NBA star Steve Nash immerses himself in 'first love' soccer
WHIPPANY, N.J. -- Steve Nash looks like a soccer player. With his lithe body clad in Inter Milan's legendary Nerazzurri jersey, the NBA star appeared the part, striding out of the locker room to train with the Serie A team ahead of their opening game in the Guinness International Champions Cup against Chelsea.
Though he later admitted to experiencing a pang of nerves, the two-time NBA MVP quickly demonstrated a deft touch with both feet during warm-ups. "The Canadian Xavi" entered the fray in a training game alongside such international talents as Esteban Cambiasso and Diego Milito, handchecking attackers as if they were opponents attempting to drive past him at the Staples Center.
Buzzing as he strolled off the field, Nash talked positively about his return from the hip and hamstring injuries that hampered him last season with the Los Angeles Lakers. "I'm not 100 percent," he said, "but I am close.
"As someone who grew up in a London household on the west coast of Canada, this is a dream come true."
While the Inter players sought respite from the unforgiving New Jersey heat, plunging into a postgame ice bath in their underwear, Nash took time to sit down and discussed the special role the game of football has played in his life.
With Nash sporting a personalized Inter jersey marked with the vaunted playmaker's No. 10, I began by asking: If he had been born in 1990 instead of 1974, with all the progress football has made in this country, might he have aspired toward a professional soccer career, along with his father and brother, instead of working toward the NBA?
"The athlete in me thinks if I could have put all the energy I put into basketball into football, I could have made something of myself," he said. "At the same time, I have such a respect for world football and how good the players are. ... I would hate to disrespect anyone by saying I could have been a professional footballer, but you never know. I certainly put a lot of hours into basketball, so it would have been interesting to see if I could have made something of myself on the football pitch."
Asked to define the role soccer has come to play in his life, Nash does not hesitate. "It was my first love. My first word was 'Goal!' -- my dad made sure of that," he said with a proud smile. "Now, when I go home, I watch soccer; I am a massive fan."
Yet the modest Nash is far more than a mere fan. As co-owner of MLS's Vancouver Whitecaps, a renowned Tottenham Hotspur die-hard, and host of the annual Steve Nash Foundation Showdown (uniting European football stars and NBA talent on the football field to raise nearly $2 million for a range of children's charities), the basketball star has made a prolonged and sizable contribution to advance soccer's profile across North America.
The depth of his love for the sport is evident. The proud Canadian admits he could find it in himself to root for the United States at the 2014 World Cup. "I want the game to grow here," he said with no compunction. "I can understand why you would not want to cheer for your neighbor ... but those guys have done a great job for growing the sport in this country."
The Lakers' point guard shakes his head in wonder as he describes the experience of witnessing soccer's profile grow. "When I was at college ... you never thought, you would never think there would be a day when [soccer] is on the ticker," he said. "Now when you watch, there is a result on SportsCenter's ticker, which to me is a mark of how far the game has come in this country." The game is even penetrating the ranks of the NBA. When I inform Nash that Dirk Nowitzki came on our show and suggested that LeBron James is a "fake Liverpool fan," Nash lights up. "I will do you one better," he said as a broad grin crosses his face, "Dirk is not a real Arsenal fan. He can take that one!"
That smile quickly disappears when the subject turns to Tottenham Hotspur, the Premier League team Nash has followed from birth. "My dad is from Tottenham, his dad's from Tottenham, my mom and dad grew up in Tottenham and got married there," he explained to reinforce his bona fides. When challenged to provide a professional athlete's explanation for Spurs' late collapse last season, he grimaces. "We have played some of the best football the league has seen over the parts of the last two seasons, but it is the workmanlike professional wins you have to get away from home that really matter," he said. "In big games we usually play, but we have to find a way to be consistent in the other games because you never know which will lose you the race for the Champions League."
Asked about the lingering rumors of Gareth Bale's move to Real Madrid, Nash provides two responses -- that of an emotional supporter and a rational pro athlete. "As a Tottenham fan, I would love him to stay for us to get into the Champions League; we have to keep our best players. But as an athlete, I can understand if they say to him: This is your one and only chance to come to Madrid. ... Why would he want to turn that down? If he goes -- when he goes -- the most important thing for him is to keep his head down and concentrate on his training and enjoy his football. He has got all of the talent and seems to do brilliantly wherever he goes."
Nash attempts to remain positive. "The best case is Tottenham get into top three, but some things are going to have to fall our way in terms of staying healthy," he said. "The worst case is if we lose Bale and get some injuries -- you never know where you could bottom."
The NBA star blows out his cheeks when attempting to predict a title winner. "It is hard to bet against Manchester City because of all their talent, but Mourinho has done it before and all the boys at United know how to win it, too."
Offered the footballing "Sophie's Choice" between Tottenham winning the Premier League or Vancouver lifting the MLS Cup, Nash takes a deep breath before responding. "I hope this does not sound bad since I am desperate for Vancouver to win and am one of the owners, but Spurs have been trying to win since 1961, so I might take that first seeing as Vancouver are a young team. This is just our third year in the league and we have plenty of time to win plenty of cups."
Pushing further, I ask Nash to choose between the scenarios of Tottenham winning the Premier League on goal difference from Arsenal, or the Lakers winning next year's NBA title. This time he does not hesitate: "It's tough but I would say the Lakers." His eyes light up at the very prospect. "I have been fighting so hard for that every day, it would be fantastic."