Steve Nash has to be Canada's athlete of the decade

Henry Champ on the many virtues of the NBA's Steve Nash, of Los Suns.

Later in the calendar, Canadian Press will poll the country's sportswriters to determine the Canadian athlete of the year.

The best male and best female athletes will be chosen as well as the best team. Importantly, this year, there will also be a ballot for the best athlete of the decade.

Given that this is Canada we are talking about, that would normally be the province of a hockey player, although occasionally an Olympic track star or a skater like Cindy Klassen (six Olympic medals) will get attention.

A one-eyed wonder, Steve Nash returns to the fray in the fourth quarter to help eliminate the San Antonio Spurs from the playoffs on May 9. (Eric Gay/Associated Press)

But in this decade, this first ten years of a new century, it is a basketball player who has to be the can't-miss candidate for this honour, even though roundball is not a Canadian staple.

In this decade, the Victoria-born Steve Nash has won the NBA's Most Valuable Player award twice, joining legends Michael Jordan, Larry Bird, Wilt Chamberlain, Magic Johnson, Moses Malone and Bill Russell in that rare pantheon.

This year, at the venerable age of 36, he was named to his seventh NBA all-star team and, on the weekend, led his Phoenix Suns to a four-game sweep of their arch-rival San Antonio Spurs to a coveted spot in the Western Conference finals.

It's a pretty impressive resumé.

Cut on the face

In the series with the Spurs, San Antonio coach Gregg Popovich saw his team's problem early, in their first loss, saying Nash was the game-changer. "He ran it down our throats."

To Popovich's dilemma, Nash never took his foot off the metal, even in that third quarter of the fourth and final game when he was accidentally elbowed in the face during a battle for a rebound.

Nash left the floor for the dressing room, blood gushing from a cut that took six stitches to close, with the Suns up by 11.

When he returned, his right eye nearly shut tight by the swelling and the pressure bandage, the score was tied.

In that final quarter, Nash poured home 10 points and had five assists.

Close your right eye and try to get around and maybe you will have an idea how tough it must be to shoot and pass a basketball among some of the most gifted athletes on the planet, many of them taller than California sequoias.

Nash, a mere 6-3, took it all in stride and so did his coach Alvin Gentry. "He's Canadian," Gentry said of his star point guard. "Facial lacerations don't count in Canada.

"He says if you don't play in a sporting event because of a facial laceration then you lose your citizenship."

Standing tall

I have been a big Steve Nash fan going back to his days at Santa Clara University in southern California.

The Broncos were the only American university to offer a sport scholarship to the Victoria native and Nash repaid their daring by leading them to the NCAA tournament in three of his four years year.

Trust me, for Santa Clara that's monumental.

Now, I confess I have, on occasion, risked some of the Champ family fortunes on efforts of chance and I had a few shillings, at good odds, on Nash and his Broncos when they toppled the heavily-favoured Maryland Terrapins.

That kind of thing can cement a relationship.

But for all of Nash's on-court achievements he never stood taller for me than a week ago when I watched him being interviewed on the ESPN program Pardon The Interruption.

The state of Arizona had just passed a controversial law that, in its simplest terms, would give local police the right to stop and arrest anyone if they had a "reasonable suspicion" that person might be an illegal immigrant.

The law has been widely criticized for opening the door to racial profiling in a state that is right next door to Mexico and protests against it have sprung up all across the country.

Los Suns

In Arizona, this law has many supporters. The state clearly has problems with undocumented immigrants and there are arguments, not all proven, that law-breaking is up in certain neighbourhoods where there are many illegal workers.

Phoenix Suns guard Steve Nash, wearing the Los Suns jersey, drives against the San Antonio Spurs during game two of the second-round playoff series on May 5. (Matt York/Associated Press)

In this climate, especially where race is an issue, professional athletes are generally told to keep their mouths shut. Speaking out can only affect turnout at the games and interfere with your potential earnings as a spokesman or product endorser.

But when Nash was asked about the new law, he replied simply, without bombast or histrionics, " I'm against it. I think that this is a bill that really damages our civil liberties. I think it opens up the potential for racial profiling, racism.

"I think it's a bad precedent to set for our young people. I think it represents our state poorly in the eyes of the nation and the world. I think we have a lot of great attributes here and [this law] is something we could do without."

Nash then touched on a team effort that everyone connected with the Suns says was inspired by him and team owner Robert Sarver, a Phoenix businessman.

It was the matter of wearing a different team jersey that would say LOS SUNS rather than just SUNS.

The team had done this before as a tribute to the Suns' many Hispanic fans. But to don these jerseys during the playoffs, amid the celebration of Cinqo de Mayo, the traditional Hispanic celebration, was close to being a raised index finger to the state legislature and the forces of propriety.

A teammate for the world

As Nash explained it: "Our owners asked us if any of us had a problem wearing the LOS SUNS jerseys and nobody did. So, I think we are pretty much like-minded on the issue.

"This league is very multicultural. We have players from all over the world, myself obviously being a foreigner, many of my teammates, players on other teams.

"Our communities are very multi-cultural. So I think we need to find a different way to combat the issues we face in our society."

Since that statement, there has been the usual protest, fans reportedly cancelling tickets to Suns games, picketers outside the stadium protesting the new jerseys and carrying signs that say they will never wear Nikes again, Nash being a spokesman for Nike.

On the other hand there has been a huge outpouring of support as well.

As for Steve Nash, he is simply a great citizen and a great athlete who has represented his country and every team he has played for with nothing but the highest level of commitment and skill. 

But in the future, I will forever see him in his LOS SUNS jersey.