think when I picked up a basketball I took to it very quickly, but all those other sports really afforded me a lot. The curve was probably steep in basketball but I had already been training for that in other sports.
MT: That makes a lot of sense. I know Pau Gasol played several other sports growing up, and even if Kobe was hyper-focused on hoops, we know he played some soccer in Italy:
Nash: The bottom line is you have to love it. If you force a kid to do something, he's not going to love it. If you give a kid access and he develops his own passion, he's going to want to do it for years and years. I'm 40, I still love playing, I still love practicing. It's because it's a habit and it's a passion of mine. It's fine, but to tell a kid, 'You have to do this,' is never going to work. I don't think that's what Kobe (Bryant's) father did, I think Kobe just had access to the game and developed a passion because he was around the game.
MT: Is there a connecting factor between players like you, Magic Johnson, John Stockton, Jason Kidd, Isiah Thomas and Oscar Robertson?
Nash: Yeah, to be a point guard, especially in the traditional sense, you're always trying to make the game easier for your teammates, you're always trying to get easy baskets for your team, you're trying for your team to be as efficient as possible offensively, and to do so, you need vision, anticipation, understanding of your team, time, score, tempo. I think there are some really natural commonalities between the all the other point guards on that list.
MT: Have you ever talked about the "art" of the point guard position with any of those players?
Nash: I haven't really talked about it with any of them, but I've certainly watched them, admired them and tried to emulate them.
MT: Passing seems to be somewhat more of an innate thing than something you can practice a ton and get better at, aside from just playing in games and scrimmages, at least as compared with shooting and ballhandling? Do you see it that way?
Nash: For sure. It can be developed to an extent, but I'm sure it came natural to the guys at the top of that list. It was never something that I could explain. It's just how I approached the game, played the game, how I saw the game, what made sense to me. It was very natural. Obviously you develop it along with the rest of your game with experience, but ever since I started playing the game, and frankly ever since I started playing soccer and hockey as a 4- or 5-year old, it was natural to me to pass the ball and making plays for people.
MT: You could argue it's a personality thing, to a degree, wanting to be inclusive like that. Alas, one thing that separates the best of that elite PG group is seeing buckets for teammates before even they realize they're available. Does part of that come from your soccer background?:
Nash: I think so. I think sometimes your perspective or awareness is different from others around you. It's two-fold: one, you might see something they don't see and you can tell them where the pass is going to go; and two, once you've done that a few times, they're going to run harder, they're going to have their head up, they're going to be looking for easy baskets and they have a chance to get it. If guys think they don't have a chance, they stop running hard, they stop cutting, they stop looking for opportunities.
MT: What do you love about basketball?
Nash: It's a beautiful game. It has a bit of everything. It's a team sport that's fast, athletic, powerful, but at the same time, skillful, subtle, creative. For me, it's exciting. As much as I love soccer, I love basketball for the same reasons. For me, mostly, it's a creative outlet. It's somewhere where you can try to build a player out of yourself and where you can express yourself in the game as a competitor and as someone who has ideas.
MT: Is that passion for the game what's kept you trying to push through these two seasons of Murphy's Law in terms of injuries?
Nash: Yes, more than anything, I still enjoy it. Second, I know I'm not going to play for the most part at all when I'm done playing. I'll have, hopefully, a long life after the game where I don't play, so I just want to make the most of it and play as much as I can while I can. I don't know how much that is, but if I can take part next year, that'd be great.
MT: We really won't see you at Venice Beach draining threes and getting random dudes open layups in a few years?
Nash: I've played so much basketball and played it at such a high level that when I'm done, I don't know if I'll play pickup basketball. I bet I'll play pickup soccer and pickup tennis and other sports, but in some ways, it might be time to put the basketball away and try other things.
MT: By the way ... my Manchester United and your Tottenham squads are on the outside looking in on a Champions League or even Europa League spot. That sucks. But has being a professional changed any of that purity in fandom that you grew up with?
Nash: I am definitely a huge fan of Tottenham or some of my teams in other sports, but you do lose a little bit of that pure, innocent fandom by having played a professional game. At the end of the day, you know exactly what they're going through and how it's a business. You're still always rooting for your team, and I still get emotional about their games, so it's not all gone. But it's not quite the same as before I became a professional.
MT: I look at sports as a metaphor for life in an often pure form since there are no lives at stake, yet passion is still so prevalent. How do you view sports and what it says about the human condition?
Nash: I think it's beautiful. How much have sports afforded how many people the world over? And I don't just mean the opportunity and wealth of a professional athlete. I think about the entertainment, the outlet, the conversation, the joy, the pain, the emotion that sports have brought to so many people, and probably so many working class people around the world that otherwise would have a much more mundane existence and less opportunity. Professional sports give a lot people a lot of joy and meaning. Of course you can draw metaphors for anything in life, but sports does play a great role in paralleling life. Also, I think that participation in sports is extremely valuable for young people to teach them how to work in groups, be social, be hard working, set goals, have character, be a winner, to not give up and to not make excuses. Sports are a very, very valuable and natural part of the human condition.
MT: The stakes seem so high at times, but really, they're not. Fair?
Nash: For sure. In some ways it's a distraction, in some ways it's a pursuit. For the athlete, I think it's a pursuit you can obviously make a career of, but more importantly a place where you challenge yourself, grow as a person and learn. When you're on the court and you're training, it's life or death, but as you step off the lines, you realize that it really doesn't mean anything at all. But that's not the way you approach it. You approach it with a kill-or-be-killed attitude in many respects, but when you step away and go home, it's not as important as many other things in life.
MT: What has basketball specifically, and sports in general, taught you about yourself?
Nash: It's taught me about perseverance, teamwork, putting others ahead of myself and working with others. There are characteristics of hard work, not making excuses, coming back after disappointment and failure and fighting again, and also handling success. There have been so many lessons it's taught me. There have been so many dark days, deep holes and disappointments you have to come back from and it's afforded me a lot as person. It's allowed me to have a certain amount of resiliency that I think is not only paramount to my life, but is paramount for me to be able to enjoy my life and live a good life.
MT: Do you think it's made you a better father?
Nash: Of course. I've been subjected to so many people, so many teammates, so many stories, so many cultures, that I can't help but make myself more educated, more understanding and have a deeper perspective.
MT: The Spurs started the season with 10 international players on the roster. How could that help?
Nash: I think it automatically makes people have a bigger effort to come together. Instead of just assuming they know about someone else's culture like we do in the States about each other, you have to say: 'Well, I really don't know much about where that person comes from so I'm going to have to get to know them.' It's something that we may take for granted amongst ourselves here.
MT: OK, let's talk about shooting. Your career shooting numbers: 49 percent field goals, 42.8 percent three's, 90.4 percent free throws. You have top billing at the 40-50-90 club, doing it four times, when only four other players have done it once and Larry Bird twice. What's your shooting secret?
Nash: I think shot selection is important, but for me, I tried to get into positions on the court and figure out a way to get a shot in that place. For me a lot of my shots came off the dribble, where I'd try to create space, time and angles: a lot of fadeaways, a lot of runners, different types of layups, teardrops.
MT: Those are all among the toughest shots in basketball...
Nash: I just tried to practice those a lot so that it was second nature to me. I think the key to shooting is practice and the key to the technique is good feet, good hands and a good rhythm. They're all intertwined. You start with your feet, your legs have to be in your shot to give you rhythm and then touch and technique together are kind of the four cornerstones of shooting in some ways, I guess. But there's nothing without practice. You have to have a routine and you have to have a real drive to work on it over and over and over.
MT: Your shooting numbers were much lower for your first three seasons, it would seem in part to a lack of playing time/opportunity (10.5 mpg as a rookie, 21.9 in year two). You turned a corner in your fourth season as a 25-year-old, but didn't hit 50 percent from the field until getting to Phoenix at age 30. What changed or progressed?
Nash: My shot was similar technique wise, but it just got more and more consistent, more and more stable. I got better at making different shots, better at getting to the basket and just kept building an array of shots when you can (usually) get a good look instead of having to rely on the shots the defense knows you're going to take. You can always keep defenders off balance because you're able to go to something else. Just developing my game and developing an array of shots and possibilities made me more difficult to defend. I also think being a passing threat allowed me to find space, whereas if they know you're not going to pass, they're going to be all over you. For me, sometimes I could bait a defender into thinking I'd set up a teammate and then get open for my own shot as a result.
MT: There's no real secret. It's a lot of things.
Nash: The bottom line is you have to have a real drive and a passion for shooting and scoring and playing the game and put the time in over and over and over again. There are no great shooters in the history of the game who haven't been obsessed with shooting.
Nowitzki and Nash from 2001
MT: What were those workouts with Dirk Nowitzki like when you were teammates in Dallas (1998-2004)?
Nash: We were both young players, and we'd go back to the gym every night, before and after practice and we'd play H.O.R.S.E and do shooting drills. We played a lot of 1-on-1 and just worked at our games. He had a coach that worked with him since he was 14 years old with a lot of different ideas and I think a lot of them were great. I tried to piggyback on some of their workouts and when he wasn't around, we'd work out on our own and just kept going cause we had a passion for the game.
MT: Who won more games in H.O.R.S.E.? And, man, it really stinks we can't watch on YouTube.
Nash: I can't remember exactly, but we both won about the same amount. It more came down to attrition. It'd be three, three, three and then somebody would blink and it'd be over. Of course there'd be different shots mixed in there off one leg, fadeaways, bank shots, spins, step backs and all sorts of stuff. But it'd basically come down to who would blink first.
MT: Who won more games in 1-on-1?
Nash: It was great for us to work on our games obviously. I was quicker and more mobile and he was bigger. To bother him, I really had to put pressure on him and for him to bother me, he had to use his length. Some days he'd have his way, other days I would. But it was just great to have somebody to work with and compete with.
MT: Leaving Dirk specifically must not have been easy, but what worked out so well when you got to Phoenix?
Nash: The biggest thing I don't think people realize is that my last year in Dallas was a disappointing year. We brought in Antoine Walker and Antawn Jamison, two great players, two guys we had high hopes for, but kind of played the same position. To try to make that whole thing work, it took our team half a year and for myself, I spent the first half of the year trying to figure that out and I sacrificed my game for that. The second half of the year, I played really, really well, but the numbers were average for the whole year. We went into the playoffs and we played Sacramento and lost. I probably had what you called a subpar series, but the detail there was we played Sacramento two weeks before the playoffs and I think I had 20 (points) and 20 (assists). In the playoffs, (Rick) Adelman sent a third defender out of the pick-and-roll and it kind of took me out of the series. Afterwards, he told me there was no way he was going to let me kill them like I had in the regular season. I'll take some responsibility, but that's a huge detail. I think I went into free agency smarting. I was pissed, and said I was going to come back better than ever. I had a huge summer. I got with my physical therapist and in the month of July, we trained twice a day, five days a week, once on Saturday's and Sunday's off. We cleaned a lot of deficiencies in my game.
MT: When you mention being taking out of a series, I wonder if that says something about the game, in that you could argue Chris Paul - considered the best PG in the game today - has been taken out of or at least limited in playoff series with additional attention. But you can't do that so much to the power wings or bigs?
Nash: For sure. Look at Tony Parker, as great as he was in the playoffs last year, you put LeBron on him and it's a different animal. You can't expect a guy that's six feet tall to be able to handle a guy as big and athletic as LeBron is.
MT: What's your dream scenario for next season?
Nash: To be able to play the whole season and to have an impact, and most importantly, to be able to move well. I know I can still play at a high level if I'm moving well. Can I sustain the demands of the game consistently? I don't know. I have to prove that to myself and everyone else.
MT: But you do want to try and get back for next season?
Nash: Yes, for sure. I'm looking forward to it. I'm clear in what I'm going to try and do, but the truth is I don't know. I realize the mileage I have on my body and the difficulties that I face. It's not like an ankle sprain where it's still sore and weak and lacks mobility but will improve; it's just out of the blue where I can wake up with nerve pain in the middle of the night. I'm dealing with something different from what I've dealt with before and don't want to underestimate that, but at the same time I'm clear in that I want to try and come back and contribute and play well.
MT: How would you describe Kobe Bryant after two seasons together?
Nash: He's gone through a tough year, but I think with a full summer and a little bit of luck he'll be back playing at an extremely high level. He's had plenty of time to heal the Achilles and the knee (fracture). Obviously he's very driven, and he's had a huge impact on basketball and gained a tremendous amount of respect, and I wouldn't put anything past him.
MT: OK, a quick lightning round. You've committed 1,982 fouls in your career (only 1.6 per game). You have a favorite foul?
Nash: I think as a rookie I fouled out in six minutes once. I got a few quick ones and then we were chasing the game at the end of it, having to foul. That's a good one.
MT: Toughest player for you to guard 1 on 1?
Nash: Michael Jordan.
MT: Favorite teammate?
Nash: Wow, I've had some great ones. Dirk. Michael Finley. Raja Bell Leandro Barbosa. Rex Chapman. My closest friends were my favorites.
MT: Favorite dessert?
Nash: I haven't had any dessert for a long time.
MT: That's why I ask, and I just don't understand...
Nash: I've blocked it out of my mind. Really. Paramount for me at this stage to able to recover and for my muscles and joints to sustain the game is to draw a line there. But I'll try to continue that when I'm done playing, because now that I'm doing it I don't feel like I'm missing anything.
MT: Favorite travel destination?
Nash: That's impossible for me. I love travel and so many places around the world. That's one of the great things. You could pick your spot in Europe, South America, Hawaii, the Caribbean. I love going to Asia as well. South Africa's amazing. I just love it, and I appreciate the differences so much. How could you choose between Buenos Aires, Rome, London, Cuba. It's all amazing.
MT: Cuba, huh? Please tell us more.
Nash: Their country is very poor because of the trade embargos, and I'm not sure people realize here that Cuba is a very educated country. They don't have any money, but there are more doctors and lawyers per capita than in the United States or Canada. Education is free and expected. A lot of their population gets a terrific education. Wealth is a resource, but education is a human capital. They have minds, an education system and the government provides that, but it has a hard time feeding, clothing and housing everybody with the embargo. I don't want to put my amateur views on it, but it was fascinating for me when I traveled there to see the level of education, how well spoken so many people were.
MT: What's one thing that you've thought and obsessed the most about aside from basketball during your career?
Nash: I think nowadays it's parenting. It's the biggest challenge, the biggest fear. You just want to give your kids every opportunity to succeed and be happy, be independent. That's a dance between giving them every opportunity and being supportive and also getting the heck out of the way and letting them fall and get back up. To be independent and critical thinkers on their own. You care so much that sometimes you have to watch them fail.