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Whether or not Nash is done for good, players, coaches say he changed the game

10/24/2014 05:54 EDT | Updated 12/24/2014 05:59 EST
TORONTO - In their early days with Canada's national team, there were some nights when Steve Nash and Rowan Barrett didn't play much. On those nights, Nash would insist they run stairs at the team's hotel after the game.

"That's always kind of who he's been," Barrett said. "That will never change, he will always be that way."

A day after the Los Angeles Lakers announced Nash was done for the season — and very likely his career — coaches and players spoke fondly of the Canadian basketball superstar who will leave the game so much better for having him.

Nash's against-the-odds story is well told: the small Canadian kid who made it big in the American game. He played for the only NCAA school that wanted him, and then seemingly through sheer will moulded himself into one of the best point guard the league has ever seen.

"He has tremendous, tremendous drive," said Barrett, who played alongside Nash at the 2000 Sydney Olympics. "When you look at his size, and what he's been able to accomplish in the game of basketball, it's just tremendous. You can't really explain that simply in skill, you can't simply explain that in I.Q. There's more.

"Steve is unique in his drive, in his self-belief, and the one thing that you walk away with from playing with him is that he is highly competitive. He doesn't want to lose, at anything. He's trying to win every single drill, in every single practice. He's not waiting until we scrimmage to try to win, he's trying to win the shooting drill. He's winning the running drill, he wants to win the ball-handling drill. He's very highly motivated."

Drive could only carry him so far with his ailing back, however. The 40-year-old played in only 15 games last season with nerve root irritation, but hoped to make a comeback this season — what would be his 19th — after months of rehabilitation. He experienced some pain in the three pre-season games he played in, and then strained his back a few days ago while carrying bags.

"Time is undefeated," Barrett said. "As time goes along, you know the likelihood that older players might get injured is always there. I'm very, very proud with the way he forced and battled his way through this, constantly working, he's always working to be in tip-top shape, and did everything humanly possible to make himself ready for this season."

But his spectacular career deserved a better ending, said Leo Rautins.

"It's amazing he's been able to go as long as he's gone, with the different injuries he's had," said Rautins, former Canadian team player and coach and now a television analyst. "It is sad. You hope to be able to ride into the sunset, instead of having your horse taken away from you.

"You know a guy like Steve, he loves the game. . . so the frustration you feel as an athlete when it's taken from you, it's hard. I really feel for him."

In a Lakers statement late Thursday night, Nash said "I work very hard to stay healthy, and unfortunately my recent setback makes performing at full capacity difficult. I will continue to support my team during this period of rest, and will focus on my long-term health."

Players past and present took to Twitter to show their love for Canada's two-time NBA MVP.

Wrote Allen Iverson: "Sad 2 hear about Steve but happy he had a great career, a true PG. 1 of the best 2 ever do it. His biggest fan, AI"

Reggie Miller posted: "If this is the end for @SteveNash, SPECTACULAR job of making the game better.. #1stBallotHOF"

Former Toronto Raptors point guard Jose Calderon called Nash "one of my role models."

"I always watched a lot of video of him, he was a guy I always looked up to," Calderon told reporters in Montreal, where his New York Knicks were set to battle Toronto on Friday night. "If I wanted to play like somebody, he was the guy I wanted to be like on the court.

"Tough news, sometimes your body says this is enough."

Toronto Raptors coach Dwane Casey remembers Nash from the days he coached the Supersonics. Nash would travel to Seattle during the off-season to work out with Sonics great Gary Payton.

"(I) have nothing but love and respect for his game," Casey said. "It's sad, but he's done so much good, it's hard to get sad for Steve because he's meant so much for Canadian basketball, to the NBA period. He's the prototypical point guard, you teach your point guard to be like him."

Nash has played in only 65 games since the Lakers traded four draft picks for him in 2012. The Raptors were one of his main suitors that off-season. His best years came in Phoenix, where he was won his two MVP awards, in 2005 and '06, and set career highs in points (18.8) and assists (11.6) while directing the Suns' run-and-gun offence.

Casey said "no question," Nash changed the game.

"The way Phoenix played, that style of play, was a unique style because of him," Casey said. "I think a lot of people have tried to emulate that style, free-wheeling and up and down basketball, but unless you have a Steve Nash, it’s very difficult to play that style of basketball.

"You can try but he's the only guy who can make those laser-like passes, make those laser-like reads with the basketball and then at the end of the day, he's a magnificent three-point shooter.

"I tell Jack Sikma, there's only one player who's had a move named after him, the Sikma Move (a step-back behind-the-head jump shot)," Casey added. "Well, we call when you circle around the basket, do the Steve Nash. He's the second player to have a move named after him."

Nash is third on the NBA's career assists list, trailing only John Stockton and Jason Kidd. He's also is the most accurate free-throw shooter in NBA history.

The Victoria native, who's generously listed as six foot three, starred at Santa Clara carrying the school to three NCAA tournament appearances. He began his NBA career with Phoenix, which traded him to Dallas in 1998. The eight-time NBA all-star returned to Phoenix in 2004 and then eventually went to the Lakers in hopes of claiming an NBA title.

His longevity, said Canadian junior team coach Roy Rana, is a reflection of his work ethic.

"He's been very innovative in the way that he's treated his body. . . and he's had a very long career," said Rana, who's also Ryerson University's head men's coach. "It's sad to see it end this way, because of injuries, but at the same time, if you look back and look at what incredible longevity he's had, that's a testament to all of that work that he does in the off-season, physically, not only just basketball."

Casey said whenever Nash leaves the game for good as a player, a career on an NBA bench or front office is waiting if he wants it.

"He can do whatever he wants to do in this league," Casey said.

Nash is also the general manager of a Canadian men's program that, with the addition of young stars such as Andrew Wiggins and Anthony Bennett, is expected to be on the rise once again. Barrett is his assistant GM.

Nash is generous with him time with Canada's young players.

"He's texting them, they're back and forth talking, he's watching their games, he's evaluating them," Barrett said. "It's really important to have someone that has your best interests at heart, that does understand what you're going through, and understands your progress, and is able to share the truth with you, so you can be the best form of yourself. He does play that very, very important role for many of our guys."

Several Canadian players reached out to Nash on Twitter following Thursday's news.

Sacramento Kings rookie guard Nik Stauskas wrote "So sad to hear the news about my good friend @SteveNash. Best wishes to you in your recovery man! #CanadianBasketballIcon #ChangedTheGame"

Kelly Olynyk, who's in his sophomore season with Boston, wrote "Sad to hear about my guy @SteveNash such a hard worker and great guy. I know he'll help that team in many other ways."

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BY THE NUMBERS: A look at Steve Nash's career

2 — NBA's Most Valuable Player awards

5 — Seasons he led the league in assists

6-3 — NBA.com's generous listing of his height

8 — Number of times he was named an NBA all-star

11 — Jersey number at Santa Clara, which as been retired

14.3 — Career points-per-game average

15 — Draft position by the Phoenix Suns in 1996

18 — Number of seasons he's played in the NBA

18.8 — Career season-high points average

26 — Points he scored in Canada's 83-75 upset of Yugoslavia at the 2000 Sydney Olympics

17,387 — Total points scored in his career

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