It doesn’t come from that deep, dark place inside.
There’s no obvious reason to go at his kind face with some loud, throaty roar. But for all the venom Lakers fans hold and continue to unleash on Dwight Howard, they aren’t too big on Steve Nash either.
Like Howard, Nash represents only negative things to Lakers fans embarrassed by last season and seeing Nash crumble again less than two weeks into a season in which his offensive artistry is sorely needed with Kobe Bryant still out. At a time when fans like to delineate who are “real Lakers” and latter-day fakes, Nash hasn’t earned his spot.
He has given very little to cheer about, and the aging but bejeweled peer he essentially replaced, Derek Fisher, is at least still upright and active in Oklahoma City. For the record, you could rightfully say that the Nash acquisition cost the Lakers four first-round picks (and two second-round picks)—counting the two first-rounders lost to pave the way for Ramon Sessions to replace Fisher before Sessions left for nothing upon the Lakers’ realization they could land Nash.
And when you sift carefully through all the debris from last season, Nash is indeed a primary reason why Mike D’Antoni is here instead of Phil Jackson, whose refusal to use Nash as a ball-dominant point guard did not jibe with the vision of Mitch Kupchak and Jerry and Jim Buss.
So when the sensitive subject of Nash’s declining health comes up, as it so often has and is again with this latest nerve root irritation that might keep him out two weeks or two months, Lakers fans either shake their heads quietly or howl that the old man should retire and cut the franchise a break. It is largely overlooked what amazing contributions Nash has made to the game in a league where everyone now plays faster and more creatively on offense because of how fast and creative the two-time NBA MVP was in 2005 and ’06.
He is one of the true greats, and he has done it with fire, yet grace, which was summed up well last season in Minnesota by one visiting locker-room attendant who wondered who could possibly be a better guy than Steve Nash. Given how little there is to take from his season-plus as a Laker, it’s nevertheless understandable for fans to be cold and rude about the reality of Nash’s worn-down, undependable body. Let’s just consider, though, how difficult this has been for Nash, who now sits baffled anew as to how he can make this work.
He was fighting the radiating pain and muscle shutdowns most of the offseason as the nerves in his body refused to do what his mind so desperately wanted. Nash wanted to train with his usual intense focus and gusto but instead settled for small steps and took great care in rehabilitating, trying so hard to do the right thing.
Sound like anyone we know—measuring his recovery in the most incremental ways, waiting cautiously for everything to progress to where he might be able to sprint, but as of now with cutting and basketball movements still untried in this delicate road back?
How will Lakers Nation feel if it is Bryant whose body just won’t quite cooperate, who can’t figure out why this won’t work again, who is forced to accept lowered standards and even then can’t get his body to meet them? Maybe none of that will happen to Bryant—a solid four-and-a-half years younger than Nash, but with more NBA mileage and no chronic back condition, but about the most extensive history of past injuries you’ll ever find.
If Bryant’s return doesn’t go well, suffice it to say there will be Kobe fans whose entire basis for existence would be shaken. For as little as Lakers fans are hurt by Nash’s pain, seeing Bryant really struggle post-Achilles would be as bad as it has ever been—at a time when Lakers fans desperately need something to believe in. What has happened to Nash should, at the very least, offer some perspective.
The Lakers’ dreamiest rainbows for this season all required Bryant, Nash and Pau Gasol to be basking in sunshine at fountains of youth, and that’s not happening. Even if history has proved it is inherently idiotic to believe Bryant won’t find a way, the flip side is that there are no guarantees when it comes to old, overused bodies bouncing back.
Remember how blindly loyal D’Antoni was to Nash at first last season, operating from a premise that Nash would come back and just be Nash and everything would be great? D’Antoni gradually came to see the complexities—and ultimately the realities. For now, D’Antoni is still blindly loyal to Bryant, too, by the way.
When I asked D’Antoni late in training camp about Bryant and what the team was trying to build before he returns, the coach answered with this: “We can post him up, we can put him at the elbow, you can put Kobe everywhere. As he says, it doesn’t matter what system he plays, he’s going to get 35.”
For the sake of D’Antoni, the Lakers and the sport of basketball, hopefully Bryant comes back that strong. For now there is just Nash, who cannot sit on a sofa, worries if he feels like he has to sneeze and doesn’t know if he will play at a high level ever again.