Suns fans are used to seeing their hero Steve Nash in purple. Seeing him in purple and Laker gold is a different story.
Like many Phoenix residents, my Fourth of July was ruined by the news that our two-time MVP was not only leaving, but that he was heading to Los Angeles. Although the Lakers-Suns rivalry isn’t really much of a rivalry for a storied franchise with 16 championships, recent playoff battles have cemented Kobe Bryant and his golden-clad cronies as the most hated team in the hearts of Suns fans.
Hearing that Nash was heading to play for our ultimate archenemy would be like Luke Skywalker joining Darth Vader at the end of Return of the Jedi. Our biggest hero had joined the Dark Side.
Of course, nobody knew his future back in April, when a U.S. Airways Center full of emotional Suns fans started chanting, “We want Steve!” We all hoped it wouldn’t be the last time we’d see Nash in purple and orange. But as much as it hurt, there was an undeniable air of finality that night.
That’s why we all showed up to the last regular season game for a team no longer in playoff contention to take pictures. That’s why Grant Hill’s last game for the Suns, a game he didn’t even get to play in, went relatively unnoticed. That’s why the final score didn’t matter. And that’s why our cries of “We want Steve!” shook the building for ten minutes in the fourth quarter until coach Alvin Gentry finally obliged.
Maybe it was a bit of foreshadowing that Nash’s first play after all our cheers was an anti-climactic turnover. Maybe we should have seen the heartbreak coming when Gentry pulled him only a minute after his gratifying curtain call. But in that moment, an entire stadium knew one thing: Steve Nash was an irreplaceable era of Suns basketball.
That’s also why his departure for LA left us scarred and questioning what his time in Phoenix meant. I’ll readily admit this column would read a lot differently had I written it the day after the news surfaced. But as angry and hurt as I was to learn the city’s basketball icon would be playing for our most hated foe, he had justifiable reasons.
After all, he did choose the Lakers so he’d be closer to his kids. On top of that, the Suns never gave him a reason to stick around in the first place. In a league full of superstars whining about management and looking for a team to house all their superstar buddies, Nash always defended us. And even when all hopes of a title left with Amare Stoudemire, Nash stuck with the Suns. He never complained. He never demanded a trade. And he never offered anything less than his best, even as it became more and more obvious Phoenix was stuck in the mud. And because of that eternal optimism and loyalty, Nash endeared himself even more to his fans.
Which only made our parting that much harder.
No one can deny Nash deserved better than playing for a floundering franchise in search of its first playoff appearance in two years, let alone that ever-elusive first championship. Still, my initial reaction (read: overreaction) was, ‘I hope he never wins a title with the Lakers.’ Those sentiments only grew stronger when Dwight Howard joined the mix. As a kid who grew up idolizing Michael Jordan, the thought of Kobe Bryant winning his sixth ring to tie MJ and usher in a whole new era of ludicrous “MJ or Kobe?” conversations makes me sick to my stomach. I’m not a Kobe hater and I respect him as one of the all-time greats, but it’s hard to describe how disappointed I’d be as a Suns fan if our former hero helped him win another ring.
But as queasy as I might be watching Nash run the pick-and-roll in Laker gold this year, that one memorable night in US Airways keeps coming back to me. It outweighs all the anger or disgust I have at his new squad. It will be the one redeeming thought I’ll hold on to if the Lakers somehow succeed in the playoffs. Because even though it killed me to hear the news, I wanted Nash to move on deep down. It doesn’t make any sense as a Suns fan, but after all he’d given my team, I wanted more for him. He’ll get that in Los Angeles, whether we like it or not.
So what was my reaction last night when Nash stepped onto his old home court as a Laker for the inevitable throttling of his former team? Now that I’ve had a few months to cool down and think with a clear head, my answer to that question was very different. Although a few boos sprinkled the arena when his name was called for the starting lineup (which I can’t entirely fault those fans for), the overwhelming majority of those in attendance cheered. And when the video tribute went up during a timeout, it was no surprise to see a standing ovation.
When I first heard about the trade, my instinct was to say we boo him in his first game back. Diehard fans live and breathe for their favorite teams and teams; Steve Nash was a prime example of that. But even though passion made his departure so heartbreaking, it was that very passion that pulled us to our feet for Steve Nash one last time. It certainly didn’t hurt that we got some vindication through an improbable Suns victory over the very rival Nash left us for, but there was no way of knowing the outcome when that tribute went up in the first quarter. We weren’t cheering for a potential victory in that moment. As a class act in the NBA who gave the Suns the prime of his career, Steve Nash deserved one more standing ovation.
Even if he was sporting that despicable Laker gold while we did it.