Steve Nash: The Suns Star of His Generation

Barry Gossage/NBAE
by Matt Petersen

"Phoenix must protect themselves. Kevin Johnson has already given the news that he’s going to retire after one more year. They also are involved, before this draft, in some potential trades using Elliott Perry as a throw-in with a certain guy by the initials C.B. Who knows whether that is going to happen." – Hubie Brown, TNT, 1996 NBA Draft

Superstars look the part from the moment they step into the role. Suns fans know this. They witnessed at least two such individuals before the turn of the century.

The first time was 1969. Connie Hawkins was impossible to miss. His hands could engulf entire planets. His sideburns stretched for miles. His credentials were both factual (ABA MVP and league champion) and mythical (some swore a young Hawk could dunk from half-court). In his first season in Phoenix, Hawkins helped turn a 16-win expansion club into a playoff team, averaging 24.6 points, 10.4 rebounds and 4.8 assists per game. He nearly toppled the mighty Wilt Chamberlain and his Los Angeles Lakers in the postseason.

Former general manager and owner Jerry Colangelo said Hawkins gave Phoenix “instant big-league status.”

Twenty-three years later, Charles Wade Barkley walked onto the court of newly opened America West Arena, sporting a newly redesigned Suns jersey after nearly a decade of wearing Philadelphia red, white and blue. In his wake were six All-Star appearances, a rebounding title and the remains of those who had stood in his way in the paint.

Barkley’s stat line that night: 37 points, 21 rebounds, eight assists, a steal and a block. His first season in Phoenix: NBA Most Valuable Player, All-Star, All-NBA First Team, Western Conference champion.

Hawkins and Barkley would go on to be inducted in the Hall of Fame. The most iconic images of their respective careers were displayed in purple-and-orange. Their names were uttered by different generations of Suns fans along with the phrase “I remember watching him play…”

“They’re doing this organization over. This is a good start at the point guard position. Kevin Johnson has been a little injury prone…This is a young man that can grow with [Michael] Finley and form a good nucleus for this Phoenix Suns basketball team.” – Mike Fratello, TNT, 1996 NBA Draft

When he was drafted 15th overall in 1996, Steve Nash looked like anything but the defining Phoenix Sun of his generation. He was small. Thin. He looked too nice. He didn’t dunk. On draft night, TNT’s player bio listed his weakness as “too selective with shots.” The show’s anchor, Ernie Johnson, quoted University of Utah head coach Rick Majerus saying of Nash, “He’s a poor man’s John Stockton.” It was one of those quotes that sounds like a compliment to anyone except its target.

At the time, fans didn’t want or need Nash to be their new Hercules, especially at the point guard position. Former All-Star and fan favorite Kevin Johnson was still there. So was Barkley, though he appeared to be on his way out (he was dealt later that summer). The answer to his looming departure couldn’t possibly be Johnson’s backup.

Nash’s immediate future and role seemed clear: apprentice under Johnson and then take over when he hangs up his jersey. By Christmas, the plan was in full effect. Johnson did indeed look like a guy on his way out (13.8 ppg, 42.5 FG%) and the rookie was getting quality experience and giving quality production off the bench (16.5 mpg, 5.9 ppg, 3.2 apg, 40.0 3FG%).

Then Phoenix traded for Jason Kidd, and the title of Next Suns Great seemed to have its heir. Kidd was less than a year older than Nash, yet at the ripe age of 23 he was light years ahead, having already played in his first All-Star game. His blooming game breathed new life into Johnson, who was suddenly playing like it was 1991. He put up 22.0 points, 9.7 assists and 1.6 steals while shooting 51.3 percent and 44.6 percent from three for the rest of the season.

All of this completely transformed Nash’s future with the franchise. Once the eventual successor at point guard, he was now third in line and no longer necessary. After Kidd arrived, Nash’s minutes were cut in half. His shooting plummeted to below 40 percent. In the summer of 1998, Phoenix dealt him to Dallas for a future draft pick and spare parts.

Six years later, Phoenix was trying to convince him to come back.

“The day of the draft, Suns owner Jerry Colangelo asked [Don] Nelson, ‘You feel good about this kid?’ Colangelo liked Nash, as did assistant coach Danny Ainge. Nelson confirmed their instincts. ‘If Stevie is not a success,’ he replied, ‘you can have my job.’ – Lee Jenkins, SI.com

The respective paths of the Phoenix Suns and Steve Nash took opposite turns during their six-year split. Phoenix tried several times to find their next star. Despite his individual brilliance, Kidd’s three All-Star appearances and assist titles were countered by a still-iffy jump shot and a 1-5 record in playoff series.

To their credit, the Suns never stopped trying to unearth the next franchise-altering talent. The search left its scars. A one-year gamble on Antonio McDyess ended with him fleeing back to Denver. Phoenix tried cashing out on Kidd’s stock, but the returns – Stephon Marbury’s high-scoring, low-efficiency play – were underwhelming.

By the summer of 2004, the Barkley days were still the gold standard that loomed over the slow decay of a once-proud franchise. A complete rebuild was now in effect. The hope now was that some of the younger talent (Amar’e Stoudemire, Shawn Marion) would grow into the role of “franchise player” or that the Suns could find one elsewhere.

Some 900 miles away, Steve Nash had turned jeers into cheers. Dallas fans that had been slow to welcome him were now fully behind the Canadian guy with long hair.

Nash was seemingly a different person, like the adult who finally grows into his high school frame and knows how to carry it. He shot and passed with confidence, the result being two All-Star appearances and hard-won respect. He was no superstar, but he could lead a team.

It just so happened his old team back in the desert needed a leader.

"You need to come because I need you," Stoudemire told Nash. "I'll be the student. You'll be the teacher. With you in Phoenix, it's going to be over." – as quoted by Chad Ford, ESPN.com

Numbers matter in sports, on or off the court. In the summer of 2004, the number that mattered most was preceded by a dollar sign. The one Phoenix offered was significantly bigger than Dallas’. And while it was enough to get Nash to raise a pen and put it to paper, it also raised more than a few eyebrows around the league.

Wooing Nash away from Texas was a net gain, but his return to Phoenix was a candle compared to the bonfires lit for Hawkins and Barkley in previous eras. Nash was good, they said, but would that be enough to make the Suns matter?

Slam Magazine had Phoenix finishing third in its division behind the Kings and Lakers. ESPN’s Chad Ford warned that fans in Phoenix might “have to pay” for investing so much money in a 30-year-old playmaker with a bad back. Columnist Bill Simmons called the contract “crazy” and pegged them to finish fifth in the West.

Internal reviews were much more positive, but none of them even hinted at the word “superstar.” Other words and phrases – leader, veteran, winner, very good, top-three point guard, floor general – were used, all coming up short of the label no Sun had borne since Barkley.

Even Nash was realistic about his role with the Suns.

“I plan to play exactly the same way,” he said the day he was introduced to Phoenix media. “If you can be yourself, you’re on the way. I’m just going to try to be myself. I only know how to play one way. Hopefully, I’ll continue to improve, and I’ll learn to play and adapt to different styles and play. But I think they brought me here to be myself and that’s when I’m at my best.”

"I had one scholarship offer, and I didn't have any NBA players in my neighborhood. I don't even think I dreamed about this award. I don't know what to say. I just kept trying." - Steve Nash after being named the 2004-05 NBA Most Valuable Player

Phoenix, the team which won 29 games the previous season, won its first 2004-05 contest by 30 points. Then won the next game by 10. The third by 32. The fourth by 20.

By mid-January, the Suns were 31-4 and no one could explain away Phoenix or the point guard who had gone from good to great at age 30.

The Suns were good. Historically good. Statistical record-breaking good. And the face of this new era of Phoenix basketball was Steve Nash.

Steve Nash Highlights

Consequently, Nash – drafted in the middle of the first round, traded by Phoenix, let go by Dallas – had also become one of the faces of basketball in general. The Suns were the best show in town, scoring at a pace and with a flair not seen since the 1980s. There he was, engineering a fast break in seven seconds or less, hair flying, passes zipping on time and on point. The Canadian point guard became the most current image under “NBA MVP,” an award he received two years in a row.

Suddenly, Nash and the Suns were cool. His jersey was seen and name dropped frequently in music videos. Fans in opposing cities circled home games against Phoenix, pegging them as a show worth paying to see. Nash became the ultimate comparison and contrast for incoming point guards, the bar against which all of them were measured.

Nash’s brand of popularity was an endearing one. He rubbed people the right way on and off the court. When speaking of his impact, sports analysts beat the phrase “he makes his teammates better” to death, mocked themselves for not thinking of another way to say it, then said it again.

Selflessness became trendy under Nash’s example. Upon receiving his MVP award, he invited his teammates to join him on the stand, his attempt to show it had been earned by the team and not an any one player. The gesture only earned him more individual praise. It became an ironic cycle throughout his career. As hard as Nash tried to turn singular attention onto the team, it only made him stand out more.

"It will always hurt that Phoenix Suns fans didn't get the championship they deserved during our run," he wrote. "Yes, we had some bad luck but I always look back at it and think, 'I could've made one more shot, or not forced a turnover, or made a better pass.' But I don't regret anything. The arena was always sold out and rocking. It was the time of my life. Thanks, Phoenix." – Steve Nash

Fans openly loved Nash, and not just for his successes. Failures stung, but they also wound up forming bonds of loyalty after the fact.

Story of Nash vs. Lakers

In Game 4 of the 2006 first-round series against the Lakers, Nash committed a costly turnover that resulted in Kobe Bryant hitting the game-winning jumper in overtime. Suns fans thought their point guard had been fouled, that Bryant’s heroics weren’t honestly earned. They watched Nash pick himself and the team back up, watched him keep his aching back loose just enough to lead a comeback from a 3-1 series deficit to win it in seven games.

In 2007, Suns fans watched in horror as the Spurs gashed their MVP’s nose, kneed his groin and hip-checked him into the scorer’s table, all in one playoff series. Somehow, none of the infractions penalized the opponent. The latter seemed to do the opposite, as concerned teammates were actually suspended for temporarily stepping away from the bench to check on their fallen star.

On the verge of finishing the same Spurs team in 2010, Nash received an errant elbow from Tim Duncan which caused his eye to swell shut. With fresh stitches on his face, he nailed three-pointers, pull-ups and passes on the way to sending his foe packing. Bad luck, however, was only stalled for a series. It came back to haunt Nash and the Suns against the Lakers, when a Kobe Bryant air-ball wound up being a game-winning put-back by Ron Artest in Game 5.

Karma never came to rescue the league’s ultimate good guy. It seemed to do the opposite. It fled. Somehow, that validated Nash in Suns fans’ eyes. Their MVP never complained, so they would complain for him while praising him in the same breath.

“It’s very special because it’s not something I asked for or imagined to get that type of spontaneous reaction. It means it’s authentic, the relationship that I thought we had.” – Steve Nash, on fans’ cheers during his final game in a Suns uniform.

The Nash Effect is everywhere, now. His name sits atop the Suns’ all-time leaders in assists, three-pointers and free throw percentage. His time in Phoenix is the new standard. From 2004 through 2008, his teams won more games than any other four-year span in team history. Despite not having donned a Suns uniform in three years and not having led them to playoffs since 2010, the identity of his teams – fast-paced, outside shooting, fun – bleeds into the next era.

New Suns are frequently asked about Phoenix, why they like the city, the team, their impression of the franchise. Whether they are baby-faced rookies or grizzled veterans, nearly all of them cite a specific era in team history.

“Those Steve Nash teams, man,” they say. “Nash had this place rocking.”

Younger fans are old enough to say some variation of the same thing. Their predecessors, the ones who saw the Hawk soar and the Round Mound rebound, nod their older and wiser heads in agreement. To them, Nash meets the criteria. And while their own memories cling fiercely to the Suns stars of their own youth, they know their children and grandchildren no longer need to rely on those memories to know what greatness in purple-and-orange looks like.

To the newer generation, greatness is 6-foot-3, has long hair, passes first and wears the No. 13.

Tags
NEXT UP:

  • Facebook
  • Twitter