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The Contested Court of Steve Nash
by Lorna Jackson

Steve NashSteve Nash and Wayne Gretzky: originality, obsession, back ailments. Bodies built for agility, not power. Both have been counted out due to mediocre heft, height, and hairstyles. They dig starlets. Their fathers pushed them; their mothers loved them like princes. Wheaties boxes, girly cheekbones, gigs in Phoenix. Their brains' signals travel a supersonic freeway.

Nash is Gretzky if the Great One had played hockey in the flower and fitness capital of the nation, Victoria, instead of industrial Brantford, Ontario, out back of a bungalow with few rooms and many people. Nash is multi-syllabic in an antiwar T-shirt; Mordecai Richler called Gretzky "one of the most boring men I ever met".

A point guard's job entails endurance, cadence, syncopation, anticipation. Hockey is all that plus the 40-second shift, aggression, and speed. Nash is compared to hockey players because he's the first of his kind in Canada, but we don't need him to be a hockey player. On the West Coast, in Nashland, we like that he's not one. Neither are we.

Pro sports fans get off three ways (spectating pleasure, theorists call it). When Steve Nash waves his fingers and blows a kiss at the Phoenix crowd in game three versus Dallas in this year's Western Conference finals, we guess it's to his little girls or his South American wife and feel part of the moment. We're distant but intimate. Attention must be paid to the erotic valley where deltoid meets bicep. Voyeurism.

Fans get a charge, too, when the music is loud and the lights strobe, when the spectacle of sport is choreographed and ritualized, and Nash bounce-skips onto the shiny floor and slams his wee tufted chest up—way up—against his teammates'. Sports is obsessed with numbers and increments—salaries, statistics, and percentages, height and weight—and so invites us to evaluate players as commodities, objects. Instant fetish.

Add a third way of seeing the game when a preoccupation with things turns to imagining ourselves as part of those things. To sell the game and hook us to it, the pro-sports machine constructs stories: the neighbourhoods—or nations—players grew up in; childhood illness and naysayers; books read, bands loved, hobbies and habits indulged. We know the names of Nash's parents, brother and sister, wife, and twin girls (Lola and Bella); he likes Dickens, Radiohead, and beer; a sprained left ankle in high school forced him to jump off his right foot and shoot with his left hand. Nash is like us, and vice versa. It's there in the details.

In game one versus Dallas, Nash drains two three-pointers, a layup, and two foul shots in the last three-and-a-half minutes of the game, and, so, victory. A sports hero must, obviously, come with outrageous physical excellence in order to qualify for the title. Also, as prescribed by sociologist R.K. Barney 20 years ago, he must come with moral excellence: "honesty, humility, generosity, sportsmanship, and self-control."

When Nash donned the "No war—Shoot for peace" garb for the 2003 all-star game news conference in Atlanta, like-minded Canadians could feel especially good about themselves because their hero took a position and displayed, for the cameras, not only a social conscience but a cocky disdain for American military might. "What a role model," we could tell ourselves, as we'd done when he wept at the elimination of his upstart Canadian squad in the quarterfinals at the 2000 Sydney Olympics; as we do when we learn he has helped fund a new pediatric cardiology ward in a Paraguayan hospital; or when we find out he plays with a stress fracture in his spine—a condition known as spondylolisthesis—that causes his discs to touch and hamstrings to spasm and is the reason he reclines on the court's endline like a lazy teen watching the tube when coach Mike D'Antoni decides the team can spare him (usually, they can't).

"Look at Steve," fan parents tell their kids. "Get away from that bloody computer; get those speakers out of your ears. Be like Steve."

It's difficult to measure the effect of inspirational star athletes' public appearances on kids' attitudes, let alone on their behaviour. But we shouldn't be too optimistic or smug. To children, a penitent, blubbering, and broken Todd Bertuzzi saying sorry while a million camera shutters snicker is likely more useful to their fledgling characters than when an embarrassed, whispery Nash, MVP a second time, says he's trying to "find the comedy in it".

Why Nash for MVP twice? 1. Unselfish play (he passes, Kobe Bryant shoots, and Nash leads the league in assists) 2. Leadership (clutch shots and timely deranged drives to the net when his team needs fearlessness and fire) 3. Six teammates who posted their best scoring seasons ever, statistically, because of 1 and 2 (and because the team is coached to shoot, especially three-pointers). Even with star forward Amare Stoudemire out for most of this season, Nash took his team into the playoffs for the second year in a row. He also led the league in free-throw percentage—and was number two in turnovers.

Slamonline.com—hip-hop's jock back talk to mainstream Sports Illustrated—got eloquent when he won. "Something weird just happened," columnist Khalid Salaam understated. A reader named Jermaine posted: "I hate to bring race into the equation but you have to. Steve Nash is pimping the NBA, and those white sportswriters are his hoes."

Some players and pundits have suggested Nash is nothing but a tatless and bling-free spoke in the NBA's colour-coded wheel. After all, most of those journalist voters are white, some Canadian. They need pro ball to thrive, and, like fans, they identify with Nash. How else to explain seven-foot superman Shaquille O'Neal's second-place snub in 2005? Or pretty sex-glutton Kobe snub this season?

Canadians don't like their heroes dissed, but there's history here. The 1970s were violent times for basketball: brawling, enforcers, at least one act of Bertuzzi-style gore. The league introduced penalties to limit the game's snarl. By the 1980s, Michael Jordan and Magic Johnson and others embodied a stunning offensive game backed by stifling defence. This was inner-city street ball, dominated by black athletes and their supposed natural, aggressive athleticism. By the '90s, defence ruled and black players were great at that too. Problem: a mostly white fan base couldn't relate. The game was too much trap, too few points. Players flaunted stem-to-stern tattoos, scaffolded their skulls with cornrows, and were long, tall magnets to nightclub gunfire and love children. Ratings, revenues, and attendance fell.

The conspiracy part of the theory goes like this: the league needed a whiter look on court so Euroboys like Disco Dirk Nowitzki and Manu Ginóbili—run-and-gunners and useless on defence—were shipped in. This was praised as globalization. The percentage of black players in the game has dropped; the new white guys get to shoot whenever. If foreign players are meant to kill so-called black ball, though, Phoenix didn't get the memo. Four of the Suns players who got minutes in the playoffs are foreign—Canada, France, Brazil, and St. Croix—and Nash is the only white guy in the group.

More specifically, it's the loss of African-American players—their style of play, or just their style—that fuels the resentment. The NBA's new dress code requires business casual (imagine Allen Iverson in a nice turtleneck and front-pleated khakis) whenever players are proximate to the team. Verboten: "chains, pendants, or medallions" and no flip-flops or work boots. Anything gangsta will be fined. Many claim the league has been Disneyfied to eliminate the shadow of African-American culture. The league says it's all about workplace etiquette and congratulates itself for showing at-risk black youth how to dress for success in a conservative and so-white world.

Slam talked to Nash: "Some people said you won the MVP because you're white and most of the MVP voters wanted to see a white guy win the award. Did you put any thought into that?" Will Even Steven, private-school dude, who's read the Communist Manifesto, Immanuel Kant, and Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, offer astute cultural analysis regarding his influence on popular culture and race matters? He may be smart, but he's no idiot. "Um, not really," Nash said. "I dunno...I didn't really think about that at all...I don't really know what each voter's mentality was, so it's hard to say if I won fairly or not; I don't know what really happened. But I'm not going to lose sleep over it." Nash knows who his friends are: the four black guys hustling downcourt and into the paint, stoked for the quick and trick pass or the rebound off a Nash shot from the proverbial downtown.

Pro leagues have to represent values that sell tickets, foreign television rights, and merchandise. And when the NBA and its quasi-sponsored journalists crown Nash most valuable player—two years running—and disregard other players, the message is complicated. Picking Nash says, to some, that the reasoning white man's brain matters more than the reacting black man's body; family matters more than rogue individualism; internationalization unites the world; civility, honesty, and humility trump rudeness, lawlessness, and arrogance; sharing the ball is more honourable than taking it all the way yourself.

Black players and fans aren't the ones targeted for this seduction, and they rightly fear losing a style of game some compare to jazz (now marginalized unless you're Diana Krall) or rock 'n' roll (stolen and bleached by shaggy-haired Brits). On the West Coast, in Nashland, maybe fans like the fact that he's not black. Neither are we.

"Creative" makes Nash's game sound tamed, the way creative writing takes the surprise out of words. He plays with imagination, but it's wild. In game one of the Dallas Mavericks series, he is a hyperactive eight-year-old: he darts chair to chair through the living room, vaults the sofa and rolls off the cushions, tube-sock skates the hardwood, sneaks behind the drapes and darts out to freak the cat and point at the dog, falls flat on his bony butt and rides—arms poling, tongue lolling—into the kitchen for a big samwidge and glassamilk. That's one run of the court for Nash, every run. In game one, they won by two but lost games two and three. He couldn't get those legs to lift.

Back when Nash played great ball for the Mavericks, he did it by feeding the seven-foot German blond centre, Dirk Nowitzki. Average players at first, they spent hours together throwing the ball around, improving their shooting, their moves. Photos show the young men "relaxing" in a local nightclub, laughing their guts out. Today, they are two of the best free-throw shooters in the league—Nowitzki was third in MVP voting—and their post ups and picks one-on-one in these playoffs were a pleasing elaboration of that brotherhood. Nowitzki still gets cranky with teammates and flashes a Teutonic frown; he enacts a melodramatic shot-Kennedy mane toss when fouled. Nash was the grinning, unflappable cool to his bigger brother's heat. After losing to the Suns in the fourth match, in game five Nowitzki—with his German national-team coach in town for an emergency tutorial—set a franchise record for most points in a playoff game: a cool, unflappable 50.

The Western Conference finals went one more game and ended in Phoenix with a loss for Nash and his team.

Phoenix Suns chair and CEO, Jerry Colangelo, has marvelled: "Steve's all about transformation." The improvement in his game, Nash claims, is a result of a commitment he made in those early Dallas days to limit the partying and ramp up the conditioning. If we want to be inspired by Nash, let it be because he rebuilt himself a better body, a stronger mind, and a bigger heart.

But avoid idealization or simplification. In that fourth game, mild-mannered Nash transformed into a hockey player: cut bloody over his right eye, he planted a full-throttle hip check on Nowitzki in the first quarter (no call), sustained an aggressive backcheck, dove, clutched, and grabbed. Pretty ball, no. But Nowitzki had his lowest-scoring game all season while Nash put up 21 points and smiled wide for the first time since game one. Phoenix by 20.

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