October 31, 2012. Along with wife Lisa, I find myself in Portland, Oregon. Another NBA season gets underway.
Part of a Halloween crowd of some 19,000, we are the guests of Steve Nash. He is the highly touted summer acquisition by a Los Angeles Lakers squad desperate to revamp its lineup and make a return to league relevance. Entering his 17th professional campaign, the brilliant point guard, two-time league MVP and certain first ballot Hall of Famer targets one final push for a championship.
It is hardly the first time we are the beneficiaries of his considerable generosity. Certainly, during his stint in Dallas, in addition to those before and after in Phoenix, we attend as circumstances and travel allow. Every time, as I approach an arena “Will Call”, I worry that the necessary passes and tickets to the team’s practice facility, to off limits back-stage areas, to the games themselves, might not be there. Yet, despite a hectic schedule and the various pulls on his time and availability, Steve never once forgets.
We settle into our seats high up in a Rose Garden sky box. Clearly, the Lakers, already a cover story in Sports Illustrated and now boasting a thoroughly star-studded roster, should have little difficulty overcoming the home-town Trail Blazers.
Unfortunately, the game does not go well. A young and pesky Portland team is not the slightest bit intimidated, is quicker and better organized. Laker legend Kobe Bryant struggles to get untracked, while the rest of the group grows increasingly frustrated as the offence bogs down.
Worse is to follow. Just minutes before halftime, Steve bangs into an opposing player in the back court. It appears an innocent enough collision, though, hobbling to the bench, he looks in definite discomfort. He makes a brief return in the third quarter, but then exits for good. Portland dominates, in a 116-106 victory.
My wife and I make our way to the elevator, descend, into the bowels of the arena, to a restricted area reserved for families and friends. Along with maybe a hundred others, we look for the chance to say a quick hello to the players as they come through.
I pass the time in conversation with a young couple from an eastern part of the state. Apparently, they are special guests of the home team, winners of some type of promotion. Close by is their son Hunter, nine years old with blond, tousled hair. I learn he absolutely loves hoops. His excitement is palpable, his eyes as big as saucers. He wears a Portland jersey, but clutched in his tiny hand is a gold and purple Los Angeles T-shirt. His goal is to secure as many autographs as possible when the Laker players walk by.
A short while later, in ones and twos, they enter the holding area. The majority, headphones firmly in place, eyes down, trudge by. Tired and impatient. Not for them any interaction with the waiting throng, just a desire to get on the bus, get to the airport, get on a plane, get back home. Disappointed, Hunter looks on, bravely fighting back the tears.
A few minutes later, last to leave the locker room, Steve finally appears. He is still moving very gingerly. During our brief chat he assures me his knee is OK, just will need a few days’ rest.
Little does he know that a deep bone bruise in fact masks a hairline fracture and nerve damage. The latter never fully heals and goes on to dog him the remaining two years of his career.
A final handshake and he turns to leave. But not before he takes note of the young boy, no longer hopeful, instead now hesitant and cautious. Standing quietly, his father’s hand on his shoulder.
Steve pivots, ignores calls from teammates outside that he should hurry up. Instead, he puts the youngster at ease, bending down, asking his name, shaking his hand. Takes the T-shirt and pen on offer, writes “To Hunter. From your friend.” Then, with a final flourish, adds his name.
The boy looks up, his face now wreathed in a smile. “Thank you” he manages.
“No. Thank you” emphasizes Steve. “Work hard. Enjoy everything you do. Best wishes.”
It is only a tiny snapshot, but I see two extremes of professional sport in these few moments. On one hand, performers choosing not to stop, guilty of self-absorption and indifference. On the other, a player with a real sense of empathy, responsibility and connection.
Surely, it is vital that elite sportsmen and women recognize autograph seekers as fans, not pests. That interviews, meets, greets, and the like are opportunities, not events merely to be tolerated. That any interruptions or supposed drains on their time are part of being a professional, not part of the price.
Perhaps, for the most part, they do handle well their PR responsibilities, do cooperate with the media. Do appear as needed in commercials and at team functions, do fulfill obligations to supporters and sponsors. I sincerely hope so.
Regardless, even if Steve Nash himself will have almost certainly forgotten this long-ago interaction with a star struck Oregon youngster, I have not. For, as he so ably demonstrates, a world class athlete living a dream may be planting one also.
May this never change. Not today, not tomorrow, not in the future.