Twelve seconds left in the season opener.
Phoenix Suns 107, Los Angeles Clippers 107.
Twelve seconds for Steve Nash to find a way to win.
The Phoenix coaches outline a plan. Suns' ball. Nash, the team's wily point guard, will let the clock nearly expire before executing a play. As Nash dribbles, Clippers point guard Baron Davis defends him closely. Guarding against the very play the Suns called. Guarding against Nash going right. Nash abandons the plan and darts left. Time to make up a new play. On the fly.
To watch Steve Nash is to observe someone uncannily at ease with change. Rapid change. Whenever possible, he plays on the run, starting a fast break rather than a set play, orchestrating a free-form attack. What sounds like a recipe for sloppy basketball proves highly effective in Nash's hands. When Nash signed with Phoenix as a free agent in 2004, he took over the NBA's riskiest and most unorthodox offense, one that required his team to get a shot off in seven seconds or less. And Nash soared. Already an all-star, he became more dangerous at hyperspeed, choreographing a thrilling dance of snap decisions and eyes-in-the-back-of-his-head passes. He is only the ninth player in NBA history to win consecutive league MVP awards.
No one better embodies the metabolism of our times, when industries, technologies, and careers are in constant flux. In leading Phoenix to the league's best record to start this season and, most likely, to a return to the play-offs, Nash demonstrates how to navigate uncertainty — with flexibility, collaboration, and inventiveness. He has developed a gift for finding order in chaos. He adapts to new information, assesses the risks, and creates opportunities for him and his teammates to succeed. Nash improvises.
We all need to be improvisers now, to transition between the jobs we have and the backup plans we may need to pursue in the current economic crisis. Between the ways we're accustomed to working and the new habits shaped by Twitter, Facebook, and other new tech tools. Between the recession and the postrecession world.
Both on and off the court, Nash's exploits illuminate lessons about how to manage these transitions. The son of a professional soccer player, he didn't take up basketball until eighth grade, but then transformed himself into a top high-school player. At little-known Santa Clara University, in California, the only school to offer him a scholarship, he worked himself into a first-round NBA draft choice. He began as a bench player with an iffy back who later revamped his exercise regimen — and his game — to become a surefire Hall of Famer, the 38th best NBA player of all time, according to über-blogger Bill Simmons in The Book of Basketball. Nash was a camera-shy and endorsement-averse pro even as he became an all-star; he now pitches ad ideas to Nike and Vitaminwater and relishes cameos on Entourage and The Late Show with David Letterman.
Nash's future rides on his latest transition. He is 35 in a league where the average age is 27. So he's thinking a few steps ahead. He's becoming an entrepreneur, finding business outlets for his off-court creativity. "I hate to say it, because the clichés can get nauseating, but I try to keep the ball moving," he says of his burgeoning enterprises. "If you let things slow down, they lose momentum."
Ten seconds to go.
Nash is still 25 feet from the basket. Scanning his options. He pivots. What to do next? Pass to Grant Hill on the wing? To Channing Frye near the basket? Take it himself?
When Nash reached the NBA in 1996, he had a plan for how he would handle life as a pro: He wouldn't pursue the spotlight. He relished his privacy and was uncomfortable with the attention.
After he made the all-star team in 2002 and helped turn the Dallas Mavericks into one of the league's top teams, Bill Sanders, CMO of BDA Sports, which represents Nash, wanted to build a brand around his budding star. In a league that celebrated one-on-one moves and showy acrobatic dunks, Nash, a very mortal 6-foot-3, was a fan favorite because he dazzled at a lower altitude with ball handling, passing wizardry, and team basketball. Nash listened to Sanders, and said what NBA players never say: I'll pass.
He was the anomaly, an inquisitive guy who was reading No Logo, a dense and provocative argument by fellow Canadian Naomi Klein, which describes how companies had devolved into global marketing machines at the expense of innovation. Nash didn't want to be a pitchman. "I felt there was an exploitation and manipulation going on," he says. The offers, whether endorsement deals or invitations to appear on The Tonight Show, were all a distraction from the discipline — "tunnel vision," he calls it — that had gotten him to the NBA and enabled him to thrive there. Sanders dubbed him the "reluctant icon." BDA Sports CEO Bill Duffy says, "There was a lot of John Lennon in him." (Nash's T-shirt at the 2003 All-Star Game, a month before the invasion of Iraq: "Shoot baskets, not people.")
Nash's change of heart came a few years later, after he reconnected with Jeff Mallett, a family friend who was president of Yahoo in its go-go years. They talked about life after basketball, and Nash admitted he hadn't given it much thought. After building Yahoo into the Web's No. 1 destination by the age of 40, Mallett himself had wrestled with the What now? question. "I challenged Steve with an email that said, 'It's 20 years from now and you have 15 minutes to tell what you've done in the last 20 years,' " Mallett recalls. " 'If you mention basketball, you fail.' "
At the top of Nash's list was making a positive impact through his foundation, which helps poor, sick, abused, or neglected children get a shot at better education, health care, and opportunity. For years, he quietly wrote checks to charities. "I had a real problem with getting attention for charitable giving," says Nash. "I felt like that was a contradiction of the whole point." He also had a problem saying no until he hired a childhood friend, a lawyer specializing in not-for-profits, to run his organization in 2005. The Steve Nash Foundation, much like Nash himself, is highly effective but not self-aggrandizing: The Sports Philanthropy Project and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation gave it the 2008 award for excellence in sports philanthropy, yet Nash's foundation didn't even issue a press release when it donated $200,000 to provide pediatric cardiology care for a hospital in his wife Alejandra's home country of Paraguay.
Ultimately, Nash hopes the foundation outlives him. To make that happen, he realized he needed to be more pragmatic. Mallett suggested he think of the not-for-profit as a business. To be sustainable, it needs regular funding from the kind of for-profit companies Nash had kept at arm's length. "I realized the foundation's power to help more kids was exponentially greater if you used all your resources," he says, "be it visibility or corporate partners, and all those were contingent on people getting to know a bit more of you."
It was time for the reluctant icon to pivot.
Eight seconds to go.
Nash flies toward the basket. He can still pass if the Clippers cut him off. They don't. He splits two defenders and has just enough room to attempt an off-balance layup. He swings his arm wide. Uses his off hand to flip the ball up. Sometimes his job is to make his teammates look good with perfect passes. But this time, he seizes the moment.
A week before the season opener, Nash is in Vancouver, British Columbia, near his hometown of Victoria, for a preseason game. Everyone wants a piece of him. Barely arrived from the airport, he makes time at a downtown hotel for an independent film crew that's producing a documentary about him. He's dressed in jeans, a gray T-shirt, and slip-on canvas sneakers. No tattoos, no ego, no entourage. (The Suns may pay him $13 million a year, but he still showed up on the set of a video shoot in Manhattan two summers ago riding his skateboard.) He seems so, well, normal, a lean, mellow hipster with an easy smile, quick wit, and shy manner. He'd rather compare notes with the crew about camera equipment than talk about himself. These days, he says, more professional athletes "think of themselves as a brand, but that's not my way of thinking."
He lets the documentary interview run longer than scheduled. The same with a subsequent shoot related to the upcoming Olympics. The next day, after practice and a workout, he meets execs at the original Steve Nash Sports Club to hear how the burgeoning chain is courting Canadian Olympians and NBC staffers during the Games. That night, once the game and press conference are over, he returns to the court, his voice growing hoarse, to address a couple thousand rapt kids from Steve Nash Youth Basketball.
Riding in an SUV between gigs, Nash texts with colleagues about his entrepreneurial projects (and checks on his wife and 5-year-old twin girls), giving his iPhone the kind of fierce workout he employs to protect a congenital disc problem in his back. "Steve doesn't waste time," says Jenny Miller, executive director of his foundation.
Nash now has a business plan for the newly formed Steve Nash Enterprises, a portfolio of a dozen ventures. He has started a film-production company; become a part owner of the Vancouver Whitecaps, which will join Major League Soccer in 2011; and taken equity in several startups, including Mission Skincare, which develops products for athletes based on field testing from him, Serena Williams, and other elite pros. Ultimately, part of the revenue will go to his foundation.
His newest startup, Apoko, grew out of his affinity for social media. On Facebook, where he has nearly 600,000 fans (more than 100,000 people follow him on Twitter), he shares videos of himself — playing a pickup game in China with locals; hanging out on the set of Katherine Heigl's next movie, Life As We Know It (he has a cameo); and sweating through Whitecaps training. While playing a charity game, he and the Clippers' Baron Davis discovered a mutual interest in film, which led to their making a spoof of Will Ferrell's Step Brothers. The video attracted more than 600,000 views on YouTube. As two of the most Web-savvy NBA players, they decided to help other athletes market themselves online. "We'll help them build a fan base and create content," Nash says. "That's the hard part for players."
Nash, who honed his marketing chops interning at the New York ad agency Deutsch last summer, is making more connections between his various projects. His production company, Meathawk, filmed a promo for his skin-care outfit. He's written and produced viral videos for Nike and Vitaminwater, with which he has endorsement deals. "The entrepreneurial stuff is exciting to me for the same reason that basketball is exciting," he says. "It's collaborative, creative, educational, experiential. All those elements are in play."
Six seconds to go.
Nash's layup — "the old-white-guy-at-the-YMCA shot," he later calls it — arches just beyond a defender's reach and drops in. The Suns lead by two. Davis catches the ball and slaps it in frustration.
Nash's off-court daring and creativity have been best showcased with Meathawk Productions. "It started purely as a creative outlet," he says. "It wasn't, First, I need a business plan, second a CFO, and third a round of capital. It was like building a tree fort. We made it up as we went."
Meathawk began in 2007, when Nash pitched Nike an idea for a Web video. A passionate environmentalist, he wears a Nike shoe made of recycled materials called Trash Talk, but he wasn't the centerpiece of a LeBron-like campaign. If he was going to boost his exposure, he might as well ask for creative control. "Training Day" depicts Nash's unconventional off-season regimen in New York, playing soccer and tennis, and dribbling a basketball while skateboarding. It captures his passion and versatility, as well as his free spirit.
A few months later, Nash sold Nike on a more ambitious and expensive spot. "The Sixty-Million-Dollar Man" — a spoof on the 1970s TV show The Six Million Dollar Man — features Nash, who has survived countless SportsCenter-worthy collisions, being shattered into pieces and rebuilt. Like his shoe, he's completely recycled. This time, he asked that his cousin, London-based filmmaker Ezra Holland, direct, and offered to split the production costs with Nike. "I was really lucky that it worked," Nash says. "I don't think it's easy for them to step out of the way and let someone do what we did."
Producing his own videos allows Nash to play the endorsement game on his terms — and to reveal a sardonic sense of humor that superstar athletes rarely show the public. Shortly after he signed with Vitaminwater, the company agreed to green-light a couple of videos Nash wrote. In "The Spokesman," he satirizes the stereotypical celebrity jock. Interrupting a typical day at Vitaminwater headquarters, he announces over the cubicles, "Excuse me. While I'm here, does anyone need an autograph?" He confronts an employee about having only one banana's worth of potassium in its bottled water. "I want two," he says, cramming in a second banana. The irreverence fit the brand so well that Vitaminwater executives ran the viral video on TV during March Madness last year.
"Usually, it's a one-way street: companies go to athletes and try to convince them to do something," says Rohan Oza, Vitaminwater's CMO. "I told Steve, 'You're not supposed to come in with a pitch and a production team ready to film. But I love that you do.' "
In 2008, Nash followed a similar strategy to get Meathawk's biggest gig yet. He heard about ESPN's 30-for-30 project — 30 independent documentaries for its corresponding anniversary. The filmmakers, including notable veterans such as Barry Levinson, Peter Berg, and Ron Shelton, as well as newcomers, would tell personal stories about overlooked sports moments of the past three decades. Nash was the only pro athlete who pitched ESPN on a film.
Over lunch in the West Village with ESPN Films executive producer Connor Schell, he recounted the story of Terry Fox. In 1980, the 21-year-old Canadian who had lost a leg to cancer began running across the country on his prosthesis to raise money for research. He ran near-marathons every day for 143 days until the spread of the bone cancer forced him to stop after more than 3,300 miles. The extraordinary effort made Fox, who died in 1981, a national hero. Nash had followed the trek as a boy. "We never got the sense that Nash was a guy slapping his name on something," Schell says. "The story was a personal passion. He's really talented at this, and he's willing to do his homework." The one-hour documentary is scheduled to air in the spring.
Nash and Holland have agreed to start small. They're developing a modest pipeline of projects, including another documentary, more commercial work, and a short feature. In film — in all his business ventures — Nash is still a rookie who has to pay his dues. But he's had experience with that. "I wasn't one of those kids who was told since ninth grade that he was going to play in the NBA," he says. "It was long-term goals broken into short-term goals. How to get from the bottom to the top. Those fundamentals transfer to anything."
One second remains.
The Clippers go for the win. A 28-footer for three points. No good. The final score: Suns 109, Clippers 107. In the fourth quarter, Nash scored 15 points, nearly half of the Suns' total. He took over the game.
Two days later, Nash is on the phone from Phoenix, describing the dramatic ending. The layup wasn't what he had in mind, and it wasn't pretty, but it worked. "It's not like I practice that exact shot," he says, laughing. "But, as my dad says, fortune favors the brave."
Fortune favors the brave. For a guy still figuring out what kind of businessperson he wants to be, that's not a bad place to begin. "In some ways, I should have started earlier," Nash says. "But when I look at all the things I'm doing, I feel ahead of the game."
This season, he'll continue juggling both roles — that of an expert and that of a novice. He's getting used to the back and forth: the multitasking, the feverish texting, reviewing documentary footage on the team plane. Today, he's home from practice, and in the background, it sounds like someone's hammering. No, Nash explains, "I'm standing in my driveway shooting one-handers."
Another game day. Another night of transitions and improvisation. Seven hours to go before tip-off.
A version of this article appeared in the February 2010 issue of Fast Company magazine.