Sun de Triomphe: Steve Nash, Napoleon and Repeating History
A study of the great figures throughout history will reveal a few common central characteristics binding them through the centuries and continents.
They all possess extraordinary talent that often touches on supernatural, an unflinching vision and a unmatched determination to succeed.
Within that context, no one can argue the greatness of Phoenix Suns point guard Steve Nash. Throughout his 15-year NBA career, he's exhibited the above qualities in droves and cemented his place as an all-time great.
When searching for historical parallels to his career, one name quickly comes to mind: Napoleon Bonaparte. Yes, really.
The character traits of greatness are far from the only similarities between the two. Their careers have shared a common course that on first glance seems random but upon further inspection gets downright eerie.
Let's take a look how the intersection of sneakers and sabres has come to be.
Sons of a Foreign Land
Neither of these two great men were originally born in the country for which they would later become nearly synonymous.
Napoleon Bonaparte was born Aug. 15th, 1769, on the island sovereignty of Corsica, located 56 miles west of Tuscany in the Mediterranean.
Descended from minor Italian nobility, Napoleon was privy to opportunities that most humble Corsicans would not know. His father Carlo, having made connections while serving with revolutionary leader Pasquale Paoli during the fight for Corsican independence, managed to secure a French education for his son in 1779.
After a four-month stint at a religious school where he learned to speak French, Napoleon was enrolled in the Brienne military academy.
While most associate Steve Nash with Canada, he was in fact born in Johannesburg, South Africa, to British parents on Feb. 7, 1974. The family moved to Saskatchewan when his was 18 months old before later settling in British Columbia.
As a child, Nash's first athletic loves were soccer and, as is apparently law in Canada, ice hockey.
Both men felt that they were destined for great things in their lives, but their humble early paths belied the glory that was to come.
After six years at Brienne, Napoleon, having been unable to secure a position in the navy, was commissioned a Second Lieutenant. Being a skilled mathematician, he was assigned to an artillery regiment.
His early years of service were marked with disappointment, yet his unflinching confidence and determination saw him through. This period saw the outbreak of the French Revolution, the principles of which would form the core of Napoleon's beliefs for the rest of his life.
He led a battalion on his native Corsica, which saw a tense struggle between revolutionaries, royalists and Paoli's faction. Napoleon sided against Paoli and as a result, his family was forced to flee to France.
Despite not taking up basketball until his adolescence, Nash immediately took to the sport. While in eighth grade, he told his mother that he would one day become a star in the NBA.
During high school, he starred at St. Michael's, a private boarding school. During his senior season, he nearly averaged a triple-double (21.3 points, 11.3 assists and 9.2 rebounds) but received only a single scholarship offer, from Santa Clara University.
He had success at the tiny school, most memorably leading an upset of the University of Arizona in the opening round of the 1993 NCAA Tournament.
After a career in which he twice won West Coast Conference Player of the Year, he was drafted by the Suns with the 15th overall pick of the 1996 draft.
Finally Given a Chance
From these nondescript origins, these men would soon find themselves in positions that would make or break their careers.
In 1793, British and Spanish forces, supporting the Royalist French, took control of the critical port city of Toulon in southeastern France.
Through his influential connections, Napoleon was given command of the artillery in the area. He formulated a plan to take British positions that overlooked the harbor, which would then allow his cannon to drive the British and Spanish ships from Toulon.
After some difficulties with a series of incompetent commanders, a new general was installed who saw Napoleon's brilliance and approved his plan. Napoleon then led a daring charge on the British positions. Despite being wounded during the assault, his men captured the positions.
Shortly thereafter, his artillery was moved in, the enemy ships fled and Toulon was secured. Napoleon was promoted to Brigadier General for his exploits.
Nash came into a difficult position with the Suns. Like Dan Majerle before him, fans booed at the selection of this relatively unknown player.
The team had just traded Charles Barkley and the resulting turmoil resulted in an 0-13 start to his rookie season. A difficult rookie season saw Nash only get 10.5 minutes per game.
He began to hit his stride in his second season, seeing double the minutes, but he remained underutilized behind Jason Kidd. He was traded to the Dallas Mavericks and installed as the starting point guard. His chance had come.
Rise to Prominence
Having earned their opportunities, Napoleon and Nash then dazzled the world with their legendary prowess.
After Toulon, Napoleon led the defense of Paris against a Royalist attack. Now firmly a rising star of the French, was given command of the Army of Italy.
His campaigns were a rousing success. His army swept through Italy and forced the Austrian Empire to sue for peace. In addition to the gains in Italy, France gained the Low Countries.
As was Napoleon's custom, he swiftly began installing infrastructure improvements and the principles of freedom of the Revolution to these regions. He returned to France a national hero.
After realizing that the French Navy was not ready for an invasion of England, he led a campaign to Egypt in 1798. Not just a keen general, Napoleon was a devoted scholar who brought along many top scientists to the region.
They made many tremendous discoveries, none greater than the legendary Rosetta Stone. While in Egypt, Napoleon heard of the crumbling situation in France and raced back to Paris.
With his early Maverick seasons disrupted by the lockout and injury, Nash came into stardom during the 2000-2001 season, averaging 15.6 points and 7.3 assist per game while helping the Mavericks to their first playoff berth in a decade.
Over the next two seasons, Nash topped 17 points and 7 assists a game while being named an All-Star each season. He formed a potent trio with Dirk Nowitzki and fellow Suns' castoff Michael Finley and the Mavs reached the Western Conference Finals.
In 2003-2004, he averaged a career high with 8.8 assists as he approached free agency in the offseason. With Dallas offering a below-market value deal, he quickly signed a six-year, $63 million contract to rejoin the Suns.
Those who are great can never be satisfied with greatness. They must be the best, and these men were.
Upon reaching Paris, Napoleon saw a regime in turmoil. France was bankrupt and internal squabbling was merely plunging the new republic further into disarray.
Working with a coalition of key figures, Napoleon led a coup to overthrow the ineffective government. He was elected First Consulate and began a series of major reforms.
Education, finance, infrastructure, religion and government all saw overhauls that brought France from the quagmire of infighting and into a seat as the dominant continental power.
However, it was the Code Civil, Napoleon's code of civil laws that did away with the previous feudal laws and implemented many freedoms that remain to this day, that stands as the greatest testament to this period. In 1804, Napoleon crowned himself Emperor of the French Empire.
Nash once again came to a Suns team in shambles. The season before, they had won a meager 29 games and had fired head coach Frank Johnson, replacing him with Mike D'Antoni.
D'Antoni's up-tempo offense and Nash's on-court brilliance combined for a turnaround rarely seen in sports. The Suns became the darlings of the league, leading the NBA in scoring with over 110 points per game.
More importantly, they matched a franchise record with 62 wins and reached the conference Finals. Nash was named the NBA MVP.
The next season saw the team lose their leading scorer Amar'e Stoudemire to a season-ending injury, yet Nash's brilliance lead the team to 54 more wins and earned him a second straight MVP award.
He made the All-Star team in each of his first four seasons back in Phoenix. Times were good in the desert.
Abdication and Turmoil
Heavy is the head that wears the crown. Untold adversity soon fell upon them.
At its zenith, Napoleon's empire spanned from Spain, across Holland, Italy and Germany all the way to Poland.
However, the other major powers in Europe felt compelled to keep France's ambitions in check. Despite many attempts to achieve peace, including having his marriage to Josephine annulled so he could marry Austrian Emperor Francis' daughter Mary Louise, Napoleon realized it was not to be.
A treaty with Czar Alexander of Russia was undone by Alexander's inability to stand up to the desires of fellow nobility, and in June 1812, Napoleon invaded Russia.
By September, he occupied Moscow but soon realized a withdraw was needed. His delay in the retreat exposed his army to the fierce Russian winter with disastrous results.
By the time of his return, the coalition of nations against him had amassed a force that defeated his beleaguered army at the Battle of Leipzig. Napoleon was forced to abdicate his throne and accept exile on the island of Elba.
After four years of success, cracks in the Suns' armor were being exposed. Years of falling just short of the NBA Finals had taken their toll, as had numerous roster blunders.
After the 2008-2009 season, the mounting tension between the team and D'Antoni resulting in his departure. He was replaced by Terry Porter, who favored a more traditional and defensive style of basketball, one that was not in any way suited for the Suns' roster.
Despite Nash's best efforts, the team failed to make the playoffs for the first time since his return. He also failed to make the All-Star team and saw his assist average drop below 10 a game.
The Seven Seconds or Less era had ended.
The darkness of adversity cannot extinguish the light of a great man's will.
Once the leader of a cross-continental empire, Napoleon now stood merely as the Sovereign of Elba, a poor island of just 86.5 square miles off the coast of Tuscany.
True to his character, he began a series of reforms to enhance the Elban agricultural and mining industries but was predictably bored in exile and missed his wife and son greatly. Hearing reports that the newly installed King Louis XVIII was unpopular and the French people clamored for his return, Napoleon began preparations to secretly return to France.
He set sail in February of 1815 with a flotilla of seven ships and 1,150 people loyal to him. When the first French regiment made contact with his convoy, Napoleon approached on foot and said, "Here I am. Kill your Emperor, if you wish." The soldiers replied "Vive L'Empereur!". As he made his way to Paris, Louis XVIII fled and Napoleon once again ruled over France.
From the plodding ashes of the Terry Porter era, the high-octane Suns offense rose once again under Porter's replacement, Alvin Gentry.
Having served as an assistant under D'Antoni, Gentry knew that his team was built to run with Nash leading the charge.
Coming into the 2009-2010 season, the expectations were decidedly low, but Nash wasted little time in proving those doubters wrong. He returned to his All-Star form while leading the NBA with 11.0 assists per game and the team made the playoffs as the third seed in the West.
After a slow start in the first round against Portland, the Suns marched through the Trailblazers and swept their longtime nemeses the San Antonio Spurs in the conference semi-finals.
The Suns valiantly pushed the eventual champion Los Angeles Lakers to six games in the conference finals. The Suns had risen again in the West, but for how long?
Will Nash Avoid His Waterloo?
The reign of all men in power must eventually come to an end, whether it be marked with tragedy or grace.
With Napoleon nearing Paris in March 1815, the coalition of Britain, Russia, Austria and Prussia declared him an outlaw and each pledged 150,000 troops towards his defeat.
By June, Napoleon had raised his army to over 200,000. He knew his only hope would be a decisive early strike that would force the allies to sue for peace, so he launched an offensive through modern-day Belgium hoping to divide the oncoming Prussian and British armies.
The Battle of Waterloo on June 18 was a disastrous defeat for Napoleon. As a result, Louis XVIII was restored to power and Napoleon was taken into British custody and sent to St. Helena, an island in the south Atlantic 1,200 miles from the nearest landmass. He would live his remaining years under virtual house arrest before dying of stomach cancer in 1821.
After the return to form for the Suns last season, numerous roster changes, none larger than Amar'e Stoudemire's departure to New York, cast doubt on the new season.
Even Nash himself, in an effort to temper expectations, said "To be honest...I would probably pick us to be outside of the playoffs considering all the changes and the new guys."
Now 36 years old, questions abound about Nash's immediate future. As the team hovers around .500, his has become the sexy name regarding NBA trade rumors, with speculation centering on a reunion with Stoudemire and D'Antoni with the Knicks.
While Napoleon's story ended tragically, Nash's final chapters are still being written. With the result of his quest for a championship and his ultimate destination unknown, the only certainty is that Nash will leave everything he's got out on the court now and a give a stirring Hall of Fame induction speech later.
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