Steve Nash could have done anything, or near enough. The Hall of Fame point guard had money, basketball status, broadcasting connections, and an inquisitive, hungry brain. He had a house on Manhattan Beach, with great weather and nearby schools. Last year around this time, Nash wasn’t sure where to go with his life. Asked where his heart would lead him, he looked backwards.
“That’s what I was drawn to: seeing my teammates succeed, seeing the vibe in the locker room, in the huddle, on the court, be positive,” said Nash. “That gets me going. That makes me happy: like, I’m happy, this is exciting, this is fun. Getting 35 (points) and getting beat and everyone not really liking each other is not exciting to me, at all, at all.”
And now the kid from Victoria, B.C. is the head coach of the Brooklyn Nets, home of Kevin Durant, Kyrie Irving, and expectations. And it will be complicated, because Steve Nash is choosing the heat.
First, this isn’t the NBA of last year, or even of six months ago. Following Nash’s hiring five of the league’s 30 head coaches were Black, with a couple slots vacant. For all his credentials, the 46-year-old Nash is a white man with no previous coaching experience; the Black interim coach he replaces, Jacque Vaughn, will remain a part of the staff. The NBA just shut down for three days, and the season nearly ended, due to wildcat strikes from players following the police shooting of Jacob Blake in Kenosha, Wisc.
So ESPN’s Stephen A. Smith, while complimentary of Nash, called it “white privilege” that Nash was hired over someone like Tyronn Lue, and was not the only voice to do so. Being white makes life easier; it’s undeniable. Nash didn’t enter the league with privilege on his side, but in the realm of front offices and coaching staffs, he has it.
But Nash is also both a special and unremarkable case. Magic Johnson and Larry Bird each won three MVPs, and neither had coaching experience when they got their first coaching gigs. Longtime point guards like Doc Rivers, Mark Jackson, Jason Kidd, Isiah Thomas, Derek Fisher and Steve Kerr didn’t have coaching experience either when they became head coaches.
Outside the lines, the league does not elevate or reward Black talent the way it does white talent: coaches, executives, everywhere. But in almost every way, Nash fits into what has been a colourblind NBA tradition.
The context, however, has changed, and it will raise the stakes on Nash’s work in Brooklyn. Nash’s first interview after the hire was with Marc Spears of ESPN’s The Undefeated, about fighting for racial equality.
“I understand the talk of (another white coach),” said Sam Mitchell, the former player and former head coach for the Toronto Raptors and Minnesota Timberwolves, and now a television analyst. “But for (players), Steve Nash is one of our brothers, man.”
And then comes the pressure and luxury of the job. Durant is a two-time MVP, and Irving and Durant have each won titles, and the Nets, swept by the Raptors in the first round of these playoffs, have versatile talent to surround them. Nash will be responsible for a would-be championship contender under the hot lights of New York.
“They don’t need Steve from day one to be a great NBA head coach,” said Mitchell. “You either learn how to coach with a bad team, or you learn how to coach with a good team. Steve Nash is going to learn how to be a good coach with a good team … and with all that talent, (GM Sean Marks) needs someone who’s about relationships.”
Indeed, if anything, Nash is a trust hire by his former teammate; Marks played with Nash for three years in Phoenix, and told ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski that Nash has been an unofficial resource for him as GM. Nash reached out, and the players were on board, and the first rule of the NBA is superstars, and everything else comes after. Marks spoke of Nash’s emotional and basketball IQ, and quoted Nets owner Joe Tsai: “We needed a conductor.”
And that’s part of the risk-reward, too. Durant and Irving are two of the most mercurial, sensitive, talented players in the league. Irving forced his way out of LeBron James’s shadow in Cleveland, undermined teammates in Boston, and has been a forcefully moody presence in Brooklyn, before we even get to the part about flat-earth footsie. Durant, meanwhile, was once asked what made him a great player, and responded, “paranoia.” From his introspection to his Twitter burner accounts, he has always seemed to be searching for something. We all are, I suppose.
Nash has strong ties to Durant, with whom he has worked as a Warriors consultant and in the summers; as Tim Kawakami, then of the San Jose Mercury-news, reported in 2017, Durant’s last call before signing with the Golden State Warriors was to Nash. Durant told Kawakami, “I trust his judgment on stuff. He’s always kept it real with me.”
So can Nash find his balance? As Nets guard and bitcoin enthusiast Spencer Dinwiddie wrote on Twitter, “I love the Nash hire. So much of coaching at this level is being a psychologist.” I once asked Nash for his favourite three players to watch: he chose Steph Curry, Kyrie Irving and Kevin Durant.
So here he goes, with the opportunity of his second lifetime. Nash was one creator of the unselfish motion revolution in basketball, and will coach two of the premier isolation players of their era. He excelled at bringing teammates together, and will run a team with a burner-account jitterbug, a flat-earth artist, a would-be bitcoin entrepreneur, and more.
And once he’s a coach, he won’t just be Steve Nash, Hall of Famer, anymore: he’ll mostly be a coach, with pressure, expectations, and a basketball life to draw from. It was going to take a lot for Nash to leave the peace of Manhattan Beach. He could have gone so many ways. He decided to shoot for everything, and we’ll see where it lands.
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