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Back in the swing
One year into his unexpected tenure as Nets coach, Steve Nash increasingly turns to tennis for a diversion from championship expectations
NEW YORK — Steve Nash will soon reacquaint himself with the privilege of coaching three offensive supernovas and a roster around Kevin Durant, James Harden and Kyrie Irving that seems to get deeper by the day.
He’ll do so after preparing for his second season in charge of the Brooklyn Nets by indulging in the luxury of living within driving distance of the US Open and feeding his burgeoning passion for tennis with daily visits to Flushing Meadows.
On Monday, Nash was an impossible-to-miss guest in the players' box entourage cheering on Coco Gauff as the American teenager rallied for a first-round victory over Poland's Magda Linette inside Louis Armstrong Stadium. On Tuesday, Nash could be seen at the packed but far-less-glamorous Court 10 for all five sets of his fellow Canadian Vasek Pospisil's comeback from two sets-to-love down to defeat Italy's 28th-seeded Fabio Fognini.
On Thursday — his fifth wedding anniversary — Nash and wife Lilla spent part of the momentous occasion back at Court 10 for Pospisil's second-round defeat to Ilya Ivashka of Belarus. Nash was a vocal part of Pospisil's coaching team in his two singles matches here, shouting the positive encouragement he is known for with the Nets and soaking up the chance, as I've been doing for the last two weeks, to watch the foremost tennis players on the planet from a tantalizingly close courtside vantage point.
"It's the best," Nash said Friday, which also happened to be the one-year anniversary of his hiring by the Nets.
At 47, Nash remains as eager as ever to play soccer whenever he can, but tennis is taking over as the sport he is connected to most when he steps away from the hardwood. When the Nets travel, Nash frequently arranges practice sessions with high-level hitting partners as his prime form of exercise and recharge time away from the stresses of Brooklyn's ever-rising expectations, like when he was spotted at Marquette University in May getting some swings in during a trip to Milwaukee late in the regular season.
"If I could play every day, I would," Nash said.
It was on an earlier trip to Miami that Nash, through a connection made by Nets assistant general manager Andy Birdsong, met Gauff for a hit and struck up a friendship with her. They played groundstroking games to 11 rather than an actual match, but Gauff indeed made her superiority clear … as she announced to the crowd after beating Linette.
That Nash can even hang with a player of Gauff's stature, mind you, is a rather notable development for someone who has been playing tennis seriously for only the last five years or so.
Continuing to live in Manhattan Beach, Calif., after his ill-fated playing stint with the Los Angeles Lakers, Nash found himself increasingly drawn to tennis with his children spending so much time at Manhattan Beach Country Club. To illustrate how far his game has come, while back in Southern California for part of the offseason, Nash played in the first full-fledged tennis tournament of his life in July, winning a round in doubles alongside partner Josh Oswald in the men's open division of the Manhattan Beach Open.
Nash was a more-than-competent tennis player early in his NBA career, but well shy of men’s open level and likewise a distant third in ability in his Dallas Mavericks days behind the 7-foot duo of Chris Anstey and Dirk Nowitzki, who had played junior tennis in Australia and Germany, respectively, before shifting their focus to basketball.
Yet his rapid ascension with a racket over the past half-decade has only enhanced my belief that Nash — regarded as a defensively challenged and modestly athletic player throughout his NBA career — is actually the finest all-around athlete I’ve ever covered.
"He could probably pick up any sport he wanted to and play it at a high level," said US Davis Cup captain Mardy Fish, who reached as high as No. 7 in the world in singles in his playing career and who, in addition to his fervent Minnesota Timberwolves fandom, has played tennis with both Nash and Nowitzki. “Steve's respect for the game and hunger to learn the craft at a high level is apparent.
"Dirk has a sick serve," Fish added, "but Steve has to be in the conversation for best athlete tennis player."
In his youth, Nash excelled in soccer and rugby on top of his basketball prowess and played lacrosse and hockey, too. Beyond soccer and tennis, I've personally watched him work second base in a charity baseball game Nowitzki hosted in Dallas with the comfort and form of a lifelong infielder. Golden State Warriors coach Steve Kerr and Warriors assistant Bruce Fraser still marvel at how quickly their pal Nash picked up surfing on the first day they decided to teach him.
I'm not sure there's a sport he can't play.
”I think he honestly had a chance to go pro in four sports,” said Al Whitley, Nash’s childhood friend and the general manager of the G League’s Texas Legends. “Soccer, hockey and maybe baseball besides basketball.”
Of course, Nash knows that this is likely the last week for the next nine months that anyone (even me) is going to ask him about tennis or any other sporting pursuit that does not involve leading the Nets to the first NBA title in franchise history. While Nash was nursing his own case of US Open fever with his various appearances at the National Tennis Center, Brooklyn was striking a deal to add former All-Star Paul Millsap and nearing another to re-sign Millsap’s fellow former All-Star forward LaMarcus Aldridge, who intends to restart his career after a heart scare in April prompted Aldridge, at 36, to announce his retirement.
The Nets earlier added Patty Mills in free agency, retained Blake Griffin and Bruce Brown on favorable contracts and drafted the promising Cam Thomas, whose strong summer league showing has rival teams fearing that GM Sean Marks found a steal none of those rivals needed or wanted to see Brooklyn nab with the 27th overall pick. The Nets, in other words, suddenly have some decent depth to supplement their mercurial trio of stars.
As a result, Brooklyn is the consensus Las Vegas favorite to win the NBA's 2021-22 championship, which only ramps up the considerable pressure on Nash. A seemingly never-ending slew of injuries that limited Durant, Harden and Irving to a mere 13 games together as a trio last season made Nash's lack of head coaching experience less of a storyline than expected. If those three can maintain better health this season, nothing less than a title will be accepted in Year 2, with Nash inevitably at risk for scapegoat status. Especially since he’ll be facing that title-or-bust conundrum with a largely reconfigured coaching staff after the departures of trusted assistants Mike D'Antoni and Ime Udoka.
Not that you could detect any looming concern from the tennis junkie. Even amid the Open’s trademark concrete chaos on Court 10, Nash quickly relocated his usual even-keeled Nets coaching voice as soon as he was lobbed a question about his day job.
"I'm excited to get back to work and keep building what we've started," Nash said. "Winning a championship is the goal, but continuing to build the foundations and expand what we do and how we operate is a rewarding and exciting day-to-day process.
"There's great expectations, but we set our standards high and worry about continual progress. In the end, it's the day-to-day diligence that puts you in a position to win."
Earlier this week, inspired by a video clip I stumbled upon via Twitter from the 1975 All-Star Game, I asked you to share memories here from the first All-Star Game you remember watching.
The aforementioned clip is special to me because Buffalo's Bob McAdoo was the East's starting center, but there's another reason the All-Star Game in Phoenix that year sticks in my brain.
In my sportswriting youth, before I graduated to the NBA beat full-time, I remember covering a tennis tournament in Indian Wells, Calif., alongside the legendary Los Angeles Times (and before that Houston Post) sportswriter Tommy Bonk, who famously coined the nickname "Phi Slama Jama" for the University of Houston team in the early 1980s starring Hakeem Olajuwon (then known as Akeem Olajuwon) and Clyde Drexler.
I noticed that Bonk was wearing a watch with an NBA logo on its face. When I asked him where he got such a cool timepiece, Bonk said it was the media gift passed out to writers who covered the '75 ASG. The NBA was apparently so desperate for coverage in those days, as the story goes, that the league offered ornate inducements in hopes of luring more writers to future events.
It’s difficult now to properly contextualize how far the NBA’s profile lagged behind Major League Baseball and the NFL in those days. Bonk’s watch story is always a handy reminder.
🏀 The recent report from my Bleacher Report colleague Jake Fischer that the Lakers will have interest in DeAndre Jordan when the former All-Star center secures his expected buyout from the Nets was the latest signal that Los Angeles and Marc Gasol could be headed for a separation even though Gasol still has one season left on his contract with L.A. League sources say that the Lakers had strong interest earlier in the summer in trying to reacquire Damian Jones, but Sacramento elected to retain Jones and make his contract guaranteed for the coming season even though the Kings already have Richaun Holmes, Tristan Thompson, Alex Len and (yes, still) Marvin Bagley III. … 🏀 Another crossover story between two of my favorite sports that recently blipped onto my radar through a kind tip from the excellent American soccer writer Brian Sciaretta: Amir Richardson, son of former Knicks and Nets great Micheal Ray Richardson, has made six appearances this season for Le Havre in France's second division. The younger Richardson, 19, is a 6-foot-5 midfielder.