Editor's Note: Steve Nash today announced he was officially retiring from the NBA. In this article originally published in 2011, SUCCESS sat down with the point guard to discuss a completely different career direction.
Google “Steve Nash video” and see which search result emerges. A swift bounce pass to veteran teammate Grant Hill? Or a clever viral marketing campaign he produced for environmental causes and Fortune 500 companies alike? We’ll bet you 20 Canadian dollars it’s the latter.
There are three things you probably didn’t know about Phoenix Suns point guard Steve Nash. For one, he’s funny. Nash and his social media production company Meathawk have created giggle-worthy video shorts spoofing the movie Avatar and dry-humored ads for Nike and VitaminWater you’ll only find on the Web.
“Me, Kobe, LeBron, we’re in another stratosphere,” the soft-spoken Nash says into the camera for a parody poking fun at other athlete superstars. “I’m just like you, but 10 times better.”
No. 2, he’s a documentary film director—a really good one. Nash and his cousin filmmaker Ezra Holland co-directed the moving ESPN documentary about amputee runner Terry Fox, Into the Wind, which enjoyed critical acclaim and brought audiences to tears at the Toronto International Film Festival.
And third, Nash is an unexpected entrepreneur and marketing genius. He spent three months in 2008 interning for a Madison Avenue ad agency, where he worked alongside advertising greats and learned the nuts and bolts of an industry that’s long fascinated him. He’s constantly thinking, working and creating—on the team bus, on the plane, in the car or at home. “Off-season but more so, during the season, I’m constantly working on a half-dozen or so creative, business or film projects,” Nash tells SUCCESS. From founding and investing in various green ventures to running his Steve Nash Foundation, he has a lot going on at any given time.
Nash is the reluctant superstar—you might catch the two-time league MVP in an NBA advertisement, but you’ll seldom see him on television hawking basketball shoes. Since he didn’t seek the spotlight early in his career and really existed as a basketball purist—just playing and practicing, not marketing and making deals—Nash isn’t a household name. He carried the Olympic torch with “The Great One” Wayne Gretzky for the 2010 Winter Olympics, but non-basketball fans still ask, “Nash plays basketball, right?” For him, it was a conscious decision. “I’m not really comfortable with the celebrity status that is projected onto professional athletes,” Nash writes in the foreword for Steve Nash: The Making of an MVP (Jeff Rud with Steve Nash, Puffin Books, 2006). “There are plenty of other people in the world more worthy of emulating than somebody who can dribble the ball or dunk or shoot a three-pointer.”
Nash operates a little bit in the same vein as other athletes turned businessmen who listened to their bodies’ ticking clocks (at 37, Nash is a relatively old man in a league where the average age is 27) and realized athlete was only the first entry on a résumé. So, what’s second on Steve Nash’s résumé? Does entrepreneur slash filmmaker slash viral marketing rock star count as one entry or three?
Just a ‘Short, White, Canadian Kid’
Born to English parents in South Africa, Nash grew up on Vancouver Island, off Canada’s scenic west coast. Despite his excellence in high school basketball and soccer, the 6-foot-1 guard wasn’t on a lot of college scouts’ radars. Or any. He dreamed of playing basketball at a powerhouse Division I school, but not a single U.S. college recruiter made his way to Nash’s small prep school in Victoria to see him play. Local reporters dubbed him someone special to watch, but ultimately he was just “a short, white Canadian kid” who didn’t impress even early high school coaches. A 16-year-old Nash confidently told a coach, “My goal is to play Division I basketball.” The coach, who no doubt has since eaten his words, told him, “Well, I think you might have to readjust your goals, Steve. That’s a pretty high level, and I think you should make more realistic goals.” Nash refused and found a new coach via a school transfer the next semester.
If his talent didn’t speak loudly enough for him, his work ethic did. In college, although he struggled against players of larger stature, he possessed a work ethic beyond his years. After Saturday night high school games, he’d be back in the gym Sunday morning. In junior high, you could find Nash running a personal practice regimen: 50 right-handed lay-ups, 50 left-handed, 25 free throws and 15 from each corner of the court. Even on his way to and from school, he’d dribble a tennis ball until it became an extension of his hand.
His senior year, he applied to dozens of American universities before Santa Clara in California stumbled across Nash and offered him a scholarship. He was the diamond in the rough that other schools had overlooked. After leading the underdog SCU Broncos to one of the NCAA’s all-time upsets over No. 2 seeded Arizona his freshman year, he graduated with a degree in sociology, entered the 1996 NBA Draft and was drafted 15th overall to the Phoenix Suns. He was in the same impressive draft class as Allen Iverson, Kobe Bryant and Stephon Marbury.
Making Others Better
Nash inherited athletic ability from his professional soccer player father (his brother, Martin, went on to play professional soccer, as well) but learned work ethic from both his parents. “If I had to pick one reason why I made it to the NBA, it would have to be that I worked hard,” Nash says. Sounds cliché perhaps, but hard work really was the factor that launched him to the NBA and propelled him to be among the elite players in the league today. An understated, and perhaps, underrated, star on the basketball court, Nash is a seven-time All-Star named one of Time magazine’s 100 most influential people. Charles Barkley writes of the guard, “What has he taught us? It pays to be selfless. You can be content just to make the players around you better.” That’s what he does. He’s good at making others better.
What makes Nash so unique in the NBA is his “regular guy” factor, as Sports Illustrated described him. The 2007 cover story features Nash and former Dallas Mavericks teammate Dirk Nowitzki with the headline, “Best of Enemies” and describes the best friends as “the grumpy German” and “the little runt.” His time in Dallas and his friendship with Nowitzki was important to Nash’s growth as a franchise player, albeit an unexpected one. “Despite their success, however, neither man is a global celebrity on par with Kobe Bryant,” SI writes. “They’re just regular guys who happen to be very good at what they do.”
As such, what makes Nash a good basketball player is also what helps him succeed as an entrepreneur. He thinks quickly on his feet and always anticipates the next move. Having spent most of his life in gyms, one of Nash’s first ventures was founding a chain of eco-friendly, LEED-certified health clubs in Canada. The Steve Nash Fitness World chain uses low-voltage lighting, bamboo floors and lockers, rugs made from old shoelaces and recycled rubber workout surfaces. And he’s got more cool ideas for the gym; he just needs the time to make them happen. “We’d love for the cardio equipment to generate energy,” he told Outside magazine, “to have people provide the energy for their gym with their energy.”
The Sixty Million Dollar Man
Nash founded the social media company Apoko with fellow NBA star Baron Davis to help professional athletes manage their personal brands and understand what their social-media strategy should and shouldn’t be (Charlie Sheen, anyone?). Nash also has an ownership stake in Major League Soccer's Vancouver Whitecaps, for which his brother, Martin , plays. He most recently partnered with Deutsch Inc. ad agency executive Michael Duda to form a new venture capital company, Consigliere, which will invest in startup companies in sports, technology and other sectors.
How does he do so much and not risk diluting himself or his quality of work? “I’ve got so much creative passion that I really have to have clarity in what I take on and make sure I can give it its due,” Nash replies, after a thoughtful pause.
Nash finally came around to hawking shoes, but on his terms. In 2008, he helped Nike debut its new “Trash Talk” shoe, made from shoe scraps from its plants in Asia. The shoe, which went on sale to the public on Earth Day 2009, is packaged in a box made entirely of recycled fiber. His film production firm, Meathawk, created a Web short for Nike, dubbed “The Sixty Million Dollar Man,” to promote the recycled-leather shoe. In it, Nash does a Lee Majors impression as he dives for a loose ball, shatters into pieces and has to be reassembled as “the world’s first recycled man.”
His other Web shorts include, memorably, an ad for VitaminWater, in which he struts into the beverage company’s headquarters, makes eccentric suggestions to improve their product and announces, “Excuse me. While I’m here, does anyone need an autograph?”
A Passion for Learning
Nash really has a knack for marketing and advertising. His experience several years ago as an unpaid intern at New York ad agency Deutsch Inc. (the Donnie Deutsch-founded agency created this year’s Super Bowl favorite, the Volkswagen mini- Darth commercial) gave him the footing he needed to be a “legitimate” force in the marketing world.
Nash’s Into the Wind, which aired on ESPN’s 30 for 30 film series, gave the budding filmmaker the experience he needed to grow. Nash was a mesmerized 6-year-old when Terry Fox launched his hobbled cross-country “Marathon of Hope” in 1980. Nash barraged his parents with questions about why Fox only had one leg and why he was running. That passion for learning what makes people tick and for inspiring others are reasons Nash enjoys creating documentaries. He’s working on a new film about soccer legend Pelé, a natural for Nash as a lifelong soccer player and fan. He’s hugely inspired by directors Paul Thomas Anderson (Boogie Nights, There Will Be Blood) and brothers Joel and Ethan Coen (Fargo, O Brother Where Art Thou?) and wants to direct major motion pictures one day—not in a “when I grow up” sort of way, but in an affirmative “if I put my mind to it, it will happen” way.
Just like he’s created his film production company, “green” health clubs and social marketing company, Nash employed the same entrepreneurial prowess to his Steve Nash Foundation, which focuses its aid on children’s health, personal development, education and enrichment. When friend Jeff Mallett, CEO of Yahoo, suggested running his foundation like a business, Nash took the advice seriously. That meant changing his media persona from one who shies away from the spotlight to accepting it and using it for good.
“Although, I’m not sure if I shied away from it as much as didn’t seek the spotlight,” Nash tells SUCCESS. “Now, it can be a little embarrassing when I do the sillier videos [like Balls Talk, shot aboard the Suns team plane, in which Nash plays a cockier version of himself cornering teammates with awkward stances and awfully tight pants], but that’s the fun of it.”
The foundation, created in 2001, serves “underserved” children, an important distinction from “underprivileged,” he says. “Every child deserves basic accommodations, food, shelter and care,” Nash explains. “It’s not a ‘privilege’ as much as a right. So that’s why we say these children are ‘underserved’ their basic needs.”
Mallett said something else interesting. He asked Nash, “Twenty years from now, how will you describe what you’ve done in your life? And if you mention basketball, you fail.” The successes he’s most proud of are larger, more global wins. He’s passionate about resource conservation, particularly water and energy. As such, many of Nash’s endorsements are with small Canadian companies that share his concern for the environment. A company must include a charitable component in any deal with Nash; for example, the beverage firm Clearly Canadian helps maintain sustainable water sources in Third World villages. He used the proceeds from several television ad appearances to fund a new intensive care post-operative pediatric cardiology ward and a pre-cancer screening and treatment clinic in Paraguay.
Another pride point for Nash is being father to twin daughters, Lourdes and Isabella, 6, and infant son Matteo. “I want to raise them to be intelligent, passionate children,” he says. With his multifaceted talents, you might expect his offspring to have such wide interests, as well. “Definitely, broad strokes are good for them, to learn as much as they possibly can about many different things.”
While gushing about his girls during this phone interview, he pauses, excuses himself, and graciously greets fans who stop him to say hello. He’s at Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport on his way to New York to shoot a commercial for ESPN. A fourth fact you probably didn’t know about Steve Nash: He’s just an ordinary, nice guy—a (somewhat) internationally known, multimillionaire, superstar-athlete kind of guy, but a nice one, no doubt. Nash still hasn’t earned an NBA championship ring in his 14 years playing professional basketball—something that the Kobe Bryants of the world can claim over him. But even if he retires without ever having won the big one, Nash’s career will always be counted in the win column.