Nash turning Suns around

STEVE BUFFERY -- Toronto Sun

, Last Updated: 9:31 AM ET

The hot topic of conversation inside the visiting team locker room following the Phoenix Suns' victory over the Boston Celtics on Friday night was not Amare Stoudemire's 42 points or the 15 assists and 13 points posted by Steve Nash. It was the freezing temperatures inside Boston's FleetCenter and whether Toronto -- the next stop on the Suns' six-game road swing -- is a province or a city.

"Ask Steve Nash," one of the jockstrap debaters suggested. "He is Canadian, isn't he?"

Yes he is, a Canadian who could capture the NBA's MVP award this season.

They say that Steve Nash is a man of the people.

You know, real people. People who forget to shave and wear wrinkled shirts to work. A regular guy whose idea of a great time is to hang out with friends, his parents, his girlfriend Alejandra and their twin baby daughters, Lourdes and Isabella.

Believe it, the guy is nothing special.

And we mean this in the best way possible. It's a rare thing to be a regular bloke in the multi-million-dollar world of professional sports.

On the other hand, Nash is an absolutely extraordinary athlete. Which, of course, is no news flash. The Victoria, B.C., native has been one of the best point guards in the NBA for years and undoubtedly the greatest Canadian basketball player ever.

But what he is doing this season for the Suns is spectacular. Nash has turned a 29-53 team last season into a bonafide NBA championship contender, the highest-scoring, most exciting team in the league. And he has done that by making the players around him better, which is something only the greats are able to do.

"He is this year's MVP," Milwaukee Bucks guard Michael Redd said. "He's just phenomenal -- the premier point guard in the league, no question."

Jason Kidd of the New Jersey Nets, who has been one of the best point guards in recent times, agrees with that sentiment, making his thoughts public when Stephon Marbury of the New York Knicks announced that he ruled at the point position.

Nash, who turns 31 a week tomorrow, is enjoying an MVP-like year, averaging a league-best 11 assists per game and is one of only two guards ranked in the top 15 in field goal percentage.

A JUGGERNAUT

More than that, he has turned an average team into a juggernaut, a team that averages 109 points. As for whether he deserves the MVP award, well, when Nash missed three games recently because of a bruised thigh, the Suns averaged 87 points and lost all three. In the four games since his return, the 35-10 Suns have averaged 122.5 points.

As for Stoudemire, whose career has skyrocketed with Nash, the 6-foot-10 power forward, who starts at centre for the undersized Suns, averaged 16.7 with Nash out of the lineup and 30 with him back, not to mention the 42 Stoudemire recorded in Boston.

"When you have a point guard who can pass as well as he can, it makes the game a lot easier," Stoudemire said. "I considered him the best point guard in the league when he was with Dallas. And Steve's a great guy as well."

Nash refuses to get caught up in the debate over who should win the MVP, even though it's difficult to put it out of your mind when people constantly bring the topic up, although he finds it flattering.

"Just to be mentioned (as a candidate) is incredible," Nash said following a recent team shootaround. "You know, coming from Victoria, one scholarship offer (to a Division I school), somewhat unheralded, I've already won just by being mentioned, so I don't really think about it much.

"But it's been a huge thrill. It's not often that a 6-foot-2, 175-pound guy is mentioned for the MVP."

Or a Canadian for that matter, although it should be noted that this country's reputation for failing to produce great international athletes outside of the hockey arena has taken a beating in recent years. A Canadian has been Major League Baseball's MVP, the world heavyweight boxing champion, the Formula I champion ... an NBA MVP award would be icing on the cake, and all the more special given that Nash excels in a game dominated by the biggest of men.

Nash wasn't born to be a basketball player, the way LeBron James or Kevin Garnett were. He inherited neither spectacular size nor explosive power. What he did inherit, however, was a love of sport, natural ability and the need to constantly push himself to improve.

This past summer, after leaving the Mavericks and signing a five-year, $53-million US contract with the Suns, the team that drafted him in 1996, Nash spent a month in Vancouver working out twice a day with a personal trainer, and spending little time doing what most athletes do in the off-season, relaxing and re-energizing.

"I didn't get to see much of B.C. I didn't even get to see much of Vancouver," he said. "It was straight out to the gym and back twice a day and trying to nap in between. I don't think many of my friends and family were as excited about that. My girlfriend certainly wasn't, but everyone accepted it. It was important for me to have a good year. You can't play forever, so I wanted to make the most of it."

He certainly has.

Jay Triano, the long-time Canadian national team coach and current assistant with the Raptors, said that he expected Nash to have a great season with the Suns, knowing how hard he worked in the summer, and how hard he has worked his entire life to improve as a basketball player.

During his rookie season with the Suns, Nash received little court time with Sam Cassell, Kevin Johnson and later Kidd starting in the backcourt. Worse than that, the fans let it be known that they were not impressed with management's decision to draft the skinny Canadian who played at the University of Santa Clara, a Division I outpost. But all that did was push him to work even harder.

Triano remembers visiting Phoenix as a radio analyst for the Vancouver Grizzles during Nash's rookie season and searching for him after a game, a game in which his friend saw zero action.

"I couldn't find him," Triano said. "When I finally did, he was back in the gym, shooting, still in his uniform, for an extra hour."

Triano has always maintained, as the national team coach, that Nash made his life easy, because a team will always follow suit when the best player on the roster is the hardest worker, something Phoenix head coach Mike D'Antoni can relate to.

"He's in the best shape of anybody in the league," D'Antoni said. "We're winning and he's probably the biggest reason. We do have a lot of great players ... but Steve makes it all work."

Nash's first wish when the 2003-04 season ended was to remain with Dallas and help the Mavs make it to the promised land -- the NBA championship.

He also wanted to end his career playing alongside his best friend in the league, power forward Dirk Nowitzki. But when owner Mark Cuban failed to pull together the kind of money the Suns were dangling, Nash jumped ship.

"There were other teams that had cap space, too, but this was the best situation," Nash said. "To play with Amare and Shawn Marion, Joe Johnson and Quentin Richardson has been terrific.

"I expected us to be good, to be a playoff team," Nash added. "But 31-4 to start the year, you can't really predict that sort of thing. It's only happened three or four times in the history of the game."

What has never happened in the history of the NBA is a Canadian winning the MVP. Steve Nash could change all that.

---

BY THE NUMBERS

YEAR TEAM G MIN FG% PPG RPG APG

04/05 Phoenix 42 34.4 .517 15.6 3.2 11.0

03/04 Dallas 78 33.5 .470 14.5 3.0 8.8

Career 591 29.0 .470 12.7 2.6 6.4

---

DARK DAYS

WITH NASH

W-L: 4-1

PPG: 123

APG: 27.4

FG: 53%

WITHOUT

W-L: 0-3

PPG: 87

APG: 13.3

FG: 37%


Videos

Photos