The NBA is back, and that means so is Steve Nash. The Phoenix Suns All-Star point guard and two-time NBA Most Valuable Player is well known among fans as a basketball maestro—orchestrating a breakneck-paced offense, in which the ball seems to magically appear at the precise place and time where his teammates can use it best.
Yet Nash’s assists off the court are equally effective. He’s been called the NBA’s Top Entrepreneur, and he’s worked hard to effectively spread his time and influence among a variety of passions and interests. While his playing career is winding down, his impact as an entrepreneur and philanthropist is just starting up.
In a conversation about business, teamwork and success, Nash maps out for us the principles that have guided him on and off the court.
Develop point-guard vision outside of basketball
Nash will be remembered as one of the greatest playmakers to ever hit the hardwood, but he’s also made a game plan for when his playing career ends. “I think about the future and how to make the most of my opportunity post-basketball for, first of all, happiness, and second of all success, engagement, all those things. I think you need to enjoy life.”
To that end, Nash is active in the Steve Nash Foundation, a charity for underprivileged youth in the Phoenix and Vancouver areas. He also started the Steve Nash Sports Club in Vancouver, a high-end sports facility that caters to professional and amateur athletes, and the production company Meathawk, which recently made the jump from ads for companies such as Nike to a feature documentary for ESPN’s highly acclaimed 30 for 30 series. Nash is also part owner of a Major League Soccer team, the Vancouver Whitecaps, and most recently helped start the seed-stage venture capital firm Consigliere.
“I felt there was a great opportunity for me to begin those things early,” says Nash, “my first career was an opportunity to develop my second and third and fourth career, whatever they may be.”
The great theorist and thinker Joseph Campbell advised his students to “follow your bliss.” For Campbell, passion leads to success, and no other pursuit is more valuable than striving to attain your dreams. Nash seems to agree. “I try to get involved with things that I actually really enjoy, rather than whatever makes the most business sense financially,” he says.
In the world of big-bucks sports stardom, his approach looks refreshingly counterintuitive. Whether it’s business ventures, friendships or the next Meathawk production, Nash lets his interests guide him. And the strategy seems to work. “We’ve kind of done a little bit of everything and we enjoy that. We find interest in. . . many, many genres ,” Nash says of his production and film efforts. “I think maybe to a fault. Maybe we need to home in on a certain genre that we want to develop, instead of just flying by the seat of our pants. But we kind of enjoy that.”
Be in it for the long haul
In an advertising age dominated by celebrity endorsement, it’s hard to conceive of a two-time NBA MVP not being overwhelmed with opportunities. Yet Nash says he doesn’t “have people knocking on my door every day” to endorse products. And while somewhat puzzling, it suits Nash just fine. “It’s been a better fit for me to find partnerships and build projects and be a part of building [a brand] into something greater.”
In addition to making more sense for Nash personally, his “partnership” philosophy also makes business sense. By working intimately with a few select organizations, he has formed long-term relationships and gotten involved with lesser-known brands on the ground floor. Take Nash’s role with Mission Skincare. More than just a spokesman, Nash maintains ownership and has a vested interest in ensuring that the company succeeds long term—not just for the length of an endorsement contract. “When you’re a partner and you’re invested in something, there’s a chance for longevity. Whereas if you’re just a spokesman, that usually runs its course.”
See an obstacle, then leap it
Nash brings an uncharacteristic background to his playing success. He was an unknown Canadian kid heading into college, took the only offer he got, and couldn’t rely on NBA mentors and pro-bound peers for guidance. “There weren’t other NBA players in my neighborhood. I didn’t get to play AAU ball against all the other top players in the country. I had one scholarship offer because I lacked visibility.”
He carved a somewhat lonely path toward his professional goals, relying on the support of family, close friends and his own unparalleled self-belief. He never gave up, yet keeps even that in perspective. “I think when you play at the NBA level, there are very few guys who didn’t have challenges or obstacles to overcome.” Still, the message is worth repeating: Achievement is largely contingent on hurdling the obstacles.
Don’t think you’re too old to learn
Despite all his interests off the court, Nash is far from done with the NBA. He continues to be one of the premier on-court leaders in the league, and one of the few veterans whom younger pros approach about life outside the arena. He speaks with pride about “younger teammates who are genuinely interested, and who are seeking us out to ask us about our experience and different things about our career on and off the court.” And it’s not a one-way street. He looks to his younger teammates for a lift, just as they look to him. “You know they’re going to come everyday and give their best. Some days they pick you up, some days they teach you something, some days they set an example that you need.”
Joe Frontiera and Dan Leidl are managing partners of Meno Consulting and authors of a forthcoming book on team turnarounds, to be published in 2012 by Jossey-Bass. Email them or find them on Facebook.