Steve Nash: 'I was very close' to joining Raptors

Lakers guard Steve Nash speaks to the media during practice in El Segundo, Calif., Oct. 11, 2012....

Lakers guard Steve Nash speaks to the media during practice in El Segundo, Calif., Oct. 11, 2012. (ARMANDO ARORIZO/STR/QMI Agency)

STEVE BUFFERY, QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 7:34 PM ET

EL SEGUNDO, CALIF. - After the Los Angeles Lakers signed Steve Nash to a three-year contract in July, they marched the veteran point guard outside their practice facility and lined him up under a street sign for some pictures.

The Lakers practise at the Toyota Sports Center in suburban El Segundo, on Nash St.

Hence the obvious promotional shots.

A harbinger of great things to come? Possibly. Of course the Lakers didn't go so far as renaming a street in honour of their newest superstar. But it's an amusing coincidence and perhaps another sign as to why Nash really does belong in L.A.

Nash almost became a Toronto Raptor this off-season. But at the end of the day, the two-time NBA most valuable player signed a three-year sign-and-trade with the Lakers to play alongside fellow NBA stars Kobe Bryant, Pau Gasol and Dwight Howard (who came on board later in the off-season). L.A. is also a quick flight away from Nash's former home, Phoenix, where his two young daughters, Lola and Bella, and infant son, Matteo, reside with their mom, Nash's ex-wife Alejandra.

Nash has only a few good years left and has never won an NBA title, and the Lakers seem the best bet to achieve that goal (even more so than the New York Knicks, who also courted the Canadian).

As well, living in Los Angeles affords Nash the chance to pursue his interest in filmmaking -- something he has already undertaken with success, most notably co-directing the Terry Fox documentary Into the Wind with cousin Ezra Holland for ESPN's 30-for-30 series. But that doesn't mean Nash -- a proud Canadian who recently became general manager of the men's national basketball team -- wasn't nearly a Raptor and wasn't pumped about possibly finishing his career in Toronto.

In an interview with QMI Agency last week, Nash confirmed he was on the verge of signing a deal with the Raptors. GM Bryan Colangelo reportedly offered the Victoria, B.C., product a three-year, $36-million contract -- close to $10 million more than he received from the Lakers.

"I was very close, you know," Nash said. "Because it appeared that they were going to be an option long before free agency started. So I got my head around that and I was comfortable with that and happy with the opportunity to play in Toronto. But when this opportunity (with the Lakers) became a reality, I couldn't pass it up."

The Lakers are the most important professional sports franchise in southern California, though you'd never know it from a visit to the Toyota Sports Center, which at first glance appears to be much more of an ice-sports complex than a centre for hoops excellence.

Banners along the exterior of the nondescript building proudly identify the place as The home of Evan Lysacek, the 2010 Olympic Games men's singles figure skating champion (and, if you remember, the guy widely criticized by former Canadian skating great Elvis Stojko for not attempting a quad at the Vancouver Games).

There is also a large Los Angeles Kings banner out front and, on this day, eight members of the locked-out defending Stanley Cup champions practise on one of the facility's three ice surfaces, under a giant image of Lord Stanley's Cup. There's also a pickup hockey game in another rink and figure skaters practising in the third. Sprinkled throughout the lobby are trophies won by the Kings youth teams and various figure skaters.

To get to the Lakers practice gym, you have to head outside and walk down the side of the building to an inconspicuous door that leads to a hallway and the gym. The only hint that some big-name NBA stars are present is the row of luxury cars lined up outside. The gym is functional, if unspectacular, although there is an impressive row of retired jerseys lined up on one wall, including those of former Lakers greats Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Elgin Baylor, Magic Johnson and James Worthy. But while the gym itself is underwhelming, the talent on the floor certainly is not. And that, ultimately, is why Steve Nash is a Los Angeles Laker -- which, he insisted, is not a slight against the Raptors, or Colangelo, or his home country, or anything else.

It's all about winning. Even with Nash in the fold, the Raptors weren't going to win anything this season, and probably not next season, either. Still, that didn't stop a great many Raptors fan from pounding on Nash for turning his back on the only Canadian team in the NBA. Captain Canada, as Nash was called when he still played for the national team, was branded a traitor, and worse.

Nash heard and read the criticisms and it hurt. But he was eager on this day to make the point that he didn't use the Raptors in some diabolical way to garner a better deal in New York or L.A., and was sincerely excited about the prospect of playing on home soil.

"It wasn't in any way like, 'Oh well, I gotta go to Toronto.' I was thrilled," Nash said.

"Unfortunately it wasn't a team contending for a championship. But I love Toronto, it's home in many senses. And I think it's a first-class organization and a first-class city and I would have been extremely proud to play for them and represent the city, and play for those fans and hopefully help get that team into the playoffs."

An advantage of playing in T.O., Nash said -- aside from trying to help the Raptors reach the post-season for the first time since 2008 -- was his role as GM of the national team. (Nash also has been criticized, including in this corner numerous times, for quitting the national team as a player in 2004).

"It would have been a different situation," he said of playing in Toronto. "It would have been rewarding in other ways, but I wouldn't have had an opportunity to play on a team with as much talent as we have and hopefully be a contender."

The only worry in L.A. seems to be: Can Nash keep his fellow Laker superstars productive and happy, most notably 14-time all-star Bryant, who is used to being the primary ball-handler and the centre of the team's vast universe. Those concerns, at least for now, have been swept out to the Pacific Ocean. Every Lakers star has come out in support of having Nash, a five-time NBA assist leader, on the team, including Bryant.

"He just makes the game easy," Bryant said. "It's a joy for me. I've had to score and facilitate my entire career. I don't have to do that now, and I'm pretty happy about it."

If Bryant is happy and healthy, and all-star centre Howard returns to form following back surgery this year, it's almost frightening what the Lakers might achieve with Nash running the offence.

The Raptors, meanwhile, probably will struggle to make the playoffs, though Colangelo was applauded for some off-season moves that did come together, including the signing of point guard Kyle Lowry and small forward Landry Fields -- in a move originally designed to help facilitate Nash's move to Toronto.

Still, Nash moving to L.A. continues to leave a sour taste with some NBA fans, as his signing in Tinseltown seems to be yet another example of a veteran star joining an already star-laden team in a glamorous location, which seems to be the credo in the league these days: Load the big markets with stars, and the hell with everyone else. Meanwhile, so-called backwoods markets, including Toronto, are up against the wall in terms of attracting free agents of any major significance.

Nash has heard these complaints. And he's sympathetic, although he doesn't necessarily believe that the stars aligning in certain NBA galaxies is necessarily a bad thing.

"I think there are a lot of fans, a lot of basketball fans, a lot of casual fans who love it," he said. "And I think there are also a lot of fans, probably mostly in smaller markets, who don't love it. I think the bottom line is ... it is what it is. We're in this cycle. I think the game is benefiting from it, the game is growing and I think it's very successful financially, so we'll see.

"It's a trend. I think everything's cyclical in life, and sports is no different. I think we've seen the league trend in this way before and now it's going through this again. At some point it will probably even itself out."

What Nash would dearly love to see is for the NBA return to his home province. The Vancouver Grizzlies joined the league in 1995, the same year as the Raptors, but relocated to Memphis following the 2000-2001 season, the victim, in part, to a weak Canadian dollar, bad management and poor draft picks. But Nash believes under the right circumstances the NBA can succeed in Canada's second largest city. There have been rumblings, mostly wishful thinking perhaps, that the NBA does want to give Vancouver another shot.

"That would be great," said Nash, who owns a piece of the MLS Vancouver Whitecaps. "I think it could work. It would be tough, but I think it could work. And I think the lessons learned the first time and lack of, let's say, certainty, would really benefit it's cause.

"Toronto is one of the bigger cities in North America (and) Vancouver isn't quite on that level. But I think it's still a great sports community and it's very viable, especially considering some of the failing cities we've got right now."

steve.buffery@sunmedia.ca

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