Did you know that a Johannesburg-born player was elected as an NBA All-Star in 2002, to play in a match that celebrates the biggest guns in basketball in the United States?
Brand South Africa reporter
You heard right: a South African-born player is one of the best basketballers in the world, and the vast majority of South Africans – make that 99.99% – have no idea who he is.
Before we get carried away, it should be said that Dallas Mavericks point guard Steve Nash is a Canadian citizen who spent most of his formative years in Victoria, British Columbia, a small, beautiful city and site of the 1994 Commonwealth Games.
Nash’s father was a professional footballer, and Nash junior’s first word, spoken at 10 months, was “goal”. Steve obviously inherited good genes, as he proved to be an all-round sportsman early on in life, excelling at ice hockey, lacrosse and, naturally, football.
When he finally turned his hand to basketball in the eighth grade, though, he found his true calling. He went on to be named the High School Athlete of the Year in British Columbia after averaging 21.3 points, 11.2 assists and 9.1 rebounds per game, an amazing all-round feat.
After high school Nash went to Santa Clara University in California, where he quickly established himself as one of the top point guards in the United States.
He earned a reputation as a fiery competitor and was twice named West Coast Conference Player of the Year. During his four years at Santa Clara, he led the Broncos to the NCAA tournament (for the top teams in the country) three times. He left the university having established a number of records at the institution and with a sociology degree in hand.
Drafted by the Phoenix Suns, Nash spent his first two years in the NBA as a back-up to Kevin Johnson, one of the league’s top point guards and a three-time NBA All-Star. That he was even drafted was a big deal. Since 1949 only 21 Canadian players had been drafted by the NBA, and only three have been drafted since 1989.
His big break came in 1998 when he moved to the Dallas Mavericks in a trade. It was a move from a winning franchise to one of the league’s cellar dwellers, but the trade by Mavericks coach Don Nelson, that included picking up German star Dirk Nowitzki, proved to be an inspired one.
Given the role of a starter, Nash helped turn the Dallas franchise around, from one of the wannabes to one of the elite. Some fans weren’t taken in by Nash to start with and he had to endure booing from his hometown supporters, but, says Nash: “It was kind of a tough situation, but at the same time I understood there would be a day when they would forget all about those times”.
He helped them forget by raising his output from season to season, from 7.9 points and 5.5 assists per game in 1998-1999 to 15.6 points and 7.3 assists per game in 2000-2001, his breakthrough season.
The current season, 2001-2002, has seen Nash perform at an even higher level, elevating him to the elite circle of the NBA, averaging 19.6 points and 8 assists per game. However, the one part of his game that cannot be quantified by statistics is leadership, and that is one of the most important strings to his bow – setting the standard for the rest of his team.
Nash has achieved outside of the NBA too. Playing for Canada, he helped the team improve from a disappointing twelfth-place finish in the 1998 World Championships in Athens to qualification for the Olympics.
After Athens not many people had expected the Canadians to qualify for Sydney 2000, but the Canadians did this and more, reaching the quarterfinals before losing 68-63 to France, who went on to meet the United States for the gold medal. Pivotal to this was the leadership provided by Nash.
Off the court, Nash sponsors the Steve Nash Youth Basketball League in British Columbia, contested by over 10 000 children.
On a personal level, Nash has become known for his long, unkempt hair. “It’s pretty awful,” he once said of it in an interview. That hasn’t stopped him dating some high-profile women, including Elizabeth Hurley and Geri Halliwell.
However, his first love remains basketball. “I really just fell in love with it from day one, I always tried to have a ball in my hand and tried to maximise my time on the court,” says Nash.
It seems to have been worth it for the Johannesburg-born star. The Dallas Mavericks thought enough of his ball-handling skills to sign him to a six-year, $33-million contract. And today the club’s fans love Nash – who responds in kind by buying a block of seats at every match for local charities.
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