NBA Coach Steve Nash at home on the (tennis) court, in Manhattan Beach

NBA coach Steve Nash competes in the Manhattan Beach Open Tennis Tournament this past weekend. Photo by Philicia Endelman (PhiliciaEndelman.com)

by Paul Teetor

Even before Steve Nash left tennis court number 3 at Live Oak Park Saturday morning, a long line of gushing fans and eager favor seekers were waiting to ambush him.

Excuse me, Steve, could you sign this basketball for my son?

“Of course, got a pen?”

Uh, Steve, do you mind taking a selfie with me?

“Sure, where’s your camera?”

Hey Steve, I saw a video of you and Kevin Durant online, and you had him shooting with one foot in the air. What were you working on there?

“Well, we were trying to build a progression with his shot. It’s a different kind of approach we were taking.”

One old-timer with a full head of gray hair asked Nash if he had ever played tennis with Elliot Teltscher.

“I don’t think I’ve heard of him,” Nash replied. “Never played with him. Never saw him.” 

The old man proceeded to explain that Teltscher was a top-10 pro tennis player during the 1980s who grew up on the Peninsula, where the old man had once lived.

Nash listened patiently for a couple of minutes before excusing himself to conduct an interview with Easy Reader. But before the first question could be asked, a mid-20s guy in white shorts and a too-tight, black T-shirt with over-sized sunglasses pulled up on his Dodgers baseball cap and asked if the reporter could take a selfie of him and Nash together.

Once again, Nash smiled and politely complied. He had just lost only the second tournament tennis match he had ever played, but he wasn’t letting it affect his perpetually sunny, positive approach toward life. He knows how fortunate he is and never loses sight of that reality.

After all, back in his home country of Canada, no one had ever predicted an NBA career for Nash, much less that he would become a superstar. Without years of hard work and a couple of fortunate breaks along the way, he could just as easily have been one of those good, undersized shooters with marginal athleticism who have a brief career in the NBA and are never heard from again.

But now, after 18 years as an NBA scrub-turned-superstar, induction three years ago into the Basketball Hall of Fame, and one season as the coach of the most talented and high-profile team in the NBA, Nash has achieved single name status, like Oprah or Beyonce or Usher.

It’s rarefied air for any human being, but somehow Nash has remained the same kind, thoughtful and gracious person he always has been — even back when he was a mop-topped nobody at basketball backwater Santa Clara University, dreaming of getting a chance to play in the NBA. 

Steve Nash congratulates the top-seeded doubles team of Charles Roberts and Brandon Lam, who focused on Nash’s questionable backhand to win their second round match on Saturday. Photo by Philicia Endelman (PhiliciaEndelman.com)

                                                                

Home is where the heart is

Nash moved to Manhattan Beach after he signed with the Lakers in 2012, and has lived here ever since. Of course, he had to temporarily move with his family to New York late last summer when the Brooklyn Nets shocked the hoops world by hiring Nash as their new head coach, despite his having zero coaching experience.

But he’s kept his MB house and says he always will. After all, this is where he met his second wife Lilla – a former Pepperdine volleyball star — and where she had their two children, a boy and a girl. In recent summers, he was often seen at the beach on 14th Street, pulling a little red wagon full of Boogie boards, umbrellas, ice coolers, volleyballs and anything else needed for a perfect family day at the beach.

“This is where my heart is,” he said. “It always will be here. That’s why we come back here every chance we get.”

He was in town this past weekend at the start of a three-week vacation. After that, it’s back to Brooklyn and the unfinished job of melding three superstars – Kevin Durant, James Harden and Kyrie Irving – into a cohesive unit that can win the NBA title. 

The championship trophy eluded them last month when Durant appeared to win the Nets semifinal series with the eventual champion Milwaukee Bucks by drilling what appeared to be a buzzer-beating, miraculous three point shot in the climactic game 7. After a video review it was ruled that the tip of Durant’s size-17 sneaker had touched the 3-point line, making it a two-point bucket that only tied the game and sent it into overtime. 

“My big-assed foot stepped on the line,” the 6-foot-11 Durant said after the game. “That’s how close we came to beating them.”

The Bucks won the overtime to win the series 4-3, and went on to defeat Atlanta and then the Phoenix Suns 4-2 in the NBA Finals.

It’s not a stretch to think that the Nets could have also beaten Atlanta and Phoenix, if only Durant’s big toe hadn’t prevented them from getting the chance.

“Maybe we could have won it, but we didn’t and so now we have to look forward to next season,” Nash said. “There are 30 teams in the NBA and only one can win the title. Our goal is to be that one team.”

It’s a competitive reality Nash knows only too well. Despite starring on some very good Dallas and Phoenix teams – as well as a Lakers team that was supposed to be a contender but wasn’t – he will forever be on the list of great players without a championship ring. It’s a list that includes Charles Barkley, Patrick Ewing, Dominique Wilkins, Karl Malone and John Stockton — Hall of Famers all — so there’s no shame in being on that list. Still, he would like to mitigate that stigma by winning one or more titles as a coach. 

As it is, the Las Vegas oddsmakers have already installed the Nets as the heavy favorites for next season – assuming, unlike this season, that their three superstars stay healthy when the playoffs roll around next spring.

“We welcome that pressure of being the favorite,” Nash said. “We embrace it. It wouldn’t be as much fun if we didn’t have all that pressure on us.”                  

The quick footwork that helped make Nash a star in the NBA, has transferred well to his newly adopted sport. Photo by Philicia Endelman (PhiliciaEndelman.com)

                                                                       

Teaching himself

It was just five years ago that Nash started teaching himself tennis by banging a ball against the wall at Live Oak Park on the little-used, kids court at the very south end of the basketball courts.

Newly retired from the Lakers after three unproductive, injury-plagued seasons in purple and gold, Nash had a little bit of free time for the first time in a long time and was eager to learn a new sport. He taught himself the old-fashioned way: by watching the good players at the Live Oak tennis courts and imitating them.

Soon he had joined the Manhattan Beach Country Club – so the kids could use the pool, he said – and started hanging around with a bunch of pretty good tennis players at the club.

“I’ve been playing tennis for 40 years. A year and a half, two years ago I was beating Steve pretty regularly,” said John Lowell, who rates himself a 4.5 player and came by Live Oak Saturday morning to cheer for his friend. “But that ended pretty abruptly and now he beats me all the time. I’ve never seen anyone improve as fast as he has.”                

Thus, it wasn’t totally startling to see Nash late Friday afternoon serving an ace and coming up with some clever touch volleys as he and his doubles partner Josh Oswald won their first-round match in the Open Division of the Manhattan Beach Open. The Open Division features the best players. All other players self-designate into 4.5, 4.0 etc. all the way down to 3.0.

One of their first-round opponents, Kyle Ou, is a 2016 graduate of Mira Costa High School who played tennis for the Mustangs. He is a big hoops fan and thus a big Nash fan.

When he learned he was going to be playing against Nash in his first-round match, he said, he could barely contain his excitement.

“I tried to be chill about it going into the match, but when we walked on the court and shook hands with him I was tremendously excited,” he said. “I didn’t even know he played tennis.”

Still, that excitement didn’t stop him from noticing that Nash, though a world-class athlete – he was also a star on the Canadian National Soccer team – was the weaker player on his team. That’s because,     

as much as he has improved in five years, he will probably never reach the level of his partner Oswald, who was formerly ranked number one nationally in the United States Tennis Association 35 and 40 age divisions. And he is a top teaching pro locally, who lived in El Porto – excuse me, North Manhattan Beach — for many years before moving to Santa Monica last year.

“We tried to attack Nash’s backhand,” Ou said. “The other guy had a fantastic backhand. Nash’s wasn’t bad, but not as good as his partner.”

Indeed, both Nash and Oswald have classic one-handed backhands, flowing and fluid, which makes for a more aesthetically pleasing shot than the two-handed backhands most players wield like a weed whacker.

After beating Ou and his partner in straight sets Friday night, Nash and Oswald had to face the top-seeded team of Charles Roberts and Brandon Lam in the second round Saturday morning. They  adopted the same strategy: attack Nash’s backhand every chance they got.

“I was just trying to keep up with the speed of their serves,” Nash said. “Those were some of the fastest serves I’ve ever seen.”

And this time it worked: Nash and Oswald lost 6-3, 6-4.

But the second set was even at 4-4 and Oswald insisted they could have won the match.

“I was disappointed we lost,” he said. “Steve was playing well and I really thought we had a chance to win it.”   

Following the same pattern

Anyone who is amazed that Nash, 47, could turn himself into a top-flight tennis player in less than five years, hasn’t paid attention to the details of Nash’s basketball career. He did the same thing in the NBA.

He was a 22-year-old, undersized white guy coming out of Santa Clara when he was drafted 15th overall by the Phoenix Suns in 1996, two spots after Kobe Bryant was picked by the Charlotte Hornets and then traded to the Lakers in a prearranged deal.

Suns fans at the draft booed the pick – loudly.  Nash says he understood their feelings as he watched it unfold on TV.

“Most of them had never heard of me and I was from a college most of them never heard of,” he says. “I don’t blame them for being unhappy.”

Even worse, he was coming to a Suns team that was stacked at point guard, the only position he has ever played. They had All-Star Kevin Johnson backed up by another very good guard in Sam Cassell. Then Nash’s situation got more tenuous when Hall-of-Famer Jason Kidd arrived in a trade during his rookie year.

Nash got minimal playing time his first two seasons, and his most notable characteristic was his long floppy hair that hung down over his face and sometimes seemed to cover his eyes. How could this kid be such a dead-eye shooter when he couldn’t even see the basket?

But while the Suns had little use for him, the Dallas Mavericks and billionaire owner Mark Cuban saw something in Nash’s game that convinced them to swing a deal for him after the 1998 draft. It was the smartest move Cuban ever made, and a turning point in Nash’s pro career. Over the next six seasons he combined with Mavs star Dirk Nowitzki to bring Dallas back to the playoffs for the first time in a decade and eventually to the Western Conference Finals.

Then came the fateful 2003-04 season, when they again made it to the WCF behind the Dirk-and-Steve combo, who in the process had become all-stars and best friends. But Nash was now turning 30 and played with a reckless abandon that made Cuban worry about his long-range future.

After the season Cuban offered Nash a 4-year deal worth $36 million – a below-market, $9 million a year offer for a rising All-Star. Nash turned it down and put himself on the open market. Phoenix, ruing the day it ever traded Nash, offered him a 6-year, $63 million deal.

Nash, wanting to stay with his buddy Nowitzki and his other teammates, like Michael Finley, had his agent set up an unusual phone call with Cuban. Nash told Cuban he would stay in Dallas if Cuban simply matched the Suns offer. It was a proposition he didn’t have to make but he did it for the best of reasons: loyalty and teamwork.

Cuban, who plays a smart businessman on the TV hit show Shark Tank, where he is full of bluster and aggressive advice, turned Nash down.

“He said I was 30 already and played a helter-skelter style,” Nash said “He was worried I wouldn’t last in the league.”

Nash went on to have his greatest years back in Phoenix, where he won two NBA MVP awards after he was paired with the perfect coach for him in Mike D’Antoni. Together they developed the modern pace-and-space game that features quick shots, a barrage of 3-pointers, and shooting in 7 seconds or less after getting the ball. It was the prototype for today’s NBA game. Although the Suns never won a title with it, it was later taken a step further by the Golden State Warriors with Steph Curry and Klay Thompson bombing away to win three NBA titles.

And once again Nash demonstrated one of his strongest traits: loyalty. When D’Antoni applied for but didn’t get several open NBA jobs last summer, Nash offered him a job as his top assistant. D’Antoni took it, and NBA fans were treated to the rare sight of a former star player now the boss of his former coach.

“Mike was a huge help to me this year,” Nash said. “It’s one thing to play for an NBA team. It’s a very different thing to coach an NBA team. Mike had all the coaching wisdom and experience that I lacked. He helped me create an environment where everyone feels challenged and rewarded.”

Former Mira Costa high tennis player Kyle Ou, despite being a basketball fan, didn’t know Steve Nash played tennis. He did after losing to him on Friday in the first round of the Manhattan Beach Open. (PhiliciaEndelman.com)

White privilege is real

Nash’s conspicuous lack of coaching experience at any level – except for working with the little kids at American Martyrs School – sparked some fierce criticism from sports pundits.

ESPN shouter Stephen A. Smith – who makes a lucrative living by trolling sports fans eager to hear his hot take on the trending topics of the day – came right out and called Nash’s hiring a blatant case of white privilege.

He pointed out that there were plenty of black assistant coaches around the league who were better qualified – at least on paper – to take over the most talented team in the league. At that time, Nash declined to get into a debate with Smith about any racial issues surrounding his hiring.

But asked to respond to those comments Saturday morning, Nash had a surprising answer.

“I do think white privilege is real, and it’s something we have to be very cognizant of and make sure we correct whenever we see it,” he said. “So I totally understand why some people would wonder about that in terms of my being hired.”    

He then pointed out that it was the Nets, who already had signed Durant and Irving and would soon trade for Harden, who reached out to him even though he wasn’t looking for a coaching job at that point.

“It was a unique job that did not scream out for a prototypical coach,” he said. “They knew I had played 18 years and had a great relationship with players around the league. They were looking for someone with the ability to relate to high level players.”

The reality is that Nash had the last laugh on his critics. Although the Nets did not win the title, there is plenty of buzz that Nash could be voted the NBA’s coach of the year. The reason: his three stars only played together in seven games all year, as they took turns getting injured. Meanwhile, the Nets had traded all their other good players to get Harden, so Nash was left with little depth to work with.

Still, they finished with the second-best record in the eastern conference, there were no problems with the three notoriously difficult stars – except for Irving’s unexcused 7-game absence for “personal reasons” – and all the ominous predictions that three ball hogs would be unable to play together were just that: predictions that never came true thanks to Nash’s understanding of superstar egos. He even got Irving and Harden to give an honest effort on defense, something they rarely were asked to do in the past.

Greg Popovich, the dean of NBA coaches and the coach of the USA Olympic team, acknowledged the incredible job Nash did in his very first year. Before his Spurs team played the Nets last spring, he was asked to evaluate Nash’s debut as a fellow coach.

“Steve’s been great,” Popovich said. “You know, it’s always difficult in any year to manage new people. And the stars that he has, on top of it all, from other you know situations, experiences, to meld that together into a cohesive team unit is not easy, and he’s done that. So his experience as a player has really helped him. But he’s such an intelligent guy, he cares about people, he listens to other people — there was no doubt that he was going to be able to figure that out. So, even in a COVID year, it’s still basketball, and those relationships and understanding what wins are still important, and he’s got that in spades.” 

International influencer

In 2006, Time Magazine – which at the time was still an important media outlet – named Nash one of the 100 most influential people in the world. But it wasn’t for his basketball playing – it was for the off-court work he does with the Steve Nash Foundation.

Through grants to public service and nonprofits, the foundation aims to foster health in kids by funding projects that provide services to children affected by poverty, illness, abuse, or neglect, and creating opportunities for education, play, and improved nutrition.

“It’s about helping kids feel empowered. We had a lot of success before the pandemic, which forced us to shut down many of our programs,” he says. “But now we’re getting them back up and running.”

He was also recognized as an influencer because of his outspoken, liberal political views. He has been harshly critical of former President Donald Trump – “I just have vastly different values than he does. I don’t share any of his values,” he said Saturday – and rejects the “shut up and dribble” mandate put out by Fox News host Laura Ingraham when she got into a Twitter war with Lebron James last year.

I think that every citizen has a right to their opinions and beliefs. That’s what democracy is about,” he said. “Athletes should be empowered to use their voices and start conversations. It doesn’t matter what end of the political spectrum you’re on. Just because we’re athletes doesn’t mean we should be excluded from that conversation.”

Steve Nash: hoops hall-of-famer, cultural influencer, political pundit. 

And now a pretty good tennis player.

Contact: teetor.paul@gmail.com. Follow @paulteetor. ER

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