This was early January 2019, fifth floor of the Oakland Convention Center, long after the rest of the Golden State Warriors had cleared out their afternoon practice. Two solitary figures remained on the floor, and they were both dripping with sweat, conducting some serious business and some serious trash talk.
“See that?” the taller man said after he’d drained his 10th straight 3-pointer. “That’s what you call a shooter’s touch. Take a good look. I know you’ve never seen that.”
The smaller man gathered each ball as they swished through the net, and while there was a thin smile on his face, he wasn’t laughing.
“You know what I was just thinking about?” he roared, firing off one perfect pass after another, one left-handed, the other right-handed. “How would your MVP trophy figure out a way to guard my two MVP trophies? That’s a tough matchup.”
This went on for 20 minutes, 25 minutes, neither man stopping, the taller man shooting, the smaller man feeding him, the jawing endless, and finally, 35 feet from the basket, the taller man squared up and as his partner chided him once more — “What are you, planning on taking all of Steph’s shots, now, too?” — he drained the 35-footer.
Then the two men embraced.
“That’s what I’m talking about,” Kevin Durant said with a smile.
“I didn’t think you’d ever go home,” Steve Nash said.
Nash was serving as a consultant for the Warriors at the time, but he has been unofficially coaching players all across the NBA ever since his Hall of Fame playing career ended in 2014. For years he has been something of an NBA pied piper, a guy other players didn’t only admire, but sought out — for advice, for approval, for teaching.
“And why wouldn’t you seek him out?” asks Lloyd Pierce, the head coach of the Hawks, who goes back with Nash all the way to the backcourt of the Santa Clara Broncos. “He’s only one of the best players to ever play the game, with so much knowledge and so much willingness to share it. He’s my friend but this was an inspired choice.”
Back at Santa Clara, Pierce, a San Jose, Calif., kid, was two years behind Nash, who was born in Johannesburg and raised in Canada. Together they played in back-to-back NCAA Tournaments and Pierce received a full education in the art of being a good player and a better teammate.
“He was fun to hang out with, fun to drink with, fun to converse with and fun to play with,” Pierce says. “And what more would you want than that?”
There were, not surprisingly, some stunned expressions when the news hit. However much unofficial coaching Nash may have done his entire basketball life, he never has been a head coach before. Then again, neither had any of the three men to most recently win NBA titles: Nick Nurse, Steve Kerr, Tyronn Lue.
“We all know that relationships are extremely important and he has a great relationship with one of the greatest players alive right now,” Pierce says. “He was an MVP. That means something to players. That admiration and respect is a perfect blend.”
The next coach of the Nets was always going to have one thing prominently placed on his résumé: Durant was going to want to be coached by him. That isn’t a criticism, simply a statement of fact. Durant was the singular offseason acquisition of some very busy recent offseasons despite his balky Achilles, a $160 million all-in play for a banner by Brooklyn. It would be ludicrous not to pair him with a kindred spirit.
Between them, they have those three MVPs, Nash’s two coming back-to-back for Phoenix in 2005 and 2006, Durant’s in Oklahoma City in 2014. Nash never won a title, but he played on a batch of championship-caliber clubs with the seven-seconds-or-less Suns. Durant has his two rings with the Warriors.
If this inspires difficult memories of the time the Nets handed the car keys to another coaching neophyte named Jason Kidd, it really shouldn’t. Nash has never exhibited a whisker of the Machiavellian machinations Kidd has specialized in since he was 19 (and, besides, it’s worth pointing out that the one playoff series the Nets have won since 2007 they were coached by … Jason Kidd).
Only the games will tell for sure, of course, and who knows when those will begin again. For now, Nash’s old pal Pierce will enjoy the chop-busting text threads he, Nash, and their old Santa Clara teammates engage in. And if he’s looking forward to the first time the Hawks play the Nets next year, it’s for one reason only.
“I want to beat the [bleep] out of him,” Pierce says. “But let me tell you something: He’s just as competitive as me, and he’d say the same exact thing. That’s what the Nets are getting. I think they’ll like what they see.”