Young At Heart

February 4, 2011

By Brad G.Faye,

Steve Nash and Grant Hill have reason to smile as they continue playing at a high level for the Suns. (NBAE Photos)

When Grant Hill and Steve Nash each re-signed with the Suns in the summer of 2009, some were surprised to see the pair of veterans stay with a team that experts didn’t even project to make the playoffs.

Asked Nash the day he agreed to terms with the ballclub, “Even if you go to the team that comes in second, what does it matter? If you don’t win it, you don’t win it. Obviously, you want to win a championship but chasing that can be really fleeting and it’s a much more stable and challenging outlook to be a part of group that you really love and enjoy. I really love Phoenix, being a part of this community and the fans have been fantastic for me.”

Said Hill the day he re-signed, “You want to figure out what’s the best situation and it’s not necessarily always financial. I enjoy coming into work every day and being around those guys. I think the team is good and the weight of the expectations that were here when I arrived two years ago aren’t there now. I think it’s a great opportunity because people aren’t really expecting us to do anything, and sometimes that’s a good position to be in.”

The position did indeed prove a good one as that following season, the duo of Nash and Hill not only helped the team qualify for the postseason, but went so far as the Western Conference Finals, pushing the eventual-champion Lakers to six games. But it was far from being the first time the two had proven critics wrong.

Back in 2004, the Suns took what was then perceived as a chance on Nash, by signing the 30-year-old point guard whose best years were allegedly behind him. With Nash being the type of player who relied heavily on his speed, athleticism and court vision, many teams raised their collective eyebrows about signing him to a contract as long as the one the Suns had agreed to give – six years.

“I think a lot of teams worried about whether or not he could withstand the grind of an 82-game schedule followed by whatever happened in the playoffs, but obviously he’s proven them all wrong,” Suns Head Coach Alvin Gentry said. “For us, I don’t think his still playing in the league or playing at this level is a surprise because we see how well he takes care of himself. But I’m sure from the outside looking in, it could surprise you.”

Fast forward more than six years later, and those outsiders have seen the guard they deemed past his prime earn back-to-back MVP awards, make five All-Star appearances and help lead his team to three Western Conference Finals. This season, Nash is still continuing to amaze with his excelled play, despite celebrating his 37th birthday on February 7th.

Against the Cleveland Cavaliers on January 19, he scored 15 points and handed out 15 assists in a 106-98 win. One game later, the playmaker came out and contributed 17 points and 14 assists during a victory over the Wizards. Nash finished the month of January averaging an NBA-best 12.1 assists per game, his highest in a single month since December of 2007.

“I think you see it year in and year out, he just has a knack for making everyone better,” forward Josh Childress said. “He’s obviously an excellent passer, but what makes him so effective is his craftiness in the lane. Opponents respect his ability there and because he demands so much attention, it allows Steve to dish it out to other players and get them open shots.”

Guard Goran Dragic agreed, “He just makes it so much easier for everybody, and you always know he’s going to find a way to either create for himself or for others.”

Nash not only finds ways to help the Suns compete on a nightly basis, but also finds time to make some history every now and then, as well. Matched up against rookie point guard John Wall and the Washington Wizards on December 5, Nash scored 20 points behind perfect 8-for-8 shooting from the field. Combined with his then-season-high 17 assists, the performance marked just the fifth time since the NBA-ABA merger in 1976-77 that a player handed out 17 or more assists in a game without missing a field goal. Joining John Stockton, Mark Jackson and Magic Johnson in accomplishing the feat, Nash is the only one of the playmakers to have done so on two separate occasions.

Odds are it won’t be the last time Nash finds his name mentioned with such distinguished company. Nash could surpass both Gary Payton and Isiah Thomas on the NBA’s all-time list before the end of the regular season. Such a finish would rank him sixth, just behind one of the game’s all-time greats, Oscar Robertson.

“I always dreamed of playing in the NBA, but I never envisioned being on the same lists as the guys I idolized,” Nash said. “It’s really surreal to sit back and look at, but it isn’t something I spend time doing. Maybe one day when I’m watching a game with my grandkids and I see my name on one of those lists, I’ll sit back and think about what it all meant.”

Forward Hakim Warrick, who credits Nash as a key reason why he chose to sign with the Suns, said his admiration for one of the game’s top 10 all-time assist leaders dates back before Nash had even cracked the top 20.

“I was a big fan of his in college, and I just think he’s the best pure point guard today,” the former Syracuse standout said. “When you get a chance to play with a guy like Steve, you have to take advantage. Not a lot of players get that type of opportunity in their career. He’s one of the best shooters in the game, but still remains a pass-first guy.”

But while stories about Nash’s selflessness or his ability to stay in such great shape are anything but new, what isn’t often discussed is how contagious the attitude he brings into the locker room can be for teammates.

“He’s our leader and people definitely follow him,” Dragic said. “It’s my third year here and I’ve seen the players who follow him and the progress that comes from doing so. Players watch what they eat more, and I’ve tried to do the same. I may be skinny now, but I know by following the way Steve takes care of himself, that when I’m older, I’ll be in much better shape.”

This season marks Childress’ first with the Suns, and the forward said being teammates with Nash is indeed a unique experience.

“This is the first team I’ve ever been on where there are contests regarding how well you eat,” Childress said. “Everybody will get on Jared Dudley just for eating a slice of pizza, and that’s just different, and it starts with Steve and his strict regimen. He’s just methodical in how he does it. He’s like a machine, and that’s why he’s able to play at the level he plays at his age.”

Helping to make things a little easier for Nash is that he isn’t the only potential android on the Suns roster. Grant Hill is also managing to play at a high level despite having turned 38 at the start of the season. The two both say it helps to know they aren’t alone in their attempt to extend already successful careers for as long as possible.

“Just having a guy close to me in age with the same interests and being at the same point in our careers, we can certainly understand what the other is going through,” Hill said. “So to have him as a teammate, a friend and a confidant, definitely makes it easier for me to get through the practices, the travel and the grind of an NBA season.”

Like Nash, the veteran forward could also join some exclusive company if he maintains his current level of play. Hill scored 21 points against the Blazers on January 14, surpassing the 16,000-point mark in the process. Through the month of January, the former Duke Blue Devil was averaging 14.3 points per contest. Should Hill finish the season averaging 14 points per game or above, he would join Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Michael Jordan, Karl Malone, Reggie Miller and Robert Parish as the only players to finish with such numbers at the age of 38 or older.

“Grant is amazing,” Nash said of his teammate and friend. “He’s first of all a fantastic person and human being, but also an unbelievable teammate. His intelligence, work ethic, class, skill and athleticism are all unbelievable. I’ve always been a self starter, but he definitely inspires all of us with his consistency and commitment and it’s been amazing to watch.”

Hill has another commonality with Nash in being seen as a potential risk at the time of his signing. When he joined the Suns back in 2007, many dubbed the transaction as a gamble because of the injuries that had plagued him in seasons past. While the forward was coming off a 65-game campaign with the Magic, in the six campaigns prior, he had only averaged 22.5 games played per season. Many questioned how much of a difference the Suns training staff could make to a player who had suffered so many injuries – including a life-threatening staph infection in 2003.

The answer has since been loud and clear, and in his first three campaigns as a Sun, Hill has played in an average of 77.6 games per season, including a flawless 82 back in 2008-09. But what is perhaps most impressive is not just the fact that Hill is participating in so many games, but that he is a proven difference maker thanks in large part to his incredibly efficient ability to score the basketball.

He made 8-of-9 shots en route to a 21-point performance against his former Magic team on November 18. In a win over the Warriors on December 2, the forward scored 24 points on 9-of-11 shooting from the field. In fact, after connecting on eight or more field goals in seven different contests during the 2009-10 campaign, Hill has already enjoyed seven such performances this season, following his 11-of-18 outing at Portland on December 7.

“I think he’s a great, great basketball player, and I think he’s the most consistent player we have,” said Gentry, who also coached Hill as a youngster with Detroit. “He comes to practice every day and plays extremely hard for his team. Every coach should have an opportunity to coach a guy like him at some point in their career.”

But while every game played appears to add to Hill's basketball legacy, it is off it where he continues to prove that true value which can’t always be measured with statistics.

“I’ve obviously learned a lot from Steve Nash in my career because we play the same position,” Dragic said. “But away from the court, I’d say I’ve learned the same from both Steve and Grant Hill.”

“Grant has spent a lot of time in this league, and I think that’s important for young guys like me to recognize when wanting to get questions answered. He shows us that if we put in the same type of work that he does, we can stay in this league for a very long time.”

The leadership and professionalism of the All-Star forward isn’t reserved for just helping the youngsters on the team, however. Former Suns teammate Jason Richardson said he learned some valuable lessons from playing alongside Hill.

“His whole character on and off the court are things I’ve taken and tried to adapt,” the guard said. “How he carries himself, how hard he works and how that work ethic has allowed him to continue playing at a high level are things you look to use as a mold to apply to your career.”

Even opponents can’t help but marvel at the level Hill is playing at this point in his career.

“He’s unbelievable and I think he’s playing the best basketball of his post-injury career,” Heat guard Dwyane Wade said. “He’s a true professional and a tough cover for anyone because he attacks the defense very well. More than anything, you’re happy for him because of the
injuries that he’s gone through and it’s tough to come back from those types of injuries.”

Any team in the league would benefit greatly from having either a player of Nash or Hill’s caliber, but for the Suns to have both men in the same locker room is something assistant coach Dan Majerle said should not be taken for granted.

“They don’t miss a beat,” the Ring of Honor legend said. “It’s a testament to how hard they work and all the little things they do to take care of their body. They understand everything that goes into being a professional basketball player, including the things that take place before practice and after practice. They show that age isn’t anything but a number and if you work hard to take care of yourself, you can play for a long time.”

Suns Athletic Trainer Aaron Nelson agreed that a lot of what has helped make Nash and Hill successful are things that take place away from the hardwood altogether.

“Both guys work tremendously hard and are among the most hard-working guys I’ve worked with,” said Nelson who has been with the organization since 1993. “Grant is the usually the first guy here every morning after he takes his girls to school. And it’s the same with Steve as far as putting in a ton of work and effort both before and after practice in the weight room and the training room. The way it’s looking now, if they keep up at this pace and continue taking care of themselves the way they do, there’s no reason they can’t play for another two or three years.”

As far as how much longer Hill believes the dynamic duo can continue to play in this league, the forward doesn’t see the end coming any time soon.

“I think we both understand that if you take care of yourself, there isn’t any reason you can’t continue to play as you get older,” he said. “I’m not one to look too far ahead into the future, but I don’t see either of us slowing down anytime soon. I think we both got a lot more left in the tank, and I look forward everyday to coming out in practices and in games and proving that. Having somebody like Steve who has the same mindset, the same attitude and the same approach just makes it that much easier for me. It’s nice to think we can both play for as long as we’re both mentally still up for it.”

While it may sound crazy to think that Nash and Hill could still be wearing Suns uniforms that much farther down the line, if there is anything the two have taught fans during their time in the Valley, it’s this – don’t ever bet against them.