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Tuesday, September 26, 2000

A new Nash-ional hero

NBA star leading Canada to Olympic success

  SYDNEY -- What Steve Nash has done is apply defibrillator paddles to the sport of basketball in Canada.

 If the patient does not come to life, it never had a pulse to begin with.

 "For me, hopefully, all the kids at home across Canada can really enjoy this win and make themselves proud to be Canadian," said Nash, the tiny, perfect point guard, who early yesterday virtually single-handedly orchestrated one of the most definitive, crucial, victories for Canada at an Olympic basketball tournament.

 "Basketball players can be proud to be Canadian basketball players," Nash said. "There hasn't always been that source of pride as far as Canada goes in basketball.

 "We've always been proud to be Canadian. Now we can be proud to be Canadian basketball players and athletes."

 Canada's 83-75 victory over Yugoslavia is still a long way from a medal, but the way it came about can't help but draw the entire nation toward this team -- a group of young men who, save for Nash, have played their entire lives in virtual national obscurity.

 Nash's performance -- a thing of raw courage if ever there was one -- has given hope to a nation that has not had much these Olympics to celebrate and feel truly good about, and even less to spark its imagination where international basketball goes.

 Had Canada lost to Yugoslavia, it would have been relegated to fourth in its pool, which would have set the stage for disappointment precisely because of three previous convincing wins. The U.S., and certain quick elimination, loomed. Nash simply refused to allow that to happen.

 He is without question the team's leader, but it is one thing to be called that and another to live up to the responsibility that goes with the job on the floor and off.

 Consider that during training camp this summer, Nash, who plays in the NBA and therefore can afford to do so, gave each of his teammates a gift of about $2,500 as an acknowledgement of all their hard work.

 The players did not know where the money -- significant given many of them earn $50,000 or so in a season -- had come from.

 "He did it anonymously," a source close to Nash said yesterday. "He didn't want them to know. Only the coaches knew."

 This is the same player who unflinchingly rode with his teammates by bus to Montreal for an exhibition game this summer, and stayed with them at a Days Inn, even though he is used to travelling in the NBA in a far, far different way.

 And this is the player who, as the second half began yesterday, realized the time had come for him to step up and carry his team.

 Nash normally does not look to score first, and instead is content to be the offensive catalyst, the player who gets other players the ball.

 But Yugoslavia, bigger, more powerful, had shut down just about every offensive weapon Canada had, save for Todd MacCulloch. Nash knew he had to take charge, and he did so by draining a three-pointer on the half's first possession, serving notice that if Canada was going to be beaten, he would have to be, too.

 With six minutes remaining, the battle truly joined, and now nursing a re-injured knee, Nash coldly dropped another three, tying the game for the first time and shoving a shiv of doubt into Yugoslavia's mind in the process.

 But Yugoslavian guard Dragan Lukovski replied with one of his own, and a lesser player, or team, having climbed a mountain that steep only to be pushed back, might have wilted.

 Not Nash. Not Canada. The next time up the floor, with unshakable confidence, he hit yet another three. As he ran backward down the court, he wagged his tongue as if to say to his opponents with churlish delight, "You wanted a fight, well, now you've got one. Let's see who is left standing when it's over."

 As if to answer just that, Nash then stole the ball and fed teammate Sherman Hamilton for the open-court dunk that would give Canada its first lead. Later would come Nash's clutch free throws and a game-winning drive and layup.

 "That was all gut, not Xs and Os," teammate Rowan Barrett said. "He has a heart that you rarely see in sport."

 Canadians, so reluctant to embrace the NBA, are seeing -- on the biggest world stage -- the kind of bravery they have only really seen from Canadian hockey players.

 "Maybe this is the start of a new age, a new time," Barrett said.

 If so, Steve Nash will go down in Canada's sports history as its sun king.