LOS ANGELES — Steve Nash was found in the hallway not far from the Lakers’ locker room late Sunday night. A growing group of reporters had not yet gathered. And there was, unquestionably, fear in his eyes.
For a guy who has built one of the NBA’s greatest careers on his ability to see things before they develop, Nash has no idea what is going to happen to him now.
He tried to put on a braver face as more media members collected and cameras got switched on. Nash largely failed there too, as an uncharacteristic aura of defeat hung off him heavier than the gray sweater he wore.
Nash stumbled over the initial words: “I hesitate to even talk about it now because it's probably not a good time; I'm feeling a little emotional.”
Then he paused a full five seconds before continuing: “It’s hard. I really want to play, and I really want to play the way I'm accustomed to playing, and to be so limited is frustrating.”
Nash was reluctant to say publicly, but he suspects he has nerve damage running from his troublesome back to his left hamstring. He felt it coming on about a week ago but tried to persevere, contributing significantly to the Lakers’ deeply satisfying victory over Dwight Howard and the Rockets on Thursday night.
“It wasn’t bad enough against Houston not to play,” Nash said. The same sort of nerve problem from his back to his right hamstring and hip derailed the latter half of last season and left him pretty much stuck in neutral during the offseason.
Nash will learn more Monday after being examined by Robert Watkins, the doctor who repaired Howard’s herniated disk. It’s not nearly the first time Nash will be seeing the back specialist during his Lakers career. But it’s the first time the Lakers’ PR department has announced it, indicating the more formally serious nature of this situation.
The pessimism gradually seizing Nash’s tone could be heard in the bottom line that he doesn’t even consider for a moment looking for a clean bill of health.
“Clean-ish,” he said Sunday night, as in: “To not know where a clean-ish bill of health is (coming) is a little daunting.” Rewind to mid-April and a deliberately vague health update from the Lakers’ PR department about Nash, who would try to fight through the nerve pain with a series of epidural injections before giving in and sitting out the last two playoff games.
The Lakers’ statement reported Nash’s MRI exam and offered this mysterious summation: It “confirmed several preexisting issues.” Nash is not just 39; he is 39 with a chronic back condition he has nursed through the years to the amazement of his trainers and therapists to play as much and as well as he has.
Mavericks owner Mark Cuban, having a skilled business mind, pored through the hard data in 2004 and concluded Nash’s body would break down sooner or later—so free-agent destination Phoenix, not Dallas, got those two NBA MVP seasons and all those wonderful Nash memories the following six years.
In January 2012, Cuban told the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, “If you would have told me Steve would have been playing eight years later, I would have bet any amount of money you’d be wrong. ... All the advice I got from everybody we had was that he was going to fall apart.”
It’s 10 years later now, and what Nash managed to avoid in Phoenix has caught up to him in Los Angeles. He knows he gave the Lakers very little last season in exchange for the four draft picks and $3 million conveyed to the Suns. Nash has spent his entire career working hard, so use that as perspective when he says he “worked incredibly hard” trying to prepare to bounce back this season.
It was a tedious summer of small victories amid ongoing uncertainty, Nash waiting for his body to get well enough just so he could really run—only getting well enough to start playing basketball again just before training camp. Nash didn’t want to sit out the start of the season, with Kobe Bryant already out and Howard long gone, though there was logic in more rest.
He wanted to play, wanted to see if he could get better and play better at the same time. Except the body that Cuban knew would fall apart has refused to play along with Nash’s determined mind. With one more year on his $27 million Lakers contract beyond this one, it’s apparent by now that Nash won’t be going out on his terms.
He was limping as he tried to force that left leg to run in the first half Sunday night, a sharp contrast to young and lively Minnesota point guard Ricky Rubio—who, in a blowout of the Lakers, posted the first triple-double against them since LeBron James on Christmas 2010. Hard as it is to remember now, Nash averaged 11.4 assists in that 2010-11 season—and the following year finished second in the NBA with 10.7 assists per game, his final season in Phoenix.
Those terms of his past are long gone now. He’s not going out on them. Nash isn’t nearly as proud as the average sports star, though. This isn’t about his pride. This is about his spirit. He doesn’t want to go out at all yet.