*This was originally posted on White Cover Magazine.
You’re going to read a lot about Steve Nash. Starting… last night.
He’s the greatest basketball player in Canadian history, and it’s nice to be able to write something like that without having to preface it with reportedly or arguably, because it really isn’t arguable. Next to Steve Nash, there’s nobody else. So expect the eulogies, if you haven’t seen them already. They’ll ask, What is Nash’s legacy? and they’ll toast him like he’s dead at 40. But he’s not, and neither is what he’s created.
The identical tributes you’re reading right now, those were probably written 10 years ago, when it became clear Nash would eventually retire and would deserve a few hundred words when the day came. It’s easy click bait, it’s low-hanging fruit. We do it with everything, us pathetic journalists, and you all search for them, too – from the endless ‘Oh, Canada’ salutes this week after the shootings in Ottawa to the countless in memoriam columns that filled your Facebook feed after Robin Williams died in August. There’s a fatigue that sets in, probably about three words into the first thing you read that sounds familiar to the last thing you read. And you realize, ‘I’m really not that special, because I’m thinking the same thing as someone else – everyone else – is.’
Ditto for Nash, and what seems like his not only inevitable but urgently pending retirement.
But put aside the assists and the free throws for one second, because Nash’s real legacy has nothing to do with what he did on the court in that 18-year career of his.
Nash’s legacy hasn’t been written yet, because we won’t know what is until 50 years from now. Will more Canadians keep playing basketball through their senior year? Will the lane Nash has paved push more frozen Canucks to follow him to the hoop, to the NBA or the Olympics or simply to believe that it’s possible for them to get there? For a country so close to the United States, we’re really put off by that border between us. Only, that’s not reciprocal. I don’t see too many Americans intimidated by the overwhelmingly maple taste of the National Hockey League. I see them getting off on it; they build up a hatred for us and it encourages them to beat us and skate faster, and that’s a good thing. Our game needs it, and basketball needs something like it, too.
Already, we’ve seen what Nash’s legacy could become, in early bits.
Andrew Wiggins and Anthony Bennett will step onto the hardwood for the Minnesota Timberwolves this season, starting as the only Canadians taken first overall in the NBA Draft, both of them entering the league in the last two seasons. Brampton-born rookie Tyler Ennis is dishing the rock in Phoenix, where Nash stomped and scampered to a Hall of Fame career and two MVPs. Etibicoke’s Nik Stauskas is in Sacramento, preparing for his first campaign months after going eighth overall in the 2014 NBA Draft. Another Ontario product – 2011 first-rounder Tristan Thompson – is making moves on sideline reporters and lining up beside LeBron James in Cleveland. And even in Toronto, where not a single starting Raptor comes from the area or the country they play in, the culture is revived and ready for Twenty-Fifteen. Drake’s a bit of a meme, but isn’t it a thrill just to see someone as famous as he is repping finally something from the homeland? The Raptors haven’t been cool since Jurassic Park was fresh, and Drake – together with general manager Masai Ujiri and an attack featuring Jonas Valanciunas, Kyle Lowry, DeMar DeRozan, Terrence Ross, and Amir johnson – has made them cool again. Or at least, if anyone form New York or L.A. or Chicago is looking, it seems like someone selling out their stadiums is actually proud of the Raptors, and that counts. Identity is everything in a world where most people have none, and Toronto has that again. Canada, really, has that again. (And Drake is recruiting now, and paying the fines. Like a boss.)
In the last four years alone, the northern light has been shining on basketball – as bright as it’s been since we invented the game, dammit.
Nash is responsible for all of that. He was a diversion from the depressing stuff for me a decade ago, when we were out here in B.C. trying to make everyone forget how pathetic the Grizzlies were limping away from Vancouver to Memphis. I bet he was a diversion for some in Toronto too, after they watched Tracy McGrady and Vince Carter slink away all cowardly to their new homes, which they desired only because they weren’t in Canada. (Yeah, good choice, guys. Because New Jersey and Orlando are really greater places to live or play in than Toronto…)
Eventually, the stats Nash put up won’t matter anymore. Like, at all. How many kids today really know how good Bob Cousy was? We’re already forgetting about John Stockton. Hell, the once-untouchable Michael Jordan is even being questioned now, because all we see right now – right in front of us, all the time – are LeBron James and Kevin Durant, and to some extent Kobe Bryant still. Larry Bird is a folk hero in Boston, but he’s little more than a character on grainy film everywhere else. Magic Johnson’s sky hook looks pedestrian now compared to Dwight Howard and Blake Griffin dunking over people on a routine basis.
Society’s attention deficit disorder always wins out, especially in sports. Walter Payton, Jim Brown, Barry Sanders, and Emmett Smith take a backseat to DeMarco Murray, LaDanian Tomlinson, and Adrian Peterson. Sidney Crosby was the next Wayne Gretzky, and now Connor McDavid is the next Sidney Crosby.
So those things like the stats and the highlights won’t matter. Hearing someone like me tell you about how incredible Nash was in 2045 will be like when you hear your grandma talk about how handsome Cary Grant was. And you’re like, ‘Who?’
Players don’t matter, but pioneers do.
Like Mike Weir and Larry Walker before him, Nash took the maple leaf to a sport where it was always welcome but never relevant. Say what you will about the few guys before them in each sport who won a tournament or two or sunk a three pointer, but it wasn’t until Weir won the Masters or Walker owned the National League or Nash sliced and diced that nation below for well over a decade that our goofy land of 33 million mattered even at all.
Whether he retires today or tomorrow or even if he waits until next year or the one after that, Nash has passed the torch to a country that badly needs to keep the momentum going.
That will be his greatest assist.