When Steve Nash was a Canadian teenager moving down to Santa Clara to accept his only scholarship offer 21 years ago, he never could have imagined his remarkable NBA career would lead to the dubious honour he's getting this fall.
The Los Angeles Lakers' 39-year-old point guard is the oldest player in the NBA, he recently learned. And it isn't an achievement that's going on the mantel next to his two MVP trophies.
'Obviously, I think people think I'm on the downswing, and I'm receding into retirement in front of our eyes. So I've got a lot to prove.' - Steve Nash
"It's not a privilege I ever really dreamed about," Nash said with a grimace. "It's pretty strange and, I guess, surreal in a way. Obviously, I'm thrilled to still be playing, and I don't feel as old as I probably look to some of these young guys."
Although Nash has no more than a few grey hairs at his temples, his 18th NBA season will be all about fighting back time. He's completely healthy after injuries essentially scuttled his debut season with the Lakers, but his age and mileage already have coach Mike D'Antoni talking about limiting Nash's minutes or even getting him to take days off during the season.
But the eight-time All-Star is quietly confident he can still be the dynamic guard with more than 10,000 career assists and the highest free-throw shooting percentage in NBA history. Nash said he's back to full health after an off-season of rehab work, and he's drawing motivation for a bounce-back season from haters and supporters alike.
"Obviously, I think people think I'm on the downswing, and I'm receding into retirement in front of our eyes," Nash said. "So I've got a lot to prove."
Nash's debut campaign with the Lakers was overwhelmed by injuries: He played in just 50 games, his fewest in any full NBA season. A broken leg in the second regular-season game and resultant nerve damage kept him out until late December, and problems with his hips and hamstrings sidelined him again in April, forcing him to finish the season in street clothes.
Even when he was healthy, he wasn't the point guard who has bedeviled the league for most of his career. Nash accepted a role as a spot-up shooter and secondary ball-handler alongside Kobe Bryant, but it was a weird fit for a pick-and-roll virtuoso who ran D'Antoni's offence to perfection for so many years in Phoenix.
'Beaten, scarred' Lakers
Nash realizes the Lakers' early-season coaching change essentially sabotaged their season last November. The switch from Mike Brown to D'Antoni meant scrapping the Princeton offence they'd spent seven weeks practicing in favour of D'Antoni's up-tempo schemes — two systems with almost nothing in common.
Nash said the Lakers emerged from last season as "kind of a beaten, scarred unit. But to have a full training camp is valuable, just for the sanity of the team, to have an identity that we never really found last year."
Nash believes he can be a big part of that new identity, but the Lakers plan to be cautious with him — particularly with another high-priced year remaining on his contract after this one. D'Antoni said the Lakers "have to do something" to limit Nash's minutes, whether he sits out occasional back-to-back games or limits his total playing time.
"We're not expecting 35 minutes a game from Steve," Lakers general manager Mitch Kupchak said. "So Steve Blake and Jordan (Farmar) and Steve Nash, we're hoping the combination will give Steve Nash some rest where we won't have to rely on him 100 per cent. He's 39 years old, and you can't play a guy like that 35, 40 minutes a game. I don't know what the number is. I don't know if it's 25, 30, 31, but I think we have some players that we can go to and give him a rest."
Nash is cautiously open to the idea, but he's also determined to prove he can play at the level Los Angeles imagined when it signed him last year to play alongside Bryant, Pau Gasol and Dwight Howard on the superteam that fell apart in the preseason and never came together.
Howard and fellow starter Metta World Peace are gone, and the Lakers signed a secondhand collection of free agents to compete for the open spots. Nash is evaluating his new teammates along with the coaches in Los Angeles' first few practices. He's already excited about the chance to turn back time with a new supporting crew.
"We may not be as talented at the top like last year, but I think we got younger, more athletic, with more shooters who can space the floor," Nash said. "I think we can play more like Mike wants us to play. I think it looks as though we've gone from a favourite to being a non-contender, but we've still got the opportunity to build a really great team."