Q&A: Steve Nash on Trying Out for Inter Milan, the Dwight Howard Pitch Meeting, and His Favorite TV Dramas

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You may have heard about Steve Nash “trying out” for Inter Milan, the Italian soccer powerhouse competing, along with seven other teams, in the Guinness International Champions Cup starting next week. The tryout, which isn’t a real tryout, is among many promotional events scheduled in the lead-up to the tournament. Nash sat down for an extended one-on-one with Grantland a few hours before the tryout to discuss his basketball philosophy, the Lakers’ future, the Spurs’ near championship, Dwight Howard, and lots more. What follows is an edited transcript of our chat.

I don’t even know how many players are on a soccer team, or on a game roster. Do you?

That’s a good question. For a game, it might be somewhere around 20.

Have you received any e-mails or threatening phone calls from, like, the 20th man on Inter Milan — someone scared you’re going to take their roster spot?

[Laughs.] I don’t think anybody is that concerned over there. It’s weird in soccer — they’ll have really big squads, so that they can put 18 guys on the field and on the bench, but there’s guys that didn’t make the bench that are still, like, full teammates. Maybe that gives me more of an opportunity. [Laughs.]

Like they sit up in the stands wearing suits? You could do that.

I’d be very good in a suit.

What’s your best soccer skill?

Probably passing.

Oh, come on. That’s so boring.

Yeah, it’s weird.

I don’t know much about soccer. I basically just watch the World Cup, maybe the Euros. Who’s the most famous player on Inter Milan?

You know what, I’m not even sure. They are just coming out of transfer season. The guy who’s been there the longest — and I’m not sure he’s playing there anymore — is Javier Zanetti.

I’ve heard of him!

Yeah, he’s a great Argentinian player. He’s been awesome and playing there forever.

What are your goals for this tryout? I mean, I’d say the goal should be to not embarrass yourself, but you’re famously really freaking good at soccer.

Well, I could definitely embarrass myself with those guys. The goal is to make the team. [Laughs.] The sub-goal is to not embarrass myself. I’m not under the illusion that I’m going to make the team.

I’ve heard that some folks have asked you, in total seriousness, if you might make Inter Milan, and how that would impact your NBA career.

Yeah, and I’m like … I don’t necessarily want to give up the joke, but it’s just an awesome opportunity, obviously. It’s great to promote this tournament.

Does it even need promotion? I mean, anytime a big international team plays in the U.S., my Facebook feed blows up with people tweeting about it — people I had no clue even paid attention to soccer.

Is that right? That’s cool. The game has grown so much here. Now it’s on the ticker on SportsCenter, and it never was. When I was in college — never.

Enough about soccer. One thing I’ve always enjoyed is the way you talk about basketball. You talk all the time about “process” — about the journey of building a team, building chemistry, and that kind of thing. I’ve found it refreshing in a world that is all about who won, who lost, and who has a ring. Where did that mind-set come from in your life?

I couldn’t say directly. But I think part of it is that I just love being part of a team. I always have. My best memories are because I was on teams I love — even going back to being a kid. Not just in the NBA. I’ve been lucky enough to play on NBA teams I really enjoy, teams where I’ve liked everybody and had fun, and had that college kind of experience with an NBA team. When you have that, and I don’t know that everyone does, but when I’ve had it, that’s what it’s all about.

And I also think this results- and stats-driven world, and the 24-hour news cycle — it just gets really annoying. It takes away from what actually happens when you have to report something up to the minute every second. So much is lost in that. The truth is more like, where is the team at? How is the team playing? You don’t win every night, but is the team playing well? Is there a good spirit? Is the ball moving? Do the players understand each other on defense and understand the rotations? That’s the truth for me.

That’s almost an indirect acknowledgement of the role luck plays, both in determining who wins a game and who wins a title. Sometimes stuff happens — guys miss a free throw, or someone gets on a random hot streak. Everyone wanted to say after Game 6 that the Spurs “choked.” But, really, a lot of crazy stuff happened — LeBron missed a 3 so badly it hit the backboard, and that screwed up the rebound. That kind of thing. You seem to have accepted that randomness impacts things. Is that unusual among players? Was that hard for you?

We’re in an age in North America where it’s championship or bust. I don’t think it was like that when I first came into the league.

Really?

I don’t know. I never felt it was like that. But now, with all these media outlets online, there’s gotta be a “take,” there’s gotta be a story, and there’s gotta be a winner and a loser. It has to be black-and-white. Even if someone doesn’t even necessarily believe it wholeheartedly, they have to pick a side and go with it. I want there to be one winner, and I want that team to be upheld as the most important thing. But there are other things. There are other factors. I don’t end everything right there. And I agree with you on the Spurs. You could say they choked. You could also say a million things happened. Maybe you could say Miami choked by not winning in five games. It’s myopic to go with these narratives.

That’s why measuring a player’s worth in rings drives me crazy. Jerry West’s teams lost a million Finals, and long before he finally won that ring, he was known as “Mr. Clutch.” There was a time where you could not win a title and still have respect as a big-time, big-game player. That seems more elusive now.

That’s what I mean. I don’t know where that came from. When I came into the league, it was different than it is now. I mean, I get it. I’m OK with it. I just don’t subscribe to it. I want to win. I’ve had some opportunities, and we had some bad luck. I don’t even look at it so much as bad luck. Things just happen. You could say it’s bad luck, but you could also say that if I made every shot, we would have won. Nothing is black-and-white, except for winning and losing, and maybe that’s why people gravitate to that so much. I find it much more interesting to look at the details.

Were you rooting for the Spurs, despite all the history there? I mean, they’re older, and you’re one of the league’s elder statesmen, and you’re close with Boris Diaw.

I was rooting for them a little bit. I did find myself wanting Boris to win, and I have a tremendous amount of respect for Pop. He’s an amazing coach, and I was even rooting for him a little, which is strange, considering he beat us so many times. It doesn’t mean I wouldn’t try to tear his head off in an alley if the championship was put on the line.

Do you see some of the D’Antoni Phoenix teams in San Antonio? Pop has acknowledged the influence those teams had on him. Have you ever talked with him about that?

No, I haven’t. But that’s one of the interesting things — here’s a guy people look at as a disciplinarian, almost like a military guy, given his background. But he adapts continuously to his personnel, and to the game. The game is changing. How many post players are there in the league? There’s not that many, and it’s not that effective anymore.

Could the “process,” as you might say, have worked if you guys had stayed healthy last season? Could you have run Mike’s offense with both Pau Gasol and Dwight? There were lots of times where you weren’t really running D’Antoni’s offense.

I don’t think we would have ever been like that. We don’t have the shooters to really space the floor. Pau and Dwight would have been … an interesting mix. So it would have had to have been some kind of hybrid. But I think what Mike would have liked to have seen is just the ball move — quick decisions. Pick, dive, pass, make the defense collapse, and move the ball. We don’t have shooters, but we could still catch it, penetrate again, get a better shot, and get on the glass with two 7-footers. But I felt like we never quite got the ball humming like we really could have. And a lot of that obviously is just time on the court together. A lot of it is other things.

Were you nervous about how you’d fit with Kobe, after having the ball in your hands basically all the time in Phoenix?

Not nervousness, but acceptance. I knew it wasn’t gonna be the same. I felt like I was going to try something new, and that I was going to adapt — and to accept that, and embrace it. I think it’d be nice to find a middle ground where he does his thing but the ball still can move for great parts of the game. Hopefully we can find that this season. But I knew it wasn’t going to be the same. When you play with Kobe Bryant, the ball is gonna be with him most of the time, which is understandable.

You took a lot more spot-up jumpers last season. Are those easy for you? Do you look at that almost as a way to prolong your career?

I embrace it, and I tried this year to get better at it. Like you said, in Phoenix, I almost never got a catch-and-shoot chance. I actually felt really uncomfortable last summer trying to learn to catch-and-shoot.

Really? Wow. The assumption is they are easier shots, for everyone.

Right? But after years and years of creating off the dribble, I felt almost funny and off-balance when I was catching-and-shooting, which is obviously when you should have your best balance. But I really worked at it, and I embraced it. I ended up shooting really well, by league standards.

You almost hit 50/40/90 status again. I think you were two baskets away.

It was different, but I still think I can do it. I just didn’t have the same opportunities. But I felt like I was successful at catching-and-shooting by the end of the year. [Long sigh.] It’s just not going to be the same, you know? Now it’s about finding a balance that suits the team.

Do you care about being known as maybe the greatest shooter ever? Are players even aware of stuff like 50/40/90?

I am, only because people make a big deal of it. I’ve always wanted to shoot a good percentage for my team, because I’m the point guard, and I can take fewer shots, still score more, so that I can get my teammates feeling good about themselves. That was always my feeling — that if I shoot a high percentage, I don’t have to shoot a ton. Coaches always want me to shoot more, so I try to make more, so that I don’t have to shoot more — so my teammates know they are going to get the ball, and they enjoy playing. That brings everybody up.

So it’s true coaches are always on you to shoot more, huh? I tweeted yesterday about you coming close to 50/40/90, and on Twitter, which can be a cesspool of snark, I got a lot of responses that were basically shouting, “THAT’S BECAUSE HE DOESN’T SHOOT ENOUGH! AND HE NEVER DID!” And I thought, that’s interesting, because those Phoenix teams basically led the league in points per possession every season. I mean, how much better could they have actually been on offense?

That’s where I was at with that. This year, you could analyze it any way you want — it was a strange, new entity. But in Phoenix, it was like, I could go and average 20 or more by taking more shots, but maybe my effectiveness dips a little. Maybe the equilibrium of the team goes. Maybe we don’t have that little somethin’ special we have because other guys get the ball more, and feel like they are going to get it. It’s not my nature to just shoot. I have to really concentrate and tell myself, “Hey, be aggressive.” I think I’ve found a nice balance. Some teams play me to pass, so I shoot. Some teams play me to shoot, so I pass.

It’s hard for a lot of guys to use passing as a threat. But it’s a huge tool for me. It made a career for me that I was a threat to do both. I’ve tried to walk that line.

So, about the Dwight meeting. Did it take place in a conference room like this, basically?

Yeah, a big fancy room.

And you just sit there and wait for him to arrive?

I mean, I saw him before we went into the room, and we talked for a minute.

Was Jim Buss there?

Yup.

So, was there, like, a protocol? Did you guys huddle up, decide the order of speakers, prepare remarks, that kind of thing?

We had a plan. First, Dwight met with the business side — Time Warner, the Lakers’ foundation. I don’t know if I’m allowed to give all these details, but it was kind of a pitch for all his off-the-court potential. The second part was Mike, Kobe, myself, Mitch, Jim, and Tim Harris, the president, and we gave him more of the basketball pitch.

A lot has been made of what Kobe said in that meeting. What did you say?

I just said, number one, that I’m really, really disappointed in the season, and I wanted another shot at it. And that we should come back and right the ship, so to speak. Hopefully I didn’t use so many clichés [Laughs.] And my second point to him was that, when you look back on the career, and you can say you played for the Lakers for eight or 10 years, that’s an incredible opportunity. If I were 27, in the prime of my career, there wouldn’t even be another consideration. It would be the no. 1 place you could play.

Did Kobe actually use the word “teach” in his speech to Dwight? As in, “I’ll teach you how to win”?

He might have. I can’t remember, to be honest with you, in terms of word-for-word.

How long was the meeting?

The basketball part of it was just 45 minutes or an hour.

Here’s a question I love asking point guards: When you run a pick-and-roll and you look over the defense, who concerns you most: your one-on-one defender, the big guy defending your screener, or the other three defenders behind the play?

It’s actually the big man defending the screener for me. Some point guards are better defensively than others, but even a really good point guard defender can get crushed on pick-and-rolls. That big man defending with them has to be engaged. He has to be mobile. The biggest thing for a big guy guarding pick-and-rolls is to be early — to do your work early, and then your job is easier. That’s the biggest quality.

Who are some of the best big guys you’ve faced in that regard — the guys where you look at the schedule and think, Oh, shit, this is going to be a tough night?

That’s a tough question. There were times when Kevin Garnett was really, really good at it. He’s still probably good at it. I just don’t get to see him that much. Those Boston teams were really good — those guys were out early and hard, and they had mobile 4s.

There’s one part in Seven Seconds or Less, Jack McCallum’s book about the 2005-06 Suns … wait: Did you ever read that book?

I didn’t. Jack’s a great writer, and a great guy, I just never read it. A very nice guy from my hometown and a very good writer, wrote a biography about me, and I never read it. No offense to anybody. I just feel weird reading about myself.

Anyway: You say something in there about how point guards are born, and that there are certain things about the position you just can’t learn. Do you still believe that, seven years later?

Yeah, I do. There are certain guys who can make up for things. But give me an example — are you talking about like a [Russell] Westbrook, or … ?

I watched several hours of film on Brandon Knight a couple of weeks ago, and it’s very clear, once you really dig in, that he just doesn’t read the floor all that well — that he’s a step behind figuring out how all the pieces are moving. Can you learn that with time?

Marginally, yes. I think you can learn everything. But I think it’s so difficult, and people don’t understand the process of learning a skill like that. It takes a lot of repetition, a lot of film work, and getting to a place where you’re open to new ideas. Because that’s not an idea that’s apparent right away to some people — the process of looking at what’s there, there, and there [Nash whips his head in three different directions]. To get through that takes thinking out of the box, and maybe even learning a new method.

But some guys make up for it just because they are great athletes, and they have a lot of freedom on their teams. And then it sort of comes, and you say, “Hey, he’s not bad at reading the floor.”

I think John Wall is undergoing that process now, for instance. He may not have great natural court vision, but he’s so fast, and so athletic, and the Wizards have given him so much on-the-job training, that he’s going to learn a lot almost inevitably. There are other guys like that.

Westbrook, [Derrick] Rose — I don’t think you would have said in high school, “Oh, wow, they’re just great at reading the floor and finding people.” But now they’re good at it. They have total freedom, because they are so good at scoring, and so athletic, and now they do make the reads and do those things.

What are your favorite TV shows right now?

I’m trying to like The Newsroom.

I watched the first two episodes on the plane. It’s terrible.

I’d hate to say that on the record, because [Aaron Sorkin] is just a great writer, but I feel like it’s overwritten, and the actors are maybe overacting a little bit. I’m trying to get into Orange Is the New Black, but it’s not as good as House of Cards. But in terms of my favorite shows, can you name a few to jog my memory?

Well, I’m always behind, so I pick a new one every offseason to watch start-to-finish. Last year it was Mad Men, and I’m plowing through Breaking Bad now.

Love Mad Men, love Breaking Bad, and I’m totally caught up on both of them.

Then we can’t talk Breaking Bad yet. I just finally got to the “I am the one who knocks!” episode, which was pretty exciting.

That was very exciting. Both those shows are outstanding.

What’s your favorite NBA mascot?

The gorilla, for sure. No question.

How much do you regret the photo, from all those years ago, with you, Dirk [Nowitzki], and [Mark] Cuban — the one with the cowboy hats?

Oh my god. I don’t really believe in regret [laughs], but it’s highly embarrassing. That was for [Sports Illustrated].

I hadn’t actually remembered which outlet ran that thing.

I think it was gonna actually be the cover, but it ended up just being an article. It was right when we won our first playoff series. But, yeah, I’m just glad it wasn’t me on someone’s back. But, really, it’s all bad.

Filed Under: Breaking Bad, Dwight Howard, Kobe Bryant, Los Angeles Lakers, Mad Men, NBA, Steve Nash, The Newsroom, Zach Lowe

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Zach Lowe is a staff writer for Grantland.

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