It was a balmy summer night in downtown Toronto, the natural conclusion to a sun-soaked day on vacation. Sitting at a restaurant with my parents, I witnessed the hopes of an entire building rise and fall with the plight of one floppy-haired dude from across the country, wearing the jersey of not only a different city, but a different nation.
Such was the gravitational pull of Steve Nash, the NBA's Great Influencer.
Nash's Canadian-ness always made him an easy conduit for basketball fans North of the Border searching for a playoff team to hitch their wagon to. But for some reason, the implication that we only liked him because of that bugged me. I always felt deeply, and in hindsight, delusionally, that we would have loved him regardless.
Because with Nash, we shared not only Canada as a home but as an ideal; the selfless, tough-as-nails, indefatigably nice, global activist construct of Canada. His game, to me, always felt like a love letter to a mythic Canada – one that was too perfect to possibly exist, and too perfect not to indulge in. I never felt like I had to cheer for Nash because he's Canadian. It was just natural.
Consider the series we were taking in that night: Los Angeles Lakers vs. Phoenix Suns, 2010 Western Conference Finals.
The Suns were a team that held to the idea that a well-oiled offense would churn better if it shared the wealth, that redistribution didn't only make for a happier experience but a more efficient one. The Lakers were polar opposites, led by the unbridled heroism of Kobe Bryant, his lone-wolf apparatus at full strength. It was Canada's welfare state to America's, you know, whatever you guys are calling it – freedom state? – these days. It was, in my mind at the time, a clash of Good vs. Evil.
And yet, at this point in their careers, Kobe and Nash were connected – by peculiarity, sure, but connected nonetheless. They were tropes of the single-minded, crazed athlete constantly sucked back into the gym; alpha dogs haunted by grand visions. They were both markedly (and marketed as) old. In the media, it was inescapable. On the floor, they played with an almost poetic kind of laborious fluidity. So for a few weeks in late-May, creaky limbs became the heart of the masculine spirit.
All of this, for me, had only conspired to heighten the stakes in a purely symbolic battlefield: A Canada that once was at least on nodding terms with its Nash-esque ideals had, by 2010, been pretty much engulfed by neo-liberalism. For the rest of the NBA, the Nash-era Suns were the catalyst to a fundamental shift in basketball. For Canada, they were the last clarion call for what the country used to see itself as. What some, even now, wishfully think it is.
And then, the shot. The air ball. The rebound. Ron Artest, for the win. Before you could even process it, it was over.
I was jarred. Kobe air-balled his way closer to the Finals and Nash was one game away from dying on the altar of unselfishness. When the Suns lost Game 6 against a barrage of Kobe fadeaways, I had a feeling you could only describe as moral outrage. How could this happen?
In the angsty years that followed, I naturally came to understand Nash's career as a parable for the futility of life. But given the context, where the Seven-Seconds-or-Less Offense rules the NBA, where Nash's legacy, as Lee Jenkins put it beautifully, lives in every modern point guard tinged with the flair of Original Nash, I tend to think differently. So does the rest of his fanbase, people who bring up his lack of rings and the merits of his back-to-back MVP's just to say they don't matter – that they're ancillary to what Nash represents.
Only someone unfailingly true to himself could evoke that kind of diehard-ism. Nash passed and passed and passed, to a fault, even when he was the best shooter on the floor. He could fit into any situation like a key cog, a snug racecar driver in a seat he designed. Or he could go anti-war in Texas, pro-immigration in Arizona. Whatever he felt like. That's why watching Nash meant effortlessly buying into something beautiful, something pure, something unique. He managed to pull off toughness, efficiency and fun at the same time. He is, to this day, the easiest hero to cheer for.
His game was predicated on the notion that a defense could never be perfect 100 percent of the time, so he would probe, he would circle back, he would eventually discover the crevasse no one else bothered to look for, and he would attack with precision. Twenty-three seconds would pass on the shot clock, and he still wouldn't lose himself.