When it comes to playing through the debilitating effects of a chronic back problem, Steve Nash has been the Larry Bird of his generation.
Draw up a list of NBA players who’ve managed their back trouble better than Nash and you’d struggle to summon many names beyond Larry Legend.
Yet the challenge facing the NBA’s oldest active player now is that Nash is dealing with so much more than a back issue.
In his first season in Dallas in 1999, then 25, Nash played for much of the season with a vertebra stress fracture that wasn’t fully detected until the end of that lockout-shortened campaign. Knowing Nash and how badly he wants to repay the Lakers for the lengths they went to acquire him in summer 2012, I’d venture to say he’d be trying to do the same at 39 if he were solely dealing, once again, with what amounts to a broken lower back.
This, though, is no mere stress fracture, which was plenty limiting for Nash when he tried to grind his way through that pain nearly 15 years ago since as a much younger man. This is not the congenital condition discovered at that time -- spondylolisthesis -- that has been forcing Nash to lie down courtside in the years since, as opposed to sitting on the bench for in-game rest like a normal person.
The Lakers made it official Monday night by announcing what has long been feared in team circles: Nash has been suffering from nerve root irritation that can zap his back, hamstrings or even neck without warning. It all stems from his collision with Portland’s Damian Lillard last season in his second game as a Laker and continues to plague him more than a year later.
For all of the playoff misfortune Nash endured in Phoenix, all those near-misses with the Suns, his collision with Lillard is right up there on the bad-luck scale. If the point of impact would have been just an inch or two away from where their limbs connected ... who knows? Maybe Nash misses only the week or two originally projected.
Instead? After an offseason of feverish rehab work with Canadian pal Rick Celebrini -- one of North America’s foremost sports physiotherapists and key in helping Nash build up the core strength that catapulted him to two-time MVP status -- Nash glumly told L.A. reporters Monday that the nerve discomfort is “slowly getting worse and worse.”
Feel free to scrap the Twitter theory that Nash is lost without the famed Phoenix training staff. There’s no denying the excellence and track record of Suns head athletic trainer Aaron Nelson and head strength coach Mike Elliott, who also happen to rank as two of Nash’s closest friends, but Nash made it clear last week when we spoke that the Lakers’ medical team -- fronted for decades by the venerable Gary Vitti -- has been fantastic with him in the search for solutions. Between Vitti’s team and Celebrini’s consultation, Nash is not lacking for good guidance.
He’s simply dealing with a mysterious, complex beast that you can’t just psych yourself up to play through, like Nash has done Kobe Bryant-style in the face of pretty much any ailment he’s ever faced. There’s no denying, too, that advanced age complicates the recovery process. Nash himself conceded over the weekend that “there’s a lot of stuff going on there” when you factor in the years of “wear and tear and all of the mileage.”
Yet what should be clear by now is that he’s going to try to keep going. Heading into two weeks of rest and a fresh round of epidural treatment, with no promise that there’s a U-turn for how he’s feeling, Nash nonetheless continues to give off the vibe that he’s by no means ready to pick up his dribble.
He’s come to accept the fact that he might never get his name off another short list of note; Karl Malone and the Lakers’ No. 10 remain the only two-time MVPs in league history without a championship ring. The next time you hear Nash talk about the 57 assists he needs to pass Mark Jackson for third on the NBA’s all-time dimes list will likewise be the first.
A far bigger reason Nash wants to play on is because he can’t bear to have returned so little on the Lakers’ investment. He wants to play on because that’s Nash’s natural instinct, going all the way back to his teens, whenever the so-called basketball experts have told him you can’t or you won’t. He wants to play on because Nash loves just being on the team, in the heart of the locker-room action, more than any other Hall of Famer I’ve ever encountered.
And it’s mostly because the oldest player in the league is smart enough to understand that retirement is going to last a long, long time. Whenever it comes.
Better, then, to try -- in trademark Stevie style -- to see if he can beat the odds one last time and rewrite this unhappy Hollywood ending.
Until the doctors make him stop.