Hustle and Flow

This spring, for the first time since Larry Bird accomplished the feat in the mid-’80’s, a white player will walk away with the NBA’s regular season MVP award for the third year in a row. Many basketball writers have already penciled in Dirk Nowitzki, a solid choice, to be sure. The Good German is averaging almost 25 points a game, has paced the Mavericks’ surge to the best record in the league, and after all, the award is named after a European. My vote, if I had one, goes to Steve Nash, who is averaging 18 points and 11 assists a game and already owns two Maurice Podoloff Trophies.

At age 33, Nash is enjoying the best season of his career and is intent on leading his Phoenix Suns to the NBA Finals for the first time since 1993. After an embarrassing 131-107 loss to the Nuggets in Denver earlier this season, Nash spoke out, as he has so often this season, revealing his expectations. “Three games in four days, we’re a tired team a little bit. But you’ve got to fight through that, this is the NBA,” Nash said via “We have to play with more energy.”

Nash was born in Johannesburg, South Africa but was raised in Victoria, British Columbia after his parents decided that they didn’t want their son growing up in the cradle of apartheid. The low-key Canuck was once known as Hair Canada, could be described as a Spurs fan — if we’re talking about the Tottenham Hotspur soccer team that he one day hopes to own — and with a third straight MVP would accomplish a feat only Bird, Bill Russell, and Wilt Chamberlain have achieved. Nash endeared himself to me when he wore a “No War. Shoot For Peace” t-shirt at the 2003 All-Star Weekend in Atlanta, but I’ve never really considered him a legitimate MVP until this season.

In 2005, when Nash won his first MVP, the trophy could have easily gone to Tim Duncan, who captured his third Finals MVP later that season. Last year, I felt LeBron James deserved the award and it was Miami Heat sensation Dwyane Wade who ultimately took 2006 Finals MVP honors. Wade’s teammate, Cole High School legend Shaquille O’Neal, has publicly referred to Nash’s MVPs as “tainted,” alluding to a perceived racial bias by the basketball writers and broadcasters who select the winner of the award.

This year, that argument has become increasingly difficult to make. The best game of the NBA season came when Nash and the Suns bested former teammate Dirk and the Mavs in overtime on Dallas’s home court. Nash excelled in crunch time while Nowitzki basically shrank, perhaps sealing his MVP fate in the process. The biggest knocks against Nash are that he doesn’t play defense and his team has never won an NBA championship. His play this season has silenced the first criticism and a ring will dispel the other, cementing his legacy as one of the best point guards in the history of the game.

That 2003 anti-war t-shirt, worn a month before the U.S. invaded Iraq, spoke volumes about Nash’s outlook in an era when athletes usually avoid politics and some fans long for principled crusaders like Muhammed Ali and Arthur Ashe. “A lot of people misread that,” Nash recently told the Associated Press. “My focus was really to get people involved and talking and more informed and digging a little deeper than the mainstream media. At the same time, I voiced the opinion that I was anti-war in all circumstances, but particularly this one. Some people took that as anti-American or whatever. That wasn’t my purpose.”

This week, the Suns will face a San Antonio team that continues building toward the playoffs. Their contest will provide a nice barometer of both teams’ prospects in the post-season. Nash may or may not win his third regular-season MVP trophy, but Duncan will no doubt be seeking his fourth on the stage that matters most.