Commentary

Nash yet to earn equity in L.A.

Injured Lakers guard battling to overcome injuries and prove his worth to fans

Updated: November 15, 2013, 12:54 PM ET
By Ramona Shelburne | ESPNLosAngeles.com

Steve NashAndrew D. Bernstein/NBAE/Getty ImagesWhen he's healthy, Steve Nash is one of the best floor leaders the game has ever seen.
It would probably help, if truth and accuracy were the main objectives, for everyone who talks about what's really going on with Steve Nash to start sounding a lot more like Jared Dudley.

"People don't realize, it's not him just getting old," said Dudley, now a forward for the Clippers, who has been one of Nash's closest friends since their days together with the Phoenix Suns. "That one injury just put him back. It's not an old-age injury. It's just an injury."

That one injury, of course, being the broken leg Nash suffered in the second game of last season on a freak play in Portland. If Damian Lillard's knee strikes Nash's leg an inch higher or lower, none of this might have happened. Nash would have had a bruise, not a broken bone. And that bruise presumably wouldn't have caused the chain reaction in the nerves throughout Nash's body that have left the 39-year-old in chronic, and sometimes debilitating pain ever since. One day it's his hamstrings and lower back that are barking. Then the pain spreads into his neck and up and down his spine. Another day it's shooting down his legs again.

It's a circuitry issue, not decay -- like the logic board on your computer going haywire more than wear and tear on the parts.

Does it help that Nash is 39 years old with a ton of hard-fought NBA miles on his body? No. But in this case, age is more of a complicating factor than a root cause.

To explain that over and over, however, is an outlay of energy Nash simply doesn't have time for. Whatever he's got left in the tank is better served trying to get healthy enough to get back on the court again, than changing hearts and minds in a city where he's not yet been able to build up much equity.

Plus, it's just so much easier for folks to say he's getting old and to call for him to hang it up.

"There's always going to be a debate," Lakers coach Mike D'Antoni said. "But he's not going to debate it, he's not going to talk about it -- he's going to try to get ready and he's going to try to win."

There's a part of D'Antoni that seems a little wistful as he talks about Nash these days. On the one hand, it hurts him to hear people talking about Nash the way they are right now, when he knows how well Nash takes care of his body and the truly freak nature of the injury that started this bizarre chain reaction. On the other hand, he simply can't put this year's Lakers on hold until Nash returns like he somewhat did last season.

Remember the days when D'Antoni used to talk about Nash's return like it would unlock the mysteries of the universe -- or at least of his offense -- for a team that neither seemed eager to learn nor able to execute it? He'd harken back to their days together in Phoenix, picturing it in his mind's eye like it was yesterday and not 2006, and hoping they could recreate some of that old magic during this late-career revival.

He doesn't do that anymore, though. Perhaps last year was simply too painful for both of them. Perhaps he's just practical. If Nash comes back and is Nash again, great. If he can't, the Lakers have to move on.

Nash has years of equity built up with D'Antoni. His coach will afford him the time and space to heal.

He doesn't have the same history with Lakers fans, however.

Oh sure, they remember what he did in Phoenix. The two MVP awards he won in years that Kobe Bryant might have won. The playoff series he stole from the Lakers in 2006.

You see where this is going: Not only is Nash something of a mercenary to the people of L.A., but he's broken their hearts a few times over the years, too. That makes what happened last year -- when Nash's injuries played a prominent role in the Lakers' epic downfall -- just another heartbreak on his tab.

Is that fair to a player with Nash's Hall of Fame credentials? Absolutely not. As far as I'm concerned, a player with Nash's character and accomplishments should be afforded the utmost respect when it comes to matters like retirement. The decision on when to hang 'em up should be his and his alone. There should be a farewell tour with highlight montages and hugs and speeches at half court of every arena.

That's what would've happened if Nash played out his career in Phoenix.

But of course both sides thought they needed to move on. The Suns were going on a full-fledged reboot that they didn't want Nash to have to endure. Nash was going to what he thought would be a contender that was close enough to his children for him to get home enough to see them.

It all seemed like a wonderful plan until the fateful night in Portland. And now, more than a year later, Nash finds himself on a lonely island, trying to make it back and make some good out of all that's gone bad.

He's worked tirelessly to get back on the court. He's endured crushing pain. He's pushed through self-doubt and fatigue and despair many times over ... and really none of it has been appreciated by a fan base that's come to see him as a symbol of what's been ailing the franchise.

"Anybody who has followed the game the last several years knows he's been one of the best in the game," D'Antoni said. "He's a great ambassador for the game with what he does off the floor, how he comes to work every day, how he gets himself ready in the summers. I could go on and on. You don't get any better than that.

"If that doesn't build you equity, then so be it."

It is wholly unfair to Nash, and yet there's absolutely nothing he can do to change that opinion at the moment.

"It's tough," Nash said. "I really want to play, and I really want to play the way I am accustomed to playing."

What's sad is, the longer he tries to play and the more he fails, the less people seem to be rooting for him.

It's as if the fan base, too, doesn't want to let itself keep getting hurt by Nash's woes. Easier just to chalk his injuries up to age and call for him to retire.

It's not how it should be. It's not what a player of Nash's stature deserves.

Instead of appreciating a player for trying to give an organization return on its investment in him, there's resentment. Not within the organization -- Nash proved himself to the Lakers and his teammates from the jump.

"Good professionals and good players like to prove their value," Pau Gasol said. "Aside from the love of the game and being a competitive player, you want to prove that what you were given is what you are worth."

But that's where Nash is now. A Hall of Famer trying to prove himself all over again.

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