Sunday, April 29, 2012

Free Steve Nash: Appreciating the Nash in Phoenix Era

Scott Winterton / Deseret News
Genuinely believing that the Jazz would beat the Suns on Tuesday night and clinch the final berth to the playoffs, I decided to invite over one of my friends to watch the game with me. Under different circumstances, I would choose to watch it alone and thereby free myself to express as much desperate sadness or indulgent exultation as I deemed cathartic. After all, there’s hardly any commiseration to be had when watching a game with an opponent’s fan. But this was different. This time, I realized that my emotional response to this game would be critically limited. As a Jazz fan, I could only experience what this game meant on a very self-interested level, and what I wanted to experience and appreciate was what this game meant for basketball. At least potentially, this game could mean the end of the Steve Nash era in Phoenix, and if the end of any era carried significance for the basketball cosmos, it was this end of this era.
So I invited this friend over. His name is Gerritt, and he’s a lifelong Suns fan. Over the course of the game, he admitted this season was more than a pleasant surprise. After the game, he even made a weak attempt to downplay the devastation of the loss, because “hey, we didn’t even expect to be competing for a playoff spot.” We both knew he said this less to portray an accurate sentiment and more to assuage some of my survivor’s guilt. This one hurt for him, and we both knew it. As the game wound down, I asked him if he wanted Nash back. “I don’t think so,” he said. “I would feel bad for him. He deserves better than this.” This obviously referred to the much-maligned supporting cast that the Suns front office has assembled for Nash, but it also suggested some debt owed to Nash–that someone, maybe the Basketball Gods, maybe Miami Heat GM Pat Riley, owed it to Nash to get him out of his Phoenix Fiat and into the driver’s seat of one of the NBA’s Lamborghinis.
I’m not presumptuous enough to conclude that because my altruistic Suns-fan friend can shirk self-interest and wish his team’s superstar a happier future somewhere else that every Suns fan feels the same way. But I’m also not cynical enough to think that a large portion of those fans–fans who have long been Nash’s strongest supporters–would have him collect dust on the shelf of NBA irrelevance. I’d like to believe that they recognize that whatever happens to their franchise player, it should not take away from the many years they spent enjoying him. Even as an unrelated bystander, I could not help but enjoy those years. Nash and his SSOL Suns represented a way of basketball that thrilled me aesthetically and more importantly, that inspired hope within me. Every time I watched Nash’s teams play (and the Suns-Jazz game was no different), I felt imbued with an extra dose of optimism about the NBA future. After all, if this team that played in this way could be successful, maybe one day, I’d be watching a league full of teams willing to push the ball off of made free throws, only to shoot transition threes. It was a naively romantic notion, to be sure, but it fascinated me.
It’s a sad truth, but it’s a truth nonetheless than an artist’s audience rarely wants to experience the whole uninhibited power of his genius. Even in those cases when the audience claims to want it or impetuously demands it, they do so ignorantly. They actually want it on their terms; they want an altered, streamlined version of that whole genius, fashioned to their needs and their tastes. It’s why The Great Gatsby, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s masterpiece and most unobstructed burst of brilliance, was also a commercial failure by his standards. It’s also why Kobe Bryant was most maligned during his seasons of gratuitous and unrivaled gunnery.
Nash’s artistry, on the other hand, was one of the few exceptions to this trend. Not only was Nash given a shackles-free offensive system in which to shine freely, but he was also blessed with a fan base that adoringly revered everything that he was. With fans like Gerritt, Nash enjoyed a relationship as great as any in the NBA between fans and a player. With Nash in Phoenix, we saw a rare combination of uninhibited but truly appreciated genius.
This is not to say that the players that comprised Nash’s teams were perfectly suited to draw out the legendary talent within him (a ridiculous thought when considered side-by-side with a mental picture of Channing Frye’s face). Fortunately, Nash didn’t actually need that type of specialization in his team. The beauty of Nash’s brilliance was that it could not help but manifest itself, and its brightness was made all the more stark by contrast with his deeply flawed teammates. In Nash’s earlier years, his critics could point to Amar’e Stoudemire’s athleticism or Joe Johnson’s dead-eye shooting as explanations for his astounding assist statistics. But instead of exposing Nash with their departures, Nash’s former teammates exposed their considerable offensive detriments. Most statistical measurements of Stoudemire, Joe Johnson, Shawn Marion, Jason Richardson or any of his other early teammates would show a distinct drop-off after their exodus from the vicinity of Nash’s contagious skill set.
Ironically, it was not until after their departures that we could see the true value in Nash as a basketball player. With this more recent motley crew as Nash’s collective sidekick, we saw Nash’s brilliance truly unleashed. Without the restriction of talented but entitled teammates demanding the ball, Nash achieved an even more transcendent level of statistical success. Not that his statistics were any better (though they weren’t worse), but that they remained static, even when saddled with the likes of Robin Lopez. Nash raised absolute nobodies to temporary levels of greatness. Nobodies like Marcin Gortat, Jared Dudley, and yes, even Channing Frye. Unlike other elite point guards like Rajon Rondo and Russell Westbrook, Nash did not need to be surrounded with blue-chippers in order to access his unadulterated genius. If anything, players of that talent level did and would detract from Nash’s accomplishments. Sad as it may have been to watch Nash direct his world-class symphonies with a high school orchestra, it was Nash’s true calling to do so. Steve Nash could make the most inexperienced violinist produce auditory gold and he could inspire even the sloppiest of cellists to play for stretches of clear, mistake-free beauty. In Phoenix, Nash received that opportunity, and every once in a while, we would get so caught up in the beauty of his performances that we would almost forget he was doing it with an inferior set of musicians. That such a thing was possible, that Nash could shine more brightly than he ever had before with players like this, proved his abilities in a way that being on a contender never could.
Now to the original point. Maybe Nash does deserve to move to a contender for a chance at that elusive grail, and maybe he does deserve better than this. Personally, I would love to see him playing in the postseason again. But whatever is decided about Nash’s future, Nash’s past should remain untouched by regret and his career should not be defined by a championship. Certainly championships are one form of success, but they are not the only form. At least in the case of Steve Nash, success was much more rewarding than a walk to a podium and a handshake with the President. In fact, in the case of Steve Nash, success was the rare unbridled expression of sincere brilliance, and that is what Nash deserves above all else: a standing ovation.

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