For the love of the game


LOS ANGELES -- Steve Nash was halfway home Wednesday afternoon when he got word that some of the reporters who cover the Lakers were asking to speak with him.

There wasn't much for him to say, other than to reflect on his latest injury setback. But sometimes it doesn't matter what you say, as long as you're there to say it.

So Nash drove back to the Lakers' practice facility to take questions.

There's nothing remarkable about that other than the fact that you can't imagine just about any other professional athlete doing it.

He came back to take questions from local media he's barely had time to get to know in his two years in Los Angeles, except when he's been talking about the career-threatening nerve irritation he's struggled to overcome or the team's wildly dysfunctional chemistry last season.

It's one thing for Kobe Bryant to stand in front of his locker and tearfully answer questions the night he tore his Achilles. This Kobe's town. His franchise, his fans.

Nash has little equity here. Little connection to Lakers fans. No real responsibility to communicate with them as the face of a franchise normally would. Heck, with half the town urging him to retire, you couldn't blame if he never wanted to talk at all.

But there he was, getting in his car and driving back. Because ... ?

More than once in the last few years Nash has asked himself why.

Why does he keep playing? Why is he putting his body through the rigors and pain of recovery for an 18-34 team nosediving into the All-Star Break?

He's accomplished plenty in his 18-year career. Loads more than his slight, 175-pound body should have been able to do in a league as physical as the NBA. Other than winning a championship, there's nothing left for him to prove. And this is not that championship season.

So why?

The answer is always the same.

"I fought to get back," Nash said the other day. "Because I love the game."

Not the chase, not the glory, not the money or the fame. The game. Five guys on the court working together to win a basketball game.

It's sometimes hard to appreciate the purity of such sentiment. It's easier to focus on how much money the Lakers could have saved if Nash had simply retired this season, on the free agents they would be able to pursue if his contract were to come off the team's books or on the hope of a savior waiting for the Lakers in this year's draft lottery.

But if you can't appreciate what Steve Nash has done just to squeeze a little more basketball out of his career, just to try to deliver some return on the Lakers' investment in him, what can you appreciate? Who can you root for?

The focus on championships can sometimes obscure other values. Playing the game the right way, living up to commitments and responsibilities, giving a great effort, putting on a good show. These things should resonate too.

It takes something like the spectacle of a 62-point night in Madison Square Garden to snap people out of the idea that only the pursuit of a championship matters. It took 62 points, but for one night, Carmelo Anthony had the NBA and its fans reveling in the present tense.

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