Monday, July 9, 2012
Updated: July 25, 2:09 AM ET
How Steve Nash became a Laker
By Marc Stein
NEW YORK -- Parked at a back table at Aurora in SoHo, huddled over Italian food as the clock ticked past midnight, Bill Duffy could have used a second phone. The one in his hand started ringing as though 38-year-old Steve Nash were a 28-year-old free agent.
The calls were coming in so fast that Duffy and Nash didn't even notice that two of the sport's fairly well-known faces were sitting nearby. They didn't spot Steve Lavin and Gene Keady until the celebrated college coaches got up and headed for the door.
"The phone," Duffy said, "was just buzzing."
The calls were coming in so fast because a number of teams out there, after hearing for two seasons straight that the Phoenix Suns couldn't bring themselves to trade Steve Nash, sensed an opportunity. Unlike Deron Williams, undisputed prized catch of the NBA's 2012 free-agent class, Nash wouldn't be limiting himself to a choice between two destinations. Unlike Williams, Nash was a gettable game-changer.
It wasn't until June that the two-time MVP accepted in his own mind that he'd have to leave his deep desert roots ... after the sting initially induced what he says was a brief flirtation with retirement. But four postseason meetings with the Suns and no suggestion of a substantial contract offer during any of those sit-downs led to four of the longest (and wildest) days of his professional life last week. After Duffy's private two-week campaign to convince Nash that he would have no choice but to look elsewhere if he wanted to secure a market-value contract, they embarked on a whirlwind 96 hours that, in the end, spawned an agreement on a stunning sign-and-trade from the Suns to the Los Angeles Lakers.
An arrangement, an outcome, Nash himself is still struggling to believe.
"It feels strange, no question," Nash said Sunday during a lengthy visit with "SportsCenter" and ESPN.com. "I never, never thought I'd be a Laker."
"By the time July 1 came around, I was ready," Nash said. "I was disappointed [that the Suns wanted to move in a different direction], but I was ready and also excited on the other hand to try something new."
The following diary-style examination of what was happening behind the scenes in the Nash camp when the calendar flipped to July, starting with that meal at Aurora, chronicles the twists and turns that landed Nash where pretty much no one, ambitious script-writers included, pegged him to wind up: With Hollywood's team.
SUNDAY, JULY 1
Raptors president and general manager Bryan Colangelo was the first caller to get through shortly after 12:01 a.m. Officials from the Knicks, Heat, Lakers, Mavericks and Nets dialed in soon thereafter. And with his client sitting so close after their late-night meal, Duffy offered each team that rang an opportunity to speak directly to Nash.
It didn't seem like much at the time, but that's when Nash and Lakers general manager Mitch Kupchak had their first chat. Kupchak let Duffy know that he was well aware of Nash's comments to Stephen A. Smith and Ryan Ruocco on ESPN New York 98.7 just days before about how "hard" it would be "to put on a Lakers jersey" after all of the Suns' playoffs battles with Kobe Bryant & Co. When Kupchak explained that he "had to call anyway," Duffy thanked him and assured him that he was wise to check in, dismissing Nash's quotes as "media hype."
Yet that's as far as things went with the Lakers on Day 1. Face-to-face meetings were quickly arranged with the two most obvious, serious suitors to get the Nash sweepstakes officially under way: Toronto and New York.
The Raptors were first up at 10:30 a.m., with a seven-strong contingent of team officials arriving on a cross-country flight arranged by Raptors co-owner Larry Tanenbaum. With Raptors assistant coach Eric Hughes getting married that weekend in Pasadena, Calif., Tanenbaum made his private jet available to transport Colangelo, Raptors coach Dwane Casey, Nash's former Team Canada coach Jay Triano and the rest of the group to the other side of the country as quickly as possible overnight.
Tanenbaum also provided his ritzy Central Park apartment to serve as the venue for what Duffy very modestly described as a "big presentation." The food was lavish and the contract offer rich, but the video compilation Colangelo ordered up for the occasion made an impression on Nash that moved him more than a three-year, $36 million pitch ever could. Mostly because Wayne Gretzky was the narrator.
Rumbles that Gretzky, one of Nash's boyhood heroes, would be involved in the Raptors' Nash pitch leaked out through the Toronto media before the two parties got together, but "involved" was understating it. The Great One's unmistakable voice provided the backdrop for a compilation of clips and interviews that traced Nash's lifelong journey from young basketball dreamer in faraway Victoria in British Columbia to two-time MVP with the Suns, hitting all the stops in between (Santa Clara, Canada's fairy-tale run at the 2000 Olympics and more) and promising a Gretzky-esque legacy if he'd join the Raptors now.
More than one person in the room would later say that Nash was fighting back tears watching it all.
"We all were," Duffy said. "It was like watching a Hall of Fame video.
"They wanted us to close the deal right then."
Colangelo's approach was reminiscent of the full-court press that greeted Nash from Phoenix on the opening day of free agency back in 2004 -- when another extra-large traveling party descended upon Dallas to swipe Nash away from Mark Cuban's Mavericks -- albeit with the bonus of knowing that the inspired Gretzky touch took the whole operation to a new level. The difference this time, eight years later, is that Nash, deep down, wasn't ready to make a firm decision on Day 1. He couldn't bring himself to decide that quickly knowing that the familiar soil of Toronto, home to Canada's only NBA franchise, was an address far away from his kids.
The Knicks' campaign faced the same proximity challenges for the divorced dad, whose twin 7-year-old daughters and 20-month-old son are based in Phoenix. But that was never going to stop the Madison Square Garden power brokers, dreaming of a Nash-and-Jeremy Lin rotation at the point, from throwing more opulence at Nash. Once Nash got done with the Raptors, Knicks officials had arranged a car to take him and Duffy to a local heliport. There they were greeted by star forward Carmelo Anthony, whisked all the way to the Knicks' practice facility in Greenburgh by helicopter and came away undeniably impressed that Knicks officials, well aware of Nash's passion for soccer, had the Spain-Italy final from Euro 2012 showing on every available TV in the building.
The Knicks didn't stop there, either. Not with a two-hour summit on MSG chairman Jim Dolan's yacht awaiting Nash as soon as he and Duffy helicoptered back to Manhattan.
|Seen here with his twin daughters in 2010, Nash wanted to stay close to them and his toddler son.|
MONDAY, JULY 2
The first 24 hours of luxurious action delivered a lot to digest. Duffy urged Nash to "sleep on it" all when they finally parted, but Nash at least thought that by "Monday morning I was ready to decide between New York and Toronto."
"We're thinking," Duffy said, "that this is going to be a two-horse race."
The phone didn't stop ringing, though. Nets general manager Billy King followed up on his initial call by reiterating that Nash was Brooklyn's top choice in the event that Deron Williams elected to sign with Dallas and pressed for his own face-to-face session with Nash. Miami's Pat Riley, despite the Heat's limited financial flexibility, rang again. And then Kupchak circled back to see how things were progressing.
Duffy says that's when he asked Kupchak point-blank: "How serious are you, Mitch? Because Steve would love to be on the West Coast." By the end of Day 2, Kupchak had not only convinced Nash and his agent that the Lakers were serious but had also secured approval from Lakers ownership to offer the guaranteed third contract year that Nash was seeking to take him to age 41.
The far bigger obstacle was that everyone understood that the well-over-the-cap Lakers had only one path to making a representative bid for Nash, needing to absorb him into the $8.9 million trade exception L.A. had created in December by shipping Lamar Odom to Dallas without taking any salary back.
And that would require the seemingly unthinkable: Phoenix consenting to signing-and-trading Nash to the team its fans loathe more than any other.
"I never would have thought that the Lakers would have come into the picture," Nash says now, explaining why, without much prompting, he had described himself as too "old-school" to even consider Lakerland as a possible destination when he spoke with Smith and Ruocco on the radio just days prior.
"But when [the Lakers] did and I started to think about it, about how I could be close to the kids and at the same time be on a contender, it was a perfect fit."
Duffy, too, initially struggled to imagine the Suns ever agreeing to help Nash get to Hollywood, so he proceeded carefully. He let Kupchak broach the idea with Suns president of basketball operations Lon Babby and focused instead on urging the Lakers GM to loop in Kobe Bryant and arrange for Kobe and Nash to speak.
The same Bryant who had his own flammable interview to live down, having left the distinct impression in January that he would (A) always hate the Suns and (B) never be Nash's biggest fan.
But their talk couldn't have gone much better. Kupchak reached Bryant at his annual basketball camp in Santa Barbara. Kobe broke away from the campers to make his pitch. And not unlike the summer of 2010, when he lobbied Raja Bell hard to join him in L.A. only a few years removed from the unforgettable clothesline that Bell laid on Bryant during the 2006 playoffs, Kobe made it clear that the guys who have the gumption to tangle with him directly are just the sort he wants as teammates.
Nash says they both came away from the chat feeling that "we could really help each other," sold on Bryant's contention that Nash's perpetually sunny leadership style would lead to an effective and welcome good cop/bad cop dynamic in the Lakers' locker room to offset Kobe's whip-cracking.
"We thought that we could help each other get there," Nash said, referring to the quest for his first championship and Bryant's oozing hunger for ring No. 6.
At Team USA's training camp in Las Vegas, Bryant didn't hesitate to speak of Nash in profanely reverential tones when someone asked him why he wanted to see his longtime rival wearing purple and gold. Putting it as only he would, Kobe said: "He's a bad mother------."
Said Nash: "I think there's a competitive relationship [between us]. At the same time, we're both grown men, and we both can overcome a few playoff series.
"It's kind of one of those things that I think, from afar, you never want to play for the other team [in a rivalry]. But at the same time, there's really no true loyalty in sports. You have to do what's best for you. Once I realized the Suns were going to do what's best for them, as they should, I figured I have to do what's best for me and not cut off my nose to spite my face."
TUESDAY, JULY 3
Can't do it. Can't do it. Can't do it.
As Day 3 of a process that was never supposed to last this long unfolded, that was the increasingly loud message coming from Babby and Suns owner Robert Sarver.
Kupchak hadn't been rejected completely the day before when he asked Babby whether Phoenix would consider doing sign-and-trade business with the Lakers, but Duffy was met with what the agent describes as "complete resistance" once he and Nash had begun to directly urge the Suns to make this trade. Suns officials were understandably skittish about the public backlash over handing Nash to a hated superpower ... no matter what would be coming back.
So that led to player and agent making pleas to a couple of sympathetic Suns minority owners, Dick Heckmann and Sam Garvin, citing all Nash had brought to the franchise and the community over the past eight seasons. They clung to the hope that the support of two of Sarver's most influential partners would eventually convince the boss to relent.
Nash's other suitors, meanwhile, were starting to lose their patience, having long since expected a resolution by this point. The Knicks were still pressing for a sign-and-trade deal of their own, undaunted by Toronto's decision to award a three-year offer sheet worth an estimated $20 million to Knicks restricted free agent Landry Fields, theoretically stripping New York of a prime piece to package to the Suns for Nash. Colangelo, meanwhile, made sure that Duffy could not forget the magnitude of the proposal that the Raptors had on the table, staying in New York well into Tuesday -- two days after the Raptors' initial sit-down with Nash -- and repeatedly pushing for a commitment from the Canadian icon before boarding a plane home.
This was the day that the Mavericks would jump fully into the fray as well, once D-Will announced that he'd be staying with the Nets. But Nash, somewhat to his own surprise, was secretly locked in on the Lakers by this point, realizing that no other team on his list of finalists could provide such proximity to his kids while also keeping him in the heart of the hunt for the championship ring that has eluded him for 16 seasons.
"I was really close at times to being a Raptor or Knick," Nash said. "Really close. I've always wanted to play for the Knicks, and to go home to Toronto was a dream opportunity in a lot of different ways.
"But I wanted to exhaust every opportunity to be near the kids before I really made a decision. Being in L.A. would mean I can see the kids three or four times a month instead of three or four times a year. Now, after practice or an off day, I can fly home, pick 'em up from school, take 'em to the park, feed 'em and be back home for bedtime. That's priceless to me.
"That was the most important thing. No matter how disappointed some Suns fans would be, nothing could compete with the disappointment of telling my kids I'd only see them a few times throughout the winter. That trumps everything."
And that's why the Knicks and Raptors were still waiting for an answer when Duffy boarded an evening flight back to the Bay Area. The veteran agent, at Nash's insistence, asked the Atlantic Division neighbors to hang in there, sit tight a little longer and give Nash just a bit more time to make the most difficult decision of his career. Because Nash was the top free-agent target for both teams this summer, and with the Lakers still by no means assured of getting the green light from the Suns, New York and Toronto grudgingly stuck around.
"Our financial offer and the long-term opportunity for Steve were certainly better, but I can't fault a guy for putting his family ahead of everything else," Colangelo told ESPN.com on Monday. "The fact that that he will be competing for a title made this easy for him. I'm still disappointed, but I completely understand his decision. As a friend, I wish him well."
Not that things were settled by this stage. Not remotely. Not with the Suns demanding a package of four draft picks from the Lakers -- two future first-rounders and two future second-rounders -- just for the right to keep the trade talks alive.
So Nash's celebrated foray into free agency, which began on Canada Day, would be spilling into the Fourth of July.
"I really thought," Nash said, "this was going to be over fast."
I was really close at times to being a Raptor or Knick. Really close. I've always wanted to play for the Knicks, and to go home to Toronto was a dream opportunity in a lot of different ways. But I wanted to exhaust every opportunity to be near the kids before I really made a decision.
-- Steve Nash
WEDNESDAY, JULY 4
Nash says now, after the fact, that he woke up on Independence Day believing it was "50-50 that the Suns would allow the trade to happen."
Yet what Duffy refers to as the Lakers' "kitchen sink" offer, with $3 million in cash added to the four future picks, still left plenty of uncertainty. So much uncertainty and anxiety that Nash, who isn't exactly known for long phone conversations or for letting you know he's fretting, was calling Duffy nonstop by Day 4 of negotiations.
"We were talking literally 40 times a day," Duffy said of the 16-year vet who typically ranks as most independent client on the BDA Sports roster.
Closure, however, was indeed looming. Duffy made one last run at Sarver's heartstrings, telling him the story of how, as a fledgling agent, he tried to secure a guaranteed contract from the Houston Oilers for wide receiver Webster Slaughter. Then-Oilers GM Mike Holovak informed Duffy that he was asking for the sort of treatment that, in the NFL world, only legendary running back Earl Campbell could dare seek.
Duffy's point? Nash was the Suns' Earl Campbell.
"I told Robert that, in all the years that you're going to own this franchise, I don't think you'll ever have a person in this organization as special as Steve Nash," Duffy said. "He's inarguably the greatest Sun this franchise has ever had. So if you're ever going to make an exception for something, he'd be the guy. And Robert, bless his soul, ended up giving his blessing."
But Duffy knows, realistically, that the speech only did so much good. The Knicks were prepared to part with a player whom the Suns loved in the 2011 draft in a sign-and-trade with Phoenix -- guard Iman Shumpert -- but the true clincher for the Lakers was the Suns' fast-moving negotiations with another Duffy client: Goran Dragic. With Phoenix not only extracting a variety of assets from L.A. but also emerging from the Nash breakup with a coveted (and marketable) replacement, it became slightly more palatable for Sarver to sign off.
"It probably didn't hurt," Duffy concedes, "that we were going to be a part of the solution for them."
Sarver declined comment over the weekend when reached by ESPN.com to tell the Suns' side of the story, saying that he wouldn't be making any public statements about how things played out before Wednesday, which is the first day NBA players can sign new contracts. But that's OK.
Nash, suddenly an ex-Sun for the second time in his career, has plenty to say.
"I'm really thankful that Robert reconsidered," Nash said. "He and some of the other partners were gracious enough to realize what this means to me. They also got some assets back, which I feel good about, but it was a great gesture for me and my family. He was in a tough spot, but he put himself out there to do the best thing for me and my kids."
Said Duffy: "It really comes down to Steve wanting to be as close to his children as possible. It's an absolute bonus that he can compete for a ring and the money he'll be able to earn [roughly $27 million over the next three seasons] at his age. At the end of the day, if Phoenix would have offered him $10 million [a year] over three years, he would have stayed in Phoenix. One hundred percent. But we understand where the Suns are. They have to rebuild. They made it clear that they felt like they couldn't pay Steve a large salary and then go out and get other players to build a team."
Once Sarver's seal was assured, Nash called Colangelo and Tanenbaum separately to deliver the news that immediately and inevitably prompted a backlash about his commitment to the country, even though he recently signed on as general manager of Canada's senior men's national team. And Duffy called Dolan to let the Knicks know that the offseason Tribeca fixture would not be making New York his full-time home, either.
Nash has since heard the gibes about his supposed lack of patriotism. He's seen the footage of a few Suns fans burning his jersey LeBron-style. He's even taken some not-so-gentle ribbing from some of his cousins back home in England who likened the move from the Suns to the Lakers to the jump that Sol Campbell, once a rock-steady defender from Nash's beloved Tottenham Hotspur in the Barclays Premier League, made from Spurs to death rival Arsenal.
He swears that he can handle it all.
"If I upset some fans, I'll take whatever punishment they want to dish out," Nash said. "I love the Suns' fans; I had a fantastic and defining eight years there."
"The people I need to try not to disappoint," Nash said, "are my kids."
|Waving bye to the franchise he's called home for the past eight years isn't easy for Nash.|