Nash officially announced his retirement from a 19-year NBA career on Saturday, penning a beautiful farewell to the game that drove him to push his body to the limit and squeeze out every ounce of available talent until his body eventually surrendered.
“The greatest gift has been to be completely immersed in my passion and striving for something I loved so much – visualizing a ladder, climbing up to my heroes,” Nash wrote in a letter published on The Player’s Tribune website. “Obviously, I value my kids and my family more than the game, but in some ways having this friend — this ever-present pursuit — has made me who I am, taught me and tested me, and given me a mission that feels irreplaceable.”
In addition to eight all-star appearances, finishing with the third-most assists in NBA history and shooting free throws better than anyone else, Nash will go down as the ultimate overachiever and the unlikely engineer of the league’s best offenses for nine consecutive seasons – on two different teams.
Though Nash leaves without capturing a championship ring, his career was an unmitigated success because of how he worked his way up the NBA hierarchy with so little initially expected of him.
A native of Johannesburg, South Africa, who grew up in British Columbia, Nash went 15th overall out of tiny Santa Clara in a heralded 1996 draft class that included future all-stars Bryant, Allen Iverson, Ray Allen, Jermaine O’Neal, Stephon Marbury, Antoine Walker, Shareef Abdur-Rahim, Zydrunas Ilgauskas and Peja Stojakovic.
Nash flopped early in Phoenix and had his frosted blonde tips nearly booed out of Dallas before he formed a ruthless scoring trio along with Dirk Nowitzki and Michael Finley. Even after he led the Mavericks to the Western Conference finals and established himself as an all-star, owner Mark Cuban didn’t think he was worth investing a long term contract and regretfully let in walk as a free agent in 2004.
When Nash returned to Phoenix, Mike D’Antoni was there to take advantage of rules that removed hand-checking on defense and created a fast-paced, steroid-injected offense called, “Seven Seconds or Less.”
Under D’Antoni, Nash thrived and invoked fear every time he swiped his long hair behind his ears, licked his fingers, and pushed the ball up the floor. Defenses had to be leery of Nash’s ability to crash into the lane, find Shawn Marion for a lob or catch Amare Stoudemire cutting to the rim for a demoralizing dunk. And if opponents dared to disrespect him, Nash would scoot to the rim for layups or stop on a dime for a pull-up three-pointer in transition.
Nash never seemed to struggle with balancing his scoring with setting up teammates and D’Antoni gave him the freedom to make the decisions which, more often than not, were correct. His Suns will always be remembered as the team that had some ill-timed luck: Joe Johnson fractured his face in 2005, Stoudemire missed almost the entire next season with a knee injury and a Robert Horry elbow decked Nash in 2007 but proved more costly because of a stupid rule that led to Stoudemire and Boris Diaw getting suspensions for leaving the bench.
The Suns then added O’Neal, got a little clunky, and D’Antoni moved on. Nash then left for Los Angeles in 2012 to make one last push for a title with Bryant but his time with the Lakers has been forgettable and marred by injuries. Nash’s decision to walk away was made for him, with a bad back repeatedly giving out despite his persistence.
Nash is one of just 10 players in NBA history to win back-to-back MVP awards — joined Duncan, Bill Russell, Wilt Chamberlain, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Moses Malone, Larry Bird, Magic Johnson, Michael Jordan, and LeBron James — and was arguably the greatest beneficiary of having the best story line to win both times (the Suns made a 33-game improvement in his first season, won the division a year later without Stoudemire). His numbers in those seasons weren’t overwhelming and he probably could never claim the crown as the game’s best player. But that doesn’t diminish his contributions.
O’Neal and Duncan were relics from a period when having a dominant big man equaled success. Bryant’s prominence was a nod to Jordan’s dominance from the shooting guard position. The modern NBA is now about having an elite ball-handler who can distribute and score, make his teammates better and elevate the quality of play on the floor.
Since Nash won his first MVP, Derrick Rose, John Wall and Kyrie Irving have all gone first overall; Chris Paul, Rose, Irving and Michael Carter-Williams have won rookie of the year; Rose has won MVP and Stephen Curry or Russell Westbrook might win the award this season. Nash wasn’t the first, or the best, but it’s not a coincidence that point guards have became more renowned ever since Canada’s best basketball import showed what could happen when a team decides to build around a little guy.