Steve Nash in PLAY

Used to be that Steve Nash didn't do a lot of lengthy interviews. (He doesn't even make that much of an impression, amazingly, in Jack McCallum's book about a season with the Phoenix Suns.)

But I heard a few months ago that would be changing a little. And it sure is! He was on the cover of Men's Journal a little while ago. He was in Playboy before that. And now he's on the cover of The New York Times sports magazine PLAY coming out this Sunday.

Chip Brown wrote the article for PLAY, which is fascinating.

Brown traveled with Nash to a playground in New York, a charity game in Beijing, and training camp in Phoenix. Along the way, he was trying to break through Nash's natural humility, to get at the root of what makes Steve Nash Steve Nash.

(Brown also managed to nail down two factoids I had only heard about in vague terms. The first is that Nash makes some passes one-handed because he has timed them to be three tenths of a second faster that way -- giving his teammates more time to shoot before the defense arrives. There are also stories about Nash in college, occasionally sending poor-shooting teammates intentionally so-so passes. That way the guy gets to feel involved, but he's unlikely to have a scoring opportunity that could hurt the team.)

Fairly early in the story, Brown lays out the essential challenge of interviewing Steve Nash:

We had been talking in the park for almost an hour now, and I was beginning to appreciate the elusive quality that the author Jack McCallum, who spent a year with the Phoenix Suns for his book '':07 Seconds or Less,'' described as Nash's ''mysterious Canadian reticence.'' Even though Nash is one of the more introspective and intelligent athletes in the N.B.A. -- a player who got a lot of criticism for speaking out against the war in Iraq in 2003, and had the sportswriter fraternity in a dither because his winter reading list included bodice-rippers like "The Communist Manifesto" and Solzhenitsyn's "One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich" -- it didn't seem that what made him interesting was coming out in conversation. Part of the reason may have been that what made Nash exceptional was his temperamental inclination to downplay what made him exceptional. In interviews he often conveys a mix of humility and politic self-restraint.

I asked Brown a few questions about his time tracking Nash:

In that paragraph I quoted, you threw down the gauntlet to yourself there a little bit, didn't you? Don't you then have to either get to the bottom of Nash or not?
You are keen in singling out this part of the story, the subtext of which is how incompetent is the interviewer. In some sense it's the interviewer's job to bring what's interesting about a subject to the foreground. But I quickly realized that I wasn't going to be able to do this. I think part of the reason is that Steve has been interviewed so often, and is so sick of being interviewed, that he no longer believes anything new or spontaneous or exciting is going to come out of the process.

Then again, it might have been me who failed to inspire him. But I think he looks to have great conversations with friends and interesting people who aren't reporters because you cannot have a great conversation if you feel like you have to watch what you say, or feel guarded in some way, or if you have been asked the same questions for 20 years and have told the stories until you're blue in the face.

Again, I think my competence as an interviewer is just as much in question as Nash's willingness to be interviewed -- which is why I tried to word that sentence ambiguously so that it wasn't anyone's fault.

An interview after all is like a dance. I saw him interviewed by a TV reporter from his hometown who knew him growing up and she did a much better job than I did, at least at making him appear relaxed. But as a final word on this topic, here's a quote I found from a sports theorist named Christian K. Messenger: "Much of sport and play is 'flow experience,' essentially physical and nonverbal and thus difficult to retrieve in narrative.” So that led me to the idea that athletes express themselves best in motion ...

Did you find yourself wondering did I, or did I not, capture what it is that makes him interesting?
I didn't wonder. I just knew that having him sitting and talking to me as opposed to Charlie Rose or Jack McCallum or any of the other more able interviewers, profile writers, and sports journalists who have composed stories about him wasn't going to be interesting, whereas seeing him in motion might be. ... Whether this actually turned out to be the case is not for me to say.

How would you sum up whatever that is?
Well there are at least two things that make him interesting -- the obsessive focus and drive that presses up from within him. What he called "my dream." The desire that made him what he is.

The other thing is secondary, probably, but I think it's also interesting, and that's the fate of being in he strange position of actually achieving your dream, of having a double life divided between what you wanted and having got what you actually did want, which then puts you in the position of saying, "Is this what I should have sought so avidly and diligently in the first place?" A gloss on the old saying "Be careful what you wish for."

As you point out, he shows us all these glimpses: the political stances, the charity work, the zany sense of humor, the doting parent ... that make us think, what? On one level, I think he has appeal as a normal guy, right? He's the guy who plays on the soccer team for the bar in the East Village. Is that the deal? He's like us?
Is he like us? He's carbon-based I'm pretty sure. He has kids, he eats salads for lunch, he can't go more than seven days without water, he considers cell phone cameras the greatest invasion of privacy ever invented. What does that make us think? Jeeze, I have no idea. Who is us?

Or is there a superstar part of his character in there somewhere, too? Does he like the spotlight?
I think he does not like the spotlight particularly, but feels some obligation to use the leverage it affords him. My sense is that the stage on which he feels most comfortable is the basketball court.

To truly love the spotlight, you have to live in the esteem of an audience and I don't think Steve has the slightest need to do that. His drive seems generated inwardly, if you ask me, and is not based on the love and laurels of the crowd. There were some players on the trip who clearly relished the kind of performance that is part and parcel of celebrity, but I think Steve would be very happy if no one knew who he was.

Any idea what might have prompted his recent willingness to make himself more public?
I asked him this because I wondered why he was putting himself out there more. He said he'd been encouraged to raise his profile by his agents. Nash is already tied for the highest Q score in the league with Tim Duncan (both are at 32 according to Chris Talbott at BDA Agency) but he doesn't seem to have the visibility of Kobe or LeBron. (Q scores apparently also factor in "likability" not just visibility.) In China we saw giant billboards of LeBron and Amare Stoudamire. Again I think the only reason this might be important to Steve is that enhancing his profile could enhance the range and effectiveness of his charity and open up his future beyond basketball.

You wrote about the race issue, but did he talk about it? It seems like a topic he'd b
e interesting on, but understandably he seems not to talk about it much.

As far as race: I asked Nash about the race issue, but he had a counter-intuitive answer which drew heavily on his own experience and focused more on the difficulty of a white player getting entre to the league, rather than the other issue which seems to be the possible excessive praise heaped on white stars because they are white.

I think this is a subject he's talked about before but what strikes him as the NBA's racial bias has to do with his own difficulty as a talented white college player getting a fair look -- in a sense confronting the handicap of not being black.

It's an answer that skillfully sidesteps the whole question of whether white stars are over-valued because they're white.

Mike D'Antoni reframed the whole racial question for me, saying that the big division in the NBA now is not so much white versus black, but American players versus foreign players. Of course the Suns are like the United Nations with players from Canada, France, and Brazil among the countries I'm aware of. The racial issue seems to have been blunted or even defused in some way by nationalism. One of the interesting wrinkles of the globalized game -- players are forced out of their group identifications and obliged to interact as individuals.