“The reality is, I’m not going to retire because I want the money.”
Steve Nash’s words, in the third installment of “The Finish Line,” the docu-series running on Grantland chronicling Nash’s effort to regain his health and footing as his career winds down. That quote isn’t a full picture of what motivates him, and why, as he detailed again Thursday at his exit interview, he has every intention of finishing out the final year of his contract next season. Nash clearly loves the game, and (rightly) feels when physically able to play has proven he can still contribute at the NBA level. If it was just about the money, or even primarily about it, he wouldn’t bother with the rehab, because the rehab is a grueling, frustrating, theater of pain.
But it’s not not about the money, and saying it out loud brought an avalanche of criticism. From fans and media, including me, both on our podcast and live radio*. To recap, my position was that ethically Nash has an obligation to retire if it was clear he wouldn’t be capable of upholding his half of the contract. I’m not talking about being diminished. Everyone knew that was a possibility when the Lakers executed the sign-and-trade bringing him to Los Angeles. I mean truly unable to play, which at the time seemed the case. Whenever Nash dressed for a game, he’d miss the next three weeks.
And while a few games at the end of the season provided a fuzzy best-case blueprint of what he could bring next year – maybe 50-60 games at 20 minutes per – whether his body can get to that point is still a wide open question. So Thursday, in one of the most candid exit interviews you’ll ever see, I asked Nash about his now infamous (locally, at least) Grantland quote:
Q: Regarding the “money” comment to Grantland, if there a point where you feel like, physically, in the summer if things don’t go well, where you would feel like you just couldn’t uphold your end of the bargain? Would that change your perspective?
Nash: Frankly, I don’t think so. We fight in the collective bargaining to keep guaranteed contracts. I broke my leg playing for this team, and my body’s never been the same. Frankly, I would be lying if I didn’t say I feel that’s my end of the deal. We sign these contracts before (we know what what happens). Maybe it would be a better business if we got paid for what you actually accomplish, but that’s not the business we’re in, and frankly I would have made a lot more money if I got paid afterwards instead of before throughout my career, so it’s just a part of it. It’s a business.
And it sounds crass to sit here and talk about money, knowing that I make more money than 99 percent of the people in the world, but it’s the new normal. That’s my life, that’s my reality, and if I’m honest it’s a part of what you expect when you play in this business. I think it would also be false modesty if I apologized for that, and dishonest. That’s a key part of this business and industry. It gets convoluted because I love to play the game, and if I didn’t have any options, and the Lakers said you can come and play for us but by the way we can’t pay you, and nobody else was offering me a deal, I would still play. And I would play for free. But not when you have three teams offering you money. (Note: He’s referencing the period before eventually agreeing to terms with the Lakers.) So it gets complicated, and sometimes it looks really ugly to talk about money.
Nash’s response hasn’t changed my mind, but admittedly has me thinking and certainly far more sympathetic to his POV. Equally important, if the question of whether to retire under that set of circumstances is on one level or another a reflection of Nash’s character, so too is his willingness to answer uncomfortable question Thursday with a potentially unpopular, but truthful, reply. He explained his thought process in greater detail, but Nash didn’t back off the basic premise. He wants, and feels he deserves, the money and it’s a reason retirement isn’t on the table. It’s not something he’s going to lie about.
My hope is Nash becomes a semi-reliable presence next year and makes all this moot. Not so much for how it impacts the team’s prospects next year, but because for every 20 minute stretch Nash plays, I’m willing to bet he’ll do one or two things worth the price of admission. It would mean one of the greatest players the game has seen has a chance to leave it on his feet. I’m not optimistic he’s physically capable, but at least there’s a glimmer of possibility.
Either way, in an age where fans and media routinely beg for candor from athletes then skewer guys when they provide it, even if you disagree with Nash’s position on retirement, his conviction is worth respect.
*I’m well aware of how easy it is for me to say what’s right and wrong when I’m not the one leaving $10 mil on the table. Were it my decision to face, I’d likely have a different opinion, and would probably take the cash. But recognizing I’d be making the same questionable choice doesn’t mean it’s not questionable. Also worth noting: Whatever your perspective, this issue isn’t a referendum on the totality of Steve Nash’s ethical and moral core, but rather an issue on which reasonable people can disagree.