As the end to another lacklustre Suns basketball season wound down tonight in Phoenix, a chant began to rise among the hometown fans at U.S. Airways Center. “We want Steve, we want Steve . . . .” It started softly and grew to thunder until it seemed the whole building shook.
At the time the “Steve” in question was stretched out on the sidelines watching his team absorb another loss to one of the best teams in the NBA, the San Antonio Spurs. It was the regular season finale, and a 110-106 defeat was in the making. The Suns had missed the playoffs again by losing the previous night in Utah. But tonight was not just any game. With their “we want Steve” the fans wanted a chance to say “so-long” to who most agree is the most popular player to ever don a Suns uniform.
Steve Nash, the team’s guiding force the last eight seasons, the player often called “MVP” for having twice won the league’s Most Valuable Player award, a magician at setting up teammates for easy shots, was not playing just his last game of the season. He likely was playing his last game as a Phoenix Sun, and the knowledgeable home crowd knew it and rose to the occasion with a rare show of deep affection.
As the chant rose, an uneasy smile crossed Nash’s face as he sat there on the floor. And even some of his teammates, like Shannon Brown with his arms upraised, joined in: “We want Steve, we want Steve . . . .” It was a touching moment, filled with mixed emotions, the fans happy to be on hand to say good-bye to a once-great player and at the same time sad that, at age 38, he will likely be moving on after eight seasons to play out his last few years for another team, maybe garnering the championship ring that has eluded him for all of his 16 seasons.
Nash is now a free agent, open to sign with any team he chooses. He says the Suns will be a big factor in his decision, that he might return. But surely everyone knows its time. It’s time to do something else.
Charles Barkley, the former Suns star and now TV sports analyst, was right when he said after the game that time was past due for the Suns to start rebuilding with younger, talented players and that the Nash era should be put to bed. It is unlikely the owner, Robert Sarver, will gather up enough scratch to re-sign Nash and bring in the high-caliber talent surrounding him he deserves. How many times this season have you seen Nash throw a bad pass and wondered to yourself: Was that his fault or had teammates failed to be in the right place at the right time?
When at last the Suns coach Alvin Gentry called No. 13 to re-enter the game at 4:15 of the fourth and final quarter, the fans gave Nash a rousing ovation, even though he played about 27 seconds and came out again. At the bench, Nash and Gentry, the coach who did such a magnificent job this season getting the most out of the talent he had, embraced, both with big smiles. Even though the team finished with 33 wins and as many losses, surely Gentry and Nash knew it was a special season considering.
Nash’s line was not impressive for a player of his magnitude. Just eight points and seven assists in only 17 minutes and 27 seconds. Hardly enough playing time to cause a sweat. But why play him more? Anything special Nash could’ve done this game would’ve been tempered by the fact San Antonio held out its three star players: Tim Duncan, Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili. Only the most die-hard of fans would’ve expected more from Nash.
A meaningless game, and perhaps the most memorable night in the land of what appears to be the setting Suns.