Steve Nash Returns to LA Lakers, NBA for as Long as He Can

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Steve Nash Returns to LA Lakers, NBA for as Long as He Can
Brad Rempel/USA Today

MINNEAPOLIS — Far, far more of the hours have been spent in rest and rehab than actually playing basketball. So Steve Nash has not lacked time and opportunity to wallow.

We all indulge the hypotheticals from time to time. You can steal a mulligan here and there on the golf course; restart your video game. But you’ll know the truth.

It’s not real life to ask, “What if?” and get a concrete answer. Here’s the only sure thing: Something else—something real, not hypothetical—is going to happen, and you’re better off spending your time preparing for that opportunity rather than lamenting, regretting and wishing.

Nash will be the first to tell you his year-and-a-half as a Los Angeles Laker has been crap. What might it have been?

Who knows? Here’s a real question with a real answer: What was it on a quiet Tuesday night in Minnesota?

Jim Mone/Associated Press

It wasn’t so bad.

Nash played again, just his seventh game out of 48 this season—after what he has called the toughest process in his 18-year NBA career—and he played pretty well. Seven points, nine assists, two turnovers…and 25 minutes, more than Lakers coach Mike D’Antoni had imagined for Nash’s first action in three months.

Whatever additional nerve pain in his back arises, whatever jokes are coming at his expense when he turns 40 Friday, whatever lack of NBA championship remains of his resume, Nash didn’t wallow in the what-if world.

So he earned himself that postgame can of Coors Light and a couple packed in ice for the road—plus a positive feeling that resonated with surprising depth and meaning to him.

“It’s been a tough road,” Nash said after the game, “but tonight there’s a part of me that feels like a kid, like a rookie that got to play in the NBA. That’s a pretty cool feeling, period. But it’s also pretty cool when you’re in your early 30s and you get to play in the NBA still.”

If that sounds like someone who can joke because he feels a little more secure in being the NBA’s oldest player, it should.

Andrew D. Bernstein/Getty Images

Nash pushed through basically 10 months of monotonous, grueling, two-a-day work to establish better posture and protect his nerve-irritated body, and then he asked it this new pointed question for a couple of hours Tuesday night. And he got the answer he’d dreamt could still be possible.

A guy whose legend and two NBA MVPs sprung from his unselfishness, Nash said repeatedly he felt bad being a little selfish about this one. The Lakers lost again, never holding a single lead during their 19th loss in 22 games, and they amazingly lost two more players to injury—the only two who had played every game this season: Jodie Meeks (ankle) and Jordan Hill (neck).

But make no mistake, this was a monumental victory for Nash, who had reached a crossroads for continuing his career. The tweet from Nash’s girlfriend, Brittany Richardson, before the game was an apt scene-setter: “Shaking in my boots. Tonight’s game is everything.”

Nash admitted afterward to his own “apprehension.” You could see him basically cramming for the test, the last player from either team still on the court a half-hour before tipoff, trying to get his retrained body motions for shooting just a teeny bit sharper.

Then he stopped on his way back to the locker room to sign autographs for a swarm of Lakers fans, which was the first success of the night, considering how many Lakers fans feel compelled to take their frustrations out on Nash.

I asked Nash if he had gone for any of his own dips in that pool of negativity during all his time not playing.

“I’ve never been one to feel like I’m entitled in that respect,” he said. “I’m lucky that I’ve played this long. If you play long enough, there’s a great chance you’re going to go through something. … I accept this.”

Andrew D. Bernstein/Getty Images

That’s the mindset Nash brought to the court Tuesday night with no Kobe Bryant, no Pau Gasol, definitely no Dwight Howard.

This wasn’t and can’t possibly be about redemption for all that they didn’t accomplish last season. This is altogether different, and it begins with Nash looking to his right before the opening tip in Minnesota, seeing some rookie named Ryan Kelly next to him and wearing a grin you could see from the upper deck.

“Felt like I was their age getting back out there…” Nash said.

Maybe it means next to nothing for Lakers fans who feel cheated by the past year and can’t envision Nash as part of the team’s future. Yet if Nash had wallowed instead of indulging a new hope, he wouldn't have gotten this reward, however small it might seem to the rest of the world.

“I had no choice,” he said. “I wouldn’t be here tonight if I didn’t stay the course and be extremely diligent and work out basically twice a day, every day, for a lot of days. There were times I wondered why, but just the chance to get back out there and play in the NBA again, it kind of makes it all worth it.”

Nash will sit out the Lakers’ Wednesday night game in Cleveland. The plan is to ensure he can calm the nerve root irritation he acknowledges cropped up during Tuesday's game after not being felt at all during his latest intensive training with Rick Celebrini in Vancouver.

“I don’t mind some pain; I don’t mind some discomfort,” Nash said. “As long as I can move well and recover.”

That’s Nash actually planning his future—only because he kept moving forward.

Jim Mone/Associated Press

It’s the only way, no matter how tempting it is, to dwell on past missteps instead of accepting them. The truth about the past missteps anyway is that they change your perspective in ways you never could have fathomed.

Steve Nash’s 1,329th game in the NBA…and he might be more grateful to have played it than any game before it.

“I’m just thrilled that I played one game. And hopefully that leads to two, and hopefully two leads to three and we’ll just keep going,” Nash said. “My motto, as sad as this sounds, has been to survive the day.

“And if I can survive and advance, I’ve got a chance to play again, and I’ve got a chance to build some conditioning and some capacity with my back and hopefully some confidence with my game. And if that happens, it’d be pretty cool, and I’d get to keep playing and fighting with these guys—but nothing’s guaranteed.

“So I’m just going to stay the course, keep battling and try to enjoy it as much as I can, because I realize now what I may not have realized when I was younger: It doesn’t last forever.”

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