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Friday, September 29, 2000

Nash lays the groundwork

  SYDNEY -- "I feel like I let everyone down."

 The words came nearly an hour after the loss to France and the tears Steve Nash had shed inconsolably as he came off the floor -- with teammate Sherman Hamilton's arm around his shoulder -- had long ago dried.

 But the figurative gash sliced open across Steve Nash's heart, and a nation's hope, was still bleeding badly.

 "It hurts," Nash said, standing in the bowels of the Olympic Superdome. "It hurts a lot. I feel like I let everybody down. We could have been in the championship game. We were good enough."

 That Nash, the little point guard from Victoria, B.C., would heap blame upon himself in the wake of France's five-point quarter-final victory over Canada early yesterday morning, says yet again just what kind of leader he is. He did so on a day when too few of his teammates were able to help him.

 In Nash's mind, the job that began at the Olympic qualifier in Puerto Rico last summer is left incomplete -- even though he brought his teammates to places they've never been before, giving a nation the kind of hope over a basketball team it hasn't had in a long time.

 Steve Nash has done what not even Vince Carter or the mighty NBA could do -- namely, make a country, from sea to sea, and not just in Toronto, care about the game. He has given the game in Canada, which has never established more than a beach head in Toronto, a lease on the future that never has existed before.

 "Sure," replied NBA deputy commissioner Russ Granik when asked after the France game if the story of the Canadian team had helped lift the NBA's cause in Canada. "Nash has simply been great."

 Although basketball is very much a team game, it leaves great leeway for individual creativity. The national men's team never would have gone as far as it did without its point guard. As Toronto small forward Rowan Barrett put it: "Steve was under a lot of pressure. He's the leader. We live and die by Steve."

 Moreover, the kind of person Nash is -- well-spoken and genuine -- made him a player people in Canada could believe in, and by extension made the game something they could believe in. In the wake of Canada's upset victory over Yugoslavia, and in the days leading up to the game against France, traffic on NBA.com/Canada doubled.

 Nash, who almost singlehandedly ripped Yugoslavia's silver-medal hopes away, was on the front cover of newspapers across Canada. Children were cutting out his picture and bringing it to school. A Canoe.ca poll had him narrowly trailing gold-medal winning triathlete Simon Whitfield as the people's favourite to carry the Canadian flag out of Sydney's Olympic Stadium.

 Nash was the kind of player, and Canada the kind of team, that you couldn't help but want to believe in.

 As Barrett put it in the aftermath of the loss to France: "We're skilled guys with lots of heart, enthusiasm, and we're good guys. We're what Canada is all about -- it is personified in our team."

 It follows that what has happened in Sydney can't help but have an impact on future generations of kids making choices about which sport to play. And what makes what happened in Sydney different, say, from Canada's fourth place in Los Angeles or Montreal, is that the interest kindled by the Olympics actually has a place to go because of the NBA; Nash, of the Dallas Mavericks, can be followed by fans at home. In the playing days of current coach Jay Triano, Canadian players all-but disappeared from public consciousness after the Olympics.

 "Hopefully, we created some positive energy and momentum," Nash said. "Hopefully kids will be inspired to play (in Canada) -- that's what I really hope."

 Not to be overlooked is that Nash has also changed the notion of what it means to be a Canadian basketball player. The national team is no longer something to be ashamed to be part of, as it frankly was just two years ago. And overseas Canadian players already are thought of in a new light.

 Forward Mike Meeks of Brampton, for example, said the other day he is getting the kind of offers from quality pro teams in Europe he has never had before.

 "A lot of our players are going to go and play professionally now in Europe," Nash said. "They won't have to take any (crap) any more because they come from Canada."

 For a competitor like Nash, all that he has accomplished will never remove the disappointment of failing to win a medal. But he has nothing to hang his head about.

 He brought Canadian basketball into the light for the first time in a long time. Far from him letting his country down, it's now time for Canadians who care about the game not to let his accomplishment go to waste.