The Finish Line

Over the Hill

By

Always haunted by a sense of desperation, my college basketball teammate and I preferred to spend warm spring afternoons in the offseason not outside in the sun, but in a dusty, dimly lit gymnasium. There, we would hoist hundreds of shots—from the corners, the free-throw line, behind the arc, off the dribble, stepping back, fading away—and play one-on-one, hoping to refine our skills and carve out a role on the next year’s team. We fouled each other often, scraping our arms and throwing elbows into each other’s chests. But our aggressiveness never boiled over into a fight. We understood our shared pursuit to make something of ourselves before our playing careers came to an end. And we understood that time was running out.

I was reminded of those one-on-one battles recently after watching The Finish Line, a running documentary web series for Grantland about Los Angeles Lakers point guard Steve Nash. Nash was my teammate’s favorite player. He’d tape his games (Nash was playing for the Phoenix Suns at the time) so that he could study Nash’s moves, which he’d try to mimic during our workouts. One of his favorite Nash moves was to drive at me hard as I backpedaled and then suddenly stop, so as to catch me off balance and shoot teardrop jumpers over my fingertips.

At the time of our workouts, Nash was a popular player. He was in his prime, utilizing an unorthodox set of patient, crafty moves to compensate for his below-average athleticism and carry the perpetually undermanned and overmatched Suns, with whom he had won back-to-back Most Valuable Player awards. Basketball players often compare the game to jazz because of their shared improvisational qualities, but Nash’s game was like interpretive dance: weaving between defenders and tip-toeing along the baseline in order to find open cutters or gaps to sneak in his patented reverse-layups. His game could send commentators into fits of giddiness; go back and watch old tapes of Nash with the Suns, and after he, say, blows past a defender with a deft hesitation move, drives into the lane, and then quickly spins around to launch a soft skyhook over the outstretched arms of a seven-foot defender (Nash is only six-feet-three-inches tall), you’ll hear the befuddled commentators, unable to form a coherent statement, resort to laughter. Over the course of his career, Nash’s much bigger, more athletic teammates—in particular the swift Shawn Marion and bruising Amar’e Stoudemire—moved on to other teams and saw their physical gifts and prominent roles deteriorate. But with a rigorous and varied workout routine, which emphasized playing multiple sports in the offseason, a regimented diet that eschewed processed, sugary and fatty foods for fresh fruits and vegetables, and a little bit of luck, Nash remained effective, even as he was pushing 40.

Steve Nash

How times have changed. One of the first shots in The Finish Line, which follows Nash in his prolonged attempt to recover from a broken leg that subsequently caused chronic nerve root irritation throughout his body, is of Nash lying face down on a training table as a doctor sticks a needle in his back, a back which is already riddled with scars and bruises from previous injections. This early scene indicates the tone of the series, in which Nash is refreshingly open with his audience. Rather than gape at the superhuman physicality and bravado of the typical professional athlete, we see Nash at his most vulnerable, physically and mentally broken down. “Every athlete, when they lose their skill, they lose a big part of themselves, a part that they’ve built their life around, that has been a huge part of their purpose, self-esteem, identity,” Nash says early in the series. “So when the skill or ability goes, it’s like there’s been a death.”

Since Nash is frank about his current situation, it’s rewarding when we see his work pay off, such as when he puts together a solid performance against the Philadelphia 76ers after missing a long stretch of games due to injury. Nash knows that success against the 76ers, who finished with one of the worst records in the NBA this season, isn’t the best barometer of one’s skill level, but after the game he brims with glee. “It’s awesome, I’m 40 years old and I played in the NBA today, I mean that’s pretty cool,” Nash says into the camera with a grin. “There’s a lot of 40-year-old guys who haven’t played basketball since they were 18 or 19, let alone NBA guys.” And because Nash is open about these fleeting moments of joy, we can appreciate his desperation whenever he suffers a setback. “I want to feel that as many times as I can because I don’t know if I’ve got five games next year or 80,” Nash says in a later episode, repeating the phrase once more for emphasis, “I want to feel it as many times as I can.” In these moments, The Finish Line’s level of intimacy makes it feel as though Nash is speaking directly to you.

For these reasons, The Finish Line should be gripping and poignant. But the series has encountered a problem. The source of suspense for the series was supposed to be that we weren’t sure if Nash could fully recover or not, and our emotions were supposed to rise and fall with his. However Nash has barely been able to stay on the court, and while this is entirely out of The Finish Line’s control, Nash’s unfortunate bill of health makes the series feel less like a real-time, absorbing story of physical and mental rehabilitation, and more like a glorified retirement ceremony—overwrought and sentimental.

Steve Nash Lakers

The series opens with Nash on an early foggy morning walking to a beach—the same beach where we will later watch him stare blankly out to sea while depressing instrumentals accompany his gravely voice narrating his doubts and fears. For every illuminating shot of Nash pushing his body through an unusual workout with his personal trainer, there’s one of a random outdoor basketball hoop set against the backdrop of a burnt orange sunset, or a generic montage of him running up stairs and doing pushups. For all of his articulate moments, there are plenty of clichés; he speaks vaguely about the “release” that basketball is for him and how the court is a “sanctuary” where he can “just be alone with [his] thoughts and the ball and just, working on [his] game.” As much as it’s refreshing to hear a candid Nash, the series straddles the line of self-absorption.

After watching The Finish Line (there are currently four 10-minute episodes available, with presumably more to come) I was surprised at how underwhelmed I was. Steve Nash is talented, smart, funny and self-aware. Off the court he has endeared himself to casual fans with his thoughtful commentary, and basketball fanatics respect him for his textbook fundamentals and obsessive work ethic. But as an audience, we can only sympathize with a character in the dregs for so long before we begin to tire of his melancholy. What’s missing from The Finish Line, oddly enough, is basketball.

***

If The Finish Line is a meditation on a player’s decline, then Jack McCallum’s book Seven Seconds or Less, which follows Nash’s Phoenix Suns through the 2006-2007 season, can be read as a meditation on a player’s prime. Even in his prime, Nash’s body was always on the verge of betraying him. Throughout, we’re reminded that Nash must “play always in pain” and account for his “congenitally creaky back, tight hamstrings, sore knees” and “wobbly ankles.” He is constantly in ice baths after practices and games to “reduce the swelling in chronically injured areas, which in Nash’s case means a large percentage of his body.” After a while, we become desensitized to Nash’s hobbled condition, the fact that he’s “gritting his teeth in pain (his back had started to hurt him)” or has “dribbled himself into exhaustion” or often looks “tired” and feels “like a line from ‘Old Man River’—body all achin’ and racked with pain.”

07 Seconds or Less

The majority of the book takes place during the 2007 Western Conference Playoffs as the Suns attempt to win an NBA Championship. The frequency and intensity of these games makes Nash’s delicate physical state a prominent point of tension. The Suns coaching staff struggles to find a suitable substitution pattern for Nash. They can’t rest him for too long or “his problematic back tightens up,” and they can’t keep him in the game because “the book on Nash… is that he plays so hard he wears down late in the season.”

“If I keep him in, he gets tired,” laments Suns head coach Mike D’Antoni, who would later coach Nash in Los Angeles for two years before being fired at the end of this season. “[B]ut if I take him out, he gets stiff.”

An assistant coach, Alvin Gentry, offers up his own Nash equation, “I think you have to play him almost the whole second half. But you rest him like a minute or forty seconds before the time-out… and that gives you like three minutes of rest for him.”

The Suns never figure out the perfect formula, and McCallum posits that it may be a pointless pursuit. When D’Antoni wonders aloud, “We may have worn him out this year,” McCallum responds, “But why even talk about Nash? What are they going to do about it?” Nash can’t even find an answer. When reporters ask him about his health, and Nash offers a vague reply, McCallum speaks for him, “He truly doesn’t know how to answer because he’s not sure what’s wrong. He just feels tired and sore, sometimes more tired than sore, sometimes more sore than tired. He speaks of ‘cumulative fatigue’ that built up during a long and enervating regular season… He knows there’s something wrong physically, but he can’t put his finger on it. Or, more to the point, he would need ten fingers to put his finger on it.”

Even at his best Nash is depicted in struggle. One night Nash scores 32 points and notches 13 assists, but he does it while “squeezing his aching body into small crevices.” Once, during a halftime meeting, Nash has trouble urinating. “The point guard always heads straight to the urinal,” McCallum writes, “puts his arm across his forehead, leans against the wall, and waits for something to happen… His stomach muscles get constricted, which stops him from urinating easily—that’s his theory anyway.”

The parallels between Nash in Seven Seconds or Less and The Finish Line are haunting. Entire passages from McCallum’s book could easily describe Nash now. In Seven Seconds or Less, Nash’s personal trainer, Rich Celebrini, who also works with Nash in The Finish Line, visits to help him rehab his injuries, regain strength, and restore everyone’s faith in the point guard. Then and now it’s painted as a last-ditch effort: “The prevailing theory—at least, the hopeful theory—,” McCallum writes, “is that Celebrini’s visit, combined with the three-day rest and the home court advantage, will be just the palliative the MVP needs.”

Steve Nash and teammate - The Finish Line

What McCallum’s work reminds us is that even in his prime, the end is never far from the athlete’s mind. With this portrait of Nash, someone who even in top form lived “in fear of stiffening up” and had to tell himself “I’m going to feel better one of these days,” we’re not surprised by who Nash has become in The Finish Line, desperate and reaching, praying that his body will meet his determination halfway. Much of McCallum’s book is buoyant and swift (he apologizes for the lack of behind-the-scenes drama from the Suns, who were a rather wholesome team by NBA standards), and yet reading with a focus on Nash, it’s also strangely stirring. It’s why watching a figure like LeBron James today is so precious—the way he explodes off the floor with his left foot as if he’s leapt off a trampoline and glides to the hoop—because in the back of your mind you know one day all of those physical gifts will betray him: all that strength, all that power, all that quickness, it’ll be gone. With LeBron you watch and wonder how much longer his body will hold up, and cringe at the thought of how his game will age. Nash managed to fight decline longer than pretty much anyone, but as with all athletes, that rare brew of athleticism, skill, swagger and good fortune has an expiration date. In some ways, then, focusing on an athlete’s prime also serves as perhaps the most fitting way to ruminate on his impending decline. We don’t need to see the decay, we just need to see what’s stake so that we can appreciate its inevitable loss.

***

The Finish Line can’t help but feel sentimental, because the very act of glorifying the end of a professional athlete’s career is sentimental. How Nash chooses to cope with his end isn’t really any different from any aging NBA star or role-player or college kid trying to squeeze a few more months of high-level performance out of his body. The narrative that’s been attached to Nash, and to all aging athletes, is that we want to follow them to the bitter end so they can impart rare nuggets of wisdom to us. But what revelations were we expecting from Nash aside from what it’s like to cope with loss? And how is this any different than the chestnuts other once-great athletes have to offer? Even if Nash had remained healthy, the series would have had difficulty not devolving into “ride-off-into-the-sunset” territory. Based on its current direction, I don’t know how this series doesn’t end with more shots of Nash looking pensive while overly dramatic music plays in the background. But I know how I’d want it to end.

What’s really fascinating about the end of an athlete’s career is not his decline; it’s what comes next. I want to see a Steve Nash documentary in the months after he’s crossed the finish line. I want to see him as he tries to find a new passion, as he tries to redirect all of that competitive drive and work ethic into something else. I want to see him coach a high school team and try to infuse young players with his work ethic. I want to see Nash try broadcasting and then report back to the viewer that although he could once split double teams and dismantle entire defensive game plans, he can’t figure out which camera to look into or even form basic sentences while a television producer jabbers into his earpiece.

A popular angle on Nash is that he’s a different type of athlete, an intellectual who is somehow above the game, and that walking away will be easy for him since he’s a seemingly smart, well-rounded human being with plenty of other interests. But McCallum squashes this assumption. “He doesn’t fit in basketball around reading Karl Marx; he reads a little Marx and shoots a million jump shots.”

The basketball court was rarely a place of solace for me, but I miss the simplicity of knowing where I could go to search for fulfillment. I could shoot for hours and hours and feel as though I was bettering myself. But when your playing career ends, you have this huge void of mental, emotional, and physical satisfaction. Even if basketball didn’t always give that to me, at least I knew where to go looking.

The Finish Line

But when you stop playing seriously, when the game ceases to be an essential part of your life, it becomes harder and harder to justify spending regular hours at the gym. Shooting in an empty gym gets boring; the very thing that makes sports so agonizing—the fear of falling behind, of being beat, of not meeting your own expectations—is the same thing that drives you, that makes those hours of practice feel purposeful rather than aimless. When it ends, all those insecurities (what if I don’t become who I want to be?) and platitudes (hard work beats talent when talent doesn’t work hard) that have driven you for a majority of your life still stick around—they’ve become a part of your DNA—but you don’t have an outlet for them. At first you try to pour these competitive desires into other activities, but when that inevitably falls short, you have to learn how to temper them. When Nash talks about going to the court as a place to think, it sounds cliché, but I believe him, because he still exists in a state where basketball is the crutch that allows him to live a life as a perpetual underdog, as someone who, as he told McCallum, is “uncomfortable being comfortable.” I want to see Nash when that ceases to be the case, when he shows up to a basketball court three months into retirement looking for answers that never come.

One of the most fascinating insights in The Finish Line comes when Nash describes the difference between his past and current selves. “If you ever see a child move,” he says in the first episode of the series, “they’re totally uninhibited. They just move freely, they don’t think about it, they’re not straining or protecting, they just are. You know, at my best, I am childlike out there.” It may be the most tragic line in the whole series; in capturing precisely what he once had, we also understand what he’s lost.

“It wasn’t until the end—the very end—that Steve Nash truly failed,” McCallum begins in Seven Seconds or Less. The Suns have just lost in the Western Conference Finals and been denied their chance to compete for an NBA Championship. The team gathers in the locker room after the game, feeling dejected. Head coach Mike D’Antoni finishes speaking and then looks to Nash for some sage words: “Steve? You got anything?” The whole team turns to face Nash, half-naked in front of his locker. He tries to begin, to say something, anything, to express his compassion for his teammates and the disappointment of his season ending prematurely, but the words don’t come. He just shakes his head. “He was crying,” McCallum writes, “and if he had a platitude to offer, he couldn’t get it out.”

When it ends, what you find is that while it’s always been to difficult to shake a heartbreaking loss, or wake up for a 6:00 a.m. workout, or play through excruciating pain, none of those challenges is as daunting as that first warm spring afternoon out in the sun.


Hal Sundt is pursuing his MFA in nonfiction writing at Columbia University, where he also teaches in the Undergraduate Writing Program. For more of his writing visit halsundt.com. More from this author →