Sportsnet: Nash hopes playing at home will inspire Canada

This article was originally published on  Sportsnet's website.

[Click here to read Toronto 2015's article that includes Team Canada's Pan Am schedule]

He was back on the court again. Uninhibited. Smiling. Enjoying having a basketball in his hands.

The young crowd, for the moment, was adoring.

“You’re Steve Nash,” one squealed with the delight normally reserved for a meeting with Santa Claus, or the Tooth Fairy.

It was a rare moment for Canada’s most storied player. By his own words Steve Nash is now in the “afterlife.” That was the line he used on an Instagram post last month as he shared a photomontage of a visit to Argentina – “The afterlife has its bright spots” – was the exact quote.

It was the kind of trip anyone with means and time should take, and Nash has both, but as the reference suggests, they haven’t come without a price. He’s effectively retired as an NBA player, although it hasn’t been made official in part because he’s still receiving the final year of his $9.5-million salary from the Los Angeles Lakers, even though his body won’t let him play anymore.

But when Nash talks about the afterlife there’s a tinge of sadness to the whole thing. As he hinted when he produced his own mini-documentary series The Finish Line for about his struggles to regain his health and his looming retirement, he described the experience in mortal terms. With his athletic career coming to a close, part of him was dying.

After considerable effort to rehabilitate the nerve and back problems that ultimately robbed him of a productive finish to his 18-year career, the two-time MVP declared in October that he wasn’t going to play for the Lakers this year, and has been nearly silent since.

The few times he has surfaced on social media he’s often been pilloried by fans for not retiring and having his money come off the Lakers books or for failing to make himself present around the Staples Center during what has been a disaster of a season for the storied franchise.

For his entire career Nash has been nothing but a fan favourite. In his first year after basketball he’s taken a hit – at least in Los Angeles.

But Nash’s star will always shine at home. Ten years service to the Canadian national team and two decades as the flag bearer for Canadian basketball has rightfully earned him a deep well of good will.

He was in Toronto Monday to be introduced as the pitch person for Tangerine, the Canadian direct bank that has partnered with Nash as part of a community-based charitable effort. It’s a rare endorsement for Nash, but one that checked off the boxes required for him to make an appearance during his end-of-career limbo. As part of the deal, Tangerine will contribute to Canada Basketball and Steve Nash Youth Basketball.

The event was held at the downtown Toronto YMCA – another beneficiary – and it offered the chance for Nash to don Phoenix Suns orange (Tangerine’s colour) and get on the floor for a brief clinic.

But Nash wasn’t about to reflect on what he’s been doing or how he’s been managing in his first year away from the sport that consumed him since he was in the eighth grade in Victoria, B.C.

In a brief media availability questions about his back and the Lakers and his retirement were off limits, but when asked about how he was adjusting to his first year without basketball, in some ways what he didn’t say was more telling than what he did.

“I’m basically just trying to get a little space and see where my head’s at while still focusing on some things, “ he said. “[I’m] also trying to get a new perspective because it’s been a tough fight over the last 18 months; so just trying to get a little space and see how my mind and body responds.”

He’s not in a bad way, by any means. He looks tanned and tremendously fit. He’s got his children with him for large swaths of time and lives a short walk from their school near the beach in L.A.

And for his basketball fix he can turn his attention to the Canadian men’s national team and his role as general manager for a generation that promises to put Canada among the world’s elite.

This coming summer is shaping up to be a potentially pivotal international season. Toronto is hosting the Pan-Am Games and all indications are that for the first time the majority of the young NBA players – Andrew Wiggins, Tristan Thompson, Cory Joseph and several more — that have stepped into the void left by Nash will play together.

The hope is the Pan-Am Games – the men’s basketball competition is July 25-29; the women’s is July 20-24 – will be the launching pad for the men to earn a spot in the 2016 Olympics in Brazil at the qualifying tournament in Mexico later in the summer. The Canadian men haven’t been to the Olympics since Nash led them there in 2000,

Nash had the opportunity to play at home when he made his senior national team debut in the World Championships in Toronto in 1994, but that was the last important game he played for Canada in Canada.

“What is that 21 years ago?” said Nash, his age hitting him head on. “That’s a couple of generations. So who knows when the next one will be, another 20 years?

“It’s an amazing opportunity for our program,” said Nash. “But it’s an even more amazing opportunity for our players. We never really got the opportunity to play meaningful games in our own country and a lot of guys on our team are from Toronto, so for guys to play in their hometown and home country it’s an opportunity I wish I had so it really will implore those guys to take it and not just play but to really take it all in and put on a great show by becoming a team and trying to beat everyone and get some excitement going in the Pan-Am games.”

Had things unfolded differently it’s not inconceivable that Nash might have considered playing for Canada. It would have been a storybook ending to the greatest basketball career a Canadian has ever put together.

But even the greatest careers don’t always end by design, and Nash’s experience is proof.

Who better to exhort a generation of young Canadian talent to seize the moment while they can?