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Out of the Wild: Steve Nash's Exodus to Los Angeles

July 17, 2012

Steve Nash has always been an outsider. When most of the basketball world was introduced to him, it was March and Santa Clara was printed across his chest. His team was a fifteen seed and pulled off an upset against the number two seeded Arizona Wildcats. His team would return to the NCAA Tournament two other times, but was unable to ever make it past the second round. In many ways, Steve Nash's college career was more than just a precursor or slight foreshadowing of his pro career--think specifically of how in both Dallas and Phoenix he was able to perfectly juxtapose brilliance and beauty with disappointment and failure, going places where it appeared he had no business going.

In fact, it would be easy to constitute his collegiate experience of achieving so much while winning so very little as a metaphor for his entire NBA existence. For one thing, Nash has consistently lived outside the margins of the basketball mainstream, as if he hitched his way from city to city by boxcar. Both his nationality, Canadian, and his race, white, mark him as a minority on the hardwood, as does his signature flopping wet mop of hair. And in terms of MVP winners, he is one of the few defensive liabilities to ever make the list; he is a point guard whose sole style of play is to weary the defense by scoring and creating easy buckets.  By nomadically probing the paint, he has always managed to translate basketball courts into prairie and interstate and the fodder of free spirits.

Then there is the clarity of his politics. Steve Nash has somehow figured out how to always say the right thing morally without being the shy athlete stuffed full of cliches. In short, he is the NBA's equivalent of a folk singing troubadour--Woody Guthrie with a crossover and a jump shot.

I have read two books this summer about migrant outsiders. One was Jon Krakauer's Into the Wild, which was part of my school's AP summer assignment for next year's juniors. The other was Richard Ford's latest novel Canada. The former deals with isolation as an independent choice and the latter deals with isolation as it is thrust upon the individual.The time in between reading the two books was marked by Steve Nash's being traded from the Phoenix Suns to the Los Angeles Lakers; a move that took just about everyone by surprise, seeing as how most rumors had Nash headed to either Toronto or New York. Personally, I believe a move to the Toronto Raptors would have been the easiest to comprehend because it would have done nothing to change the archetype at the core of Nash's basketball identity. A move to New York also would not have been as dramatic as the one that did happen; a move to New York would have simply brought Nash's ballads and protest songs to Greenwich Village; and if offered a harmonica, he would have been transformed from Robert Zimmerman into Bob Dylan.

Before going any further, two things need to be said about Steve Nash as both a person and a basketball player so that these paragraphs do not melt into the false accusation that his donning of purple and gold makes him a sellout. First, Steve Nash's going to LA has family at the center of it, or at least that is how it is being marketed, which makes his joining forces with Kobe Bryant feel much less contemptuous than most superstar mergers. Secondly, Nash does not need a NBA championship to secure his greatness; he is not LeBron James. Hailing from Canada and Santa Clara and the general unknown, rather than from prophecy, has granted Nash the peculiar gift of coming to the NBA as a blank sheet of expectations, meaning that whatever he achieved would, in actuality, be viewed as an achievement. His humble beginnings have made him appear as miraculous as something coming out of nothing, especially when one considers how he has ironically carried rogue franchises deep into the Playoffs on the one body part of his that was supposed to be his Achilles heel: his busted back.

To sleight Steve Nash for agreeing to play with Phoenix’s rivals, the Lakers, would be as petty and immature as booing Bob Dylan for plugging into an amp, but the motivation to do so does not appear to be entirely removed from Dylan's decision to follow a trend and break down barriers all within the same action.

Image by Mike Langston

As to how Nash’s move to California is similar to Dylan's going electric, when Dylan went electric, he brought something outside of the folk genre to the main stage of a folk festival, but he also put himself, whether knowingly or not, at the center of a sound that would buy him years more of relevance. Acoustic folk was a sound from a past decade, while sonic assaults were the sound of the future, and the same seems to be true of singular superstars in the NBA. No longer will they sit alone on stage with just a mic, a barstool, and a guitar.

The Los Angeles Lakers, even under Phil Jackson, have never had a great point guard, maybe not even a good one (no offense to Derek Fisher) in the true sense of the role, and under Mike Brown the team's offense, in one season, has come to rely mostly on isolation plays and methodical post-ups. What the Lakers are getting in Steve Nash then is Bob Dylan's set from the 1965 Newport Folk Festival, which means that while whatever basketball they produce on the court is sure to be memorable it could all end in boos just as easily as it could in cheers. And on a secondary note, Steve Nash is not allowed to disappear, to fade into irrelevancy, to have his artistry handcuffed by something as stubborn as loyalty.

Of course, this evolutionary migration does not come without its costs. Something is lost in Steve Nash's move from the Arizona desert to the beaches of southern California. If he wins a championship in Los Angeles, he most likely gains status as an iconic basketball figure, but such gains will cost him his status as the basketball poster boy for romance and martyrdom, just as Dylan's embrace of electricity contributed to his losing his status as a prophet and the voice of his generation, to in essence become just another rockstar.

But also worth considering is the fact that while winning a title in L.A. would boost Nash’s professional legacy, it may not translate into enhancing his career in terms of myth and folklore. The Lakers as a franchise are home to a bevy of superstars, and their rosters are a who’s who of legendary men. Even if Steve Nash were to help Kobe Bryant capture his sixth ring, he would still only be the third best Laker to ever man the point, falling behind the likes of Magic Johnson and Jerry West. He would also rank behind the likes of Wilt, Kareem, Kobe, Shaq, Elgin Baylor, and maybe even James Worthy. As much as their beaches and freeways, the Los Angeles Lakers are crowded with fast cars and rich names. Steve Nash may win the ring he so very much deserves in L.A., but it may not come with all the roughspun sentimentality as a ring in Phoenix would have, where a championship would have made him a Sun to eclipse all others.

That being said, Steve Nash does not have the time left in his career to wait on the completion of yet another rebuilding project. To have perished in what was fast becoming a purple and orange wasteland would have made Steve Nash into the basketball equivalent of Into the Wild's Chris McCandless, who Krakauer strongly believes died in the wilderness wishing for a return to some sort of domesticated life. A prolonged existence with the franchise he has come to define would have starved Steve Nash into becoming some misbegotten philosophy; something that breaks but does not bend, a cult hero that defines the style of an era but does not pertain to the larger scope of historical record-keeping.

Consider Nash's words to ESPN's Marc Stein on the matter of not playing for Phoenix anymore or never winning a championship: "I feel fairly philosophical about it." 

Personally, I do not know what it means to feel "philosophical," but the statement on its own makes Nash sound like a man who spends long nights journaling, trying to find himself, unabashedly gazing at his navel, wondering not what his place in the NBA is, but what exactly is the NBA as a place. And most likely, his answers would have been deeply personal and untranslatable to the general public; the confused dreams of a peyote inspired vision quest and nothing more.

People remember the tragedy of Chris McCandless because he perished alone in the woods and the circumstances move people in the possession of empathy to ask both how and why he died, for what purpose did he suffer, and Krakauer is quick to observe that if the young man had walked out of the Alaskan woods, then his story would have no audience--there is a market for death and failure out there in the world, and in the eye of the sports journalist, but not necessarily for the means of ordinary survival. So think of Steve Nash's going to LA as his walking out of the Alaskan woods, unscathed, but keep in mind that what holds true in the real world does not always hold true in the NBA. He will not be forgotten for surviving to contend another day; in fact, he may be prolonging his judgement, at the keyboards of journalists everywhere, by opening up for further review what had become an open and shut case. In Phoenix, there was nothing new to write about the little Canadian point guard that could, but that may not necessarily be the case in L.A. The move, in many ways, makes him vulnerable to criticism that his tenure in Phoenix never could.  

 While staying in Phoenix would have preserved Steve Nash's reputation as a basketball artist and philosopher rather than as a basketball player, his going to Toronto would have been a journey from a marginal residence to completely off the page. Granted the man would have been hailed by his home country as a hero and a patriot, but to what purpose? If his relationship with Phoenix was prompting existential questions on philosophy already, then his joining Toronto would have been entirely literary and therefore unsubstantiated; a life come full circle for the sake of narrative alone.

 The central question of Richard Ford's Canada appears to be what do individuals do when those people who are supposed to be a foundation come to victimize them through carelessness and desertion. What does a person such as Ford's young protagonist Dell Parsons do when his parents rob a bank or when his protector murders two people? Or, what does Steve Nash do as ownership changes directions once again? Ford’s answer to this question--and Steve Nash’s as well, if he ever did truly consider Toronto as a destination, or even staying in Phoenix--appears to be go into hiding. But hiding is only a temporary solution to any problem; a person can always be found.

As a narrator, Dell Parsons speaks sparsely, as devoid of true personality as the town of Great Falls, Montana, which really isn't his home but just another place he stayed on his way to somewhere else, and the same can be said of his time spent north of the American border. And in some ways, that makes Dell a lot like Steve Nash. Despite Nash's having more personality than this fictional counterpoint, the fact that both men hail from nowhere makes somewhere feel like an accomplishment, whether it is in Montana, Saskatchewan, an Applebee’s, Santa Clara, Dallas, Phoenix, or even Los Angeles.

Richard Ford ends his book with the words "We try," and I agree with that sentiment. Everyday all we do is try to maintain some consistency of living, but the results and destinations of our efforts do change us; and in Steve Nash's efforts he has proven himself to be much less predictable than any archetype to which we might pin him. What that means, I'm not quite sure, but the answer is probably blowing in the wind, at least until he stabilizes himself with a championship or we, the basketball public, find some other way to decipher what it means to be a successful professional athlete.

Bryan Harvey can be followed @LawnChairBoys.


Anonymous said...

Awesome piece!

July 20, 2012 at 6:36 AM
Bryan Harvey said...

Thanks, Anonymous.

July 20, 2012 at 8:46 AM

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