As one of the most successful and recognizable Canadian athletes in the United States, Steve Nash is using his stature and passion to relay the incredible story of arguably Canada's greatest athlete of all time.
The Phoenix Suns point guard's debut as a director, "Into The Wind" (8 p.m. ET Tuesday on ESPN and 11 p.m. ET on ESPN2) is the latest installment in ESPN Films' 30 for 30 documentary series and examines amputee Terry Fox's life and his attempt to run a marathon a day across Canada in 1980.
His perseverance and determination to raise money for cancer research by running a marathon a day and his tragic death months after his run was halted because the disease had spread to his lungs made Fox an iconic figure in Canada. Millions of people around the world take part in the annual Terry Fox Run, and the Terry Fox Foundation has raised more than $500 million for cancer research.
"He has obviously [been] a very important part in our history and our cultural fabric, but I think anyone would enjoy this story," Nash said last week during a media conference call. "But there are definitely elements to Terry that are very Canadian. I think an unassuming, humble way in which he went about his run, the conflict between being this humble, quiet, normal kid who wanted to shy away from the spotlight or attention and at the same time his quest was built on attention.
"He needed to gain this notoriety to raise more money and to create more visibility. So there was a lot of conflicts within Terry and the Marathon of Hope."
Nash's Fox documentary, which he co-directed with his filmmaking partner and cousin Ezra Holland, details how Fox wrestled with the frustrations of media indifference at the start of the journey and with increased demands after his run captured the country's imagination once the Marathon of Hope was in Ontario.
"I think this story speaks for itself," Nash said. "You can tell it in a lot of ways, you can tell it very straightforward, but the one thing I think that was really important to us was to put people in his shoes to let them know what he was like out there, what he was thinking.
"I think that it's inevitable you have to show how normal he was, that he was just a private, normal kid from British Columbia who wanted to … he was terminally ill and wanted to change the world and he went out and did it."
Fox's story continues to inspire so many people, particularly Canadians, because he was such an identifiable person. A normal kid who grew up in the Vancouver suburb of Port Coquitlam, British Columbia. But at 18, Fox had his leg amputated above the right knee because of a malignant osteosarcoma in the joint.
An ordinary guy then willed himself to extraordinary achievements.
"I think it was such a contradiction between the … just what a genuine, normal kid he was and the extraordinary task he took on and the feat he accomplished and what his life has meant to our country and to cancer research," Nash said. "So I just felt like it was such an impactful part of the story that he is, he really is a normal kid that did something extraordinary and we couldn't … it was too interesting for us and too relatable for us to not to have that be a theme of our film."
In chronicling the highs and lows of the cross-country journey, Nash details the understandable friction between Fox and the support people who accompanied him. Fox's best friend Doug Alward was there from the start as the driver of an increasingly pungent van from St. John's, Newfoundland, and later the small motor home to which they upgraded.
"But I think my favorite part was just his relationship with Doug Alward, his best friend," Nash said. "You know, how they were best friends, how they met, how they grew up together and how they embarked on this journey together. They had their ups and downs and just that relationship I thought was an amazing part of the story for me."
Besides interviews with Alward and others who were close to Fox, the runner's journals were crucial to get a glimpse into the 21-year-old's mind. Nash said they provided the best sources for him to learn more about Fox.
"Obviously I knew his story. I knew what he meant to us, but to really dig into what he was going through, what his perspective was, who he was, his journals were just such an impactful part of our film," said Nash, who is known for his environmental work and charitable endeavors and won the NBA's J. Walter Kennedy Citizenship Award in 2007. "But also for me to get closer to him and understand his way of thinking and in a day his mentality, even though it's the most impactful as far as a new angle on Terry and just the self-talk. The way as an athlete he continually pushed himself, doubted himself, questioned whether he could continue this.
"Also some of the, I would say, more personal and difficult aspects of him not wanting to see a doctor and trying to read between the lines and the feel of he just didn't want anything to stop this and wondering if he knew he had cancer. And it leads you into just a whole different direction of what kind of person he was.
"He was thoughtful, he was incredibly convicted, strong-willed and I think all those things getting to know what he went through, what he was thinking about out there. And how he approached his journey, all those answers to all those things or at least the provocation of all those things are incredible and only heighten the respect and worship I have for him."
Nash said another poignant moment was filming at Fox's grave site at the Port Coquitlam Municipal Cemetery. He described it as a beautiful summer day, which happened to be the anniversary of Fox's funeral.
"The sun was out and we were waiting for it to come down to get better light. And we actually had a little bit of wine and sat out there and felt this really great connection to him after digging into it, after interviewing his family and after not only remembering what he meant to us but poring over it in detail," Nash said. "To kind of be there on that day and that moment, it was, it was a celebration of his life.
"I'm not a really sentimental person at all but it was a lot of fun to kind of feel like you were sharing something with him and with Canadians and how much his story has meant to us."
Nash was only 6 years old in 1980, but he fondly recalled a keen interest in the Marathon of Hope while growing up in Victoria, B.C., which was supposed to be the end of Fox's route.
"To be honest the memory isn't that great, but what I do remember clearly is waking up every day in the summer of 1980 as a 6-year-old to turn on the TV to see where Terry was. And just having this fascination and being mesmerized by him that he was across our country.
"I don't necessarily remember in detail -- and now after I've been working on this film so closely for two years, your memories of the footage kind of become convoluted -- but I went back to how I remembered, in the schools, in the first person originally, and I just remembered the feeling I had for him as this hero and incredible figure. And I remember waking up every day to see where he was."
Nash was asked why his parents made it possible for him to follow Fox's run and he said he wasn't sure but suspected his parents were swept up in the excitement, as well.
"This was somebody that everyone from young kids like I was at 6 to the elderly and everyone in between were just in love with this guy," Nash said. "I think -- obviously his characteristics, what he was trying to do -- it's a very powerful, educational and inspiring story but I think more than that, people just really were taken by this guy and then fell in love with him. And what he stood for was so charismatic that I know my parents had the same feelings as everyone else [did] about him."
Coincidentally, Nash's twin daughters are almost as old as Nash was that summer when he was mesmerized by Fox. And Nash said Isabella and Lourdes have become very familiar with Fox's face and trademark running style by viewing rough cuts of the film that he has been working on for two years.
"They're half a year younger, so to speak now. So I would definitely love to sit down and get with them and watch the full film," he said. "It's great watching all the different versions with them because they, just like I did at 6, they just ask question after question after question.
"So we'd love to, and ESPN has been really supportive of this, we'd love to get it into schools to see it across Canada. But it's something that I definitely enjoy watching it with my girls because they have tons of questions."
Photos of a young Terry Fox in "Into The Wind" and in Douglas Coupland's wonderful scrapbook-styled "Terry" show a youngster much like Nash was. A sports-loving, determined, hard-working, driven young Canadian boy.
"I think Terry was an athlete, full stop, you know he has the mentality and the fight in him, that who he was, that's what he did, that defined him personally," Nash said. "But at the same time I think Terry had just a bigger impact on me than just sports. You know the characteristics of … just, well his unselfishness, his perseverance, toughness … his ability to be humble in the [spotlight] of attention. Those are all qualities of Terry that had a huge impact on me. So I think, yeah those things definitely will impact or influenced [me as an athlete] … as well as a person."
It seems fair to wonder whether Fox would have made a bigger impact if his run hadn't been sadly cut short by the return of cancer when he reached Thunder Bay, Ontario. We are left with images of the heroic, handsome, athletic, determined young man and were deprived of seeing what else he might have done in the rest of his life.
Would Fox completing the run continue to inspire as many people as he has because his Marathon of Hope was unfairly and abruptly cut short at 3,339 miles, more than halfway across Canada? Would his foundation have raised as much money or made as much of an impact on cancer research?
Would Steve Nash have become one of the best basketball players in the world without knowing Fox's epic and tragic story? Probably. But to understand part of what inspires and drives a two-time NBA MVP, now everyone can simply go "Into The Wind."
Jim Wilkie is the editor of The Life and can be reached at email@example.com.