Monday, February 1, 2010

Nash's Bridges

Steve Nash’s credentials as an all-time legend are impeccable. His resume is well-worn: back-to-back MVPs in 2005 and ’06, over 8,000 career assists to rank in the top 10, inspiration to a generation of undersized white point guards, enterprising viral video director.

Even Nash’s origin story is better than average: A hyper-athletic scrapper from Victoria, British Columbia, has a fervent belief that he can play in the NBA. He sends grainy footage of himself dominating inferior competition to college coaches throughout the United States. Santa Clara is the only school to bite. Nash heads to California and builds himself into the 15th pick of the 1996 draft.

The West Coast Conference learned about Nash as the Broncos raced to the conference title in Nash’s freshman season of 1993. The nation would begin to take heed when 15th-seeded Santa Clara met second-seeded Arizona in the first round of the NCAA tournament. The Wildcats had spent most of the seasons at or near the top of the polls and had one of the best backcourts in the nation with Khalid Reeves and Damon Stoudemire.

Nash wasn’t even the starting point guard; that honorific belonged to John Woolery. Nash was the off-guard with the classic early 1990s haircut that is shaved in the sides and back with a bowl up top. Does that have a name? The Snow? The Color Me Badd? The Joey Russo?

Nash didn’t have a particularly good first half against Arizona. He shot 1 for 7 and got called for three fouls. That landed him on the bench for the start of the second half.

When Nash checked back in, the Wildcats were in the midst of a 25-0 run that looked likely to quell any chance of an upset by Santa Clara. Arizona led by 13 before the Broncos battled back to get within 50-47. The game would be tight the rest of the way, and Nash’s leadership abilities were evident despite being a freshman from Canada.

He exhorted his teammates between foul shots and kept them calm as the possibility of a historic victory drew close. Nash sank six straight clutch free throws in the final two minutes. He missed his last two from the foul line, but the Broncos held on for a 64-61 victory. They became the second 15th seed to win in the first round after the Richmond Spiders beat Syracuse in 1991. Nash finished with 10 points (eight on free throws) to go with seven rebounds and four assists.

Although Temple ousted Santa Clara in the next round, it was evident this Nash kid was someone to keep tabs on.

By the time Nash was a senior in the 1995-’96 season, he had added some bulk to his 6-2 frame and had blossomed into one of the nation’s top point guards. He was named WCC player of the year two straight seasons.

In Nash’s final NCAA tournament appearance – he lost in the first round in 1995 – Santa Clara would be the underdog again. The 10th-seeded Broncos were slated to play 7th-seeded Maryland, which employed an oppressive full-court press anchored by ACC career steals leader Johnny Rhodes and a passel of athletic guards such as Exree Hipp and Laron Profit.

That press was supposed to take the ball out of Nash’s hands. It worked for a while, but soon Santa Clara coach Dick Davey found different ways of using Nash. Sometimes Nash would just get the ball at the end line and then dribble through the defense. Other times, Nash would be stationed at half court and he would take a long crossing pass to start a fast break. The Broncos began finding holes in the press, and Nash had 10 points and six assists as Santa Clara staked a 35-31 lead at halftime.

Nash dominated the ball in the second half. Hipp and Profit each took turns trying to slow him down after Nash knifed through the pressure. Nash kept finding open teammates and, just as he did as a freshman, nailing crucial free throws. The Broncos pulled away for a 91-79 victory and Nash piled up 28 points, 12 assists and six rebounds. He was 17 of 18 from the free-throw line. The skinny kid who couldn’t get a college scholarship was being mentioned as a possible lottery pick in the NBA draft.

Santa Clara was dominated by Kansas in the next round, ending Nash’s college career. Jacque Vaughn held Nash to six points, tempering the adulation that Nash had received days before. Maybe he couldn’t make it in the NBA. After seeing his growth over four years, there shouldn’t have been any doubt about what Nash could achieve.

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