LOS ANGELES — Way too many professional athletes with healthy bodies don’t come close to giving their all.
Brittle-boned Steve Nash, with such laurels that he could weld those two NBA MVP trophies into a sweet old-man walker to rest on, is still going for it.
Yet people are shouting from every corner for the oldest player in the league to give it up.
It’s a shame.
Nash got his hobble back on Sunday in the Lakers’ first ABC Sunday showcase game from Staples Center this season. He had been the last Los Angeles starter introduced, former champions Kobe Bryant and Pau Gasol injured along with upstart scoring leader Nick Young.
(To be sure, Nash’s celebrity is hardly what it once was. Before the Lakers’ very not-nationally televised game against the lowly Philadelphia 76ers on Friday night, Michael Barkann on Comcast SportsNet’s 76ers pregame TV show said of the Lakers: “Not anyone you would know really…”)
Nash started well enough Sunday in his third game back since nerve irritation in his back put him out for nearly three months. Then in the third quarter, he took a light blow from Chicago Bulls guard Kirk Hinrich to the left knee joint that cracked in an October 2012 collision with Portland Trail Blazers guard Damian Lillard in Nash’s second game as a Laker.
Nash asked to stay in the game despite the uncomfortable “on fire” sensation from the nerves that have remained damaged through his body since that awkwardly located injury. He left the game once the body mechanics he worked so hard to re-establish to protect his nerve system were being compromised by the knee, resulting in a limp.
Before his injury diagnosis was even announced—for the record, Nash plans to practice Monday and play against the Utah Jazz on Tuesday—the cynics seized the moment to implore Nash to give it up.
This is a rapid news-cycle we live in now. Nash was a conquering hero on his 40th birthday Friday, when he scored 19 points in a Lakers victory—the most scoring production a guy that old has delivered in the past decade of NBA basketball. Less than 48 hours later, he’s considered washed up.
The reality is that he was held out of the rest of the Lakers’ loss to the Bulls on Sunday as “a precaution,” a team spokesman said. Nash termed his discomfort “transient," but he has been clear anyway. He intends to play through expected onsets of pain and discomfort from nerve issues as long as he can move freely and recover between games.
“It’s been a tough road, so I won’t take anything for granted, but I think (Monday) I should be much better,” he said.
The whole idea that the best thing he can do for the Lakers is give up, save the club some money and contribute to better draft position is absurd to anyone who has been around the kind of professional athletes who’ve overachieved because of work ethic and drive.
It’s even more ridiculous to expect surrender from any of the very few who could be described the way Mike D’Antoni put it the other night: “One of the best players to ever play the game.”
Right or wrong, the reflexive mentality of people like that is to work and try harder. That’s the only way Nash emerged a winner Friday night, when he was testing his limits to the point that he admitted, “My legs were shaking at halftime.”
Nash was initially reluctant to sit out Sunday because of that attitude.
“Especially when you’re losing,” Nash said, “you want to fight through it.”
Without question, though, Nash has been humbled by the failures of his body the past two years. One of the key elements of his adaptation has been accepting that rest can be better for him than rehab. All those other stiffs, you have to try and re-program them the other way.
Obviously, it’d be better for the Lakers to find some young guys with that kind of drive, guys whose bodies can actually keep up with their will to work. But that doesn’t change the fact that Nash has the right attitude about all of this: He’s trying to do the best he can with the time he has left.
“I love the game—and when you realize it’s almost gone, you love it more,” he said after the game in Philadelphia, where he joined Bob Cousy, John Stockton and Jason Kidd as the only 40-year-old point guards in NBA history.
That was the night Lakers teammate Nick Young said: “Man, he came to play on his birthday! I can't imagine playing against a rookie at age 40 and schooling!”
The rookie Nash schooled, Michael Carter-Williams, had this to say: “I can learn a lot from him.”
Whereas Young, 28, and Carter-Williams, 22, have no idea what awaits them in old NBA age, Bryant, 35, shared the same sentiment the December night he cracked his knee in Memphis, but didn’t know it yet.
Bryant said that night about his love for the game: “It’s probably a little bit more now than it’s ever been, because there’s a finality to it.”
Part of the problem last season was that Nash and Bryant appreciated the value of a championship shot far more than Dwight Howard did.
That’s not a problem anymore, but it’s still not a reason to give up.
Nash is looking forward to days when he can be a full-time parent, and he has plenty of off-court interests, including ownership of a slew of fitness clubs, a pro soccer team and a Liquid Nutrition healthy-eating franchise. But he has loved and still loves this NBA life.
Nash doesn’t need to hear 22-year-old teammate Kendall Marshall stumble into the words he did Sunday, referring to Nash as “the player that he was—and is” to understand there will be plenty of time for the past to be more precious than the future.
“Nothing will quite be the same, I don't think,” Nash said.
Nash’s body already isn’t nearly the same, but his drive is—and that should be applauded, not derided.