For the love of the game

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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.

Nash had one of those moments Friday night in Philadelphia. He scored 19 points in 28 minutes on his 40th birthday, the Lakers won and for a night, everyone in Los Angeles smiled alongside him.

Then he banged his knee on Chicago guard Kirk Hinrich's knee Sunday and all the good feelings were gone. He tried to play again Tuesday because the Lakers only had eight healthy players, but couldn't handle the pain in his hamstrings and called it a night at halftime.

Nash could sit back and collect checks for the next 18 months without putting in another day of work in the gym and he's trying to play through pain for a losing team against the bottom-tier Utah Jazz on a Tuesday night because he didn't want to let his teammates down?

"You can understand people's perspectives in L.A.," said Rick Celebrini, Nash's longtime, Canadian-based physiotherapist. "But all you wish for in my line of work ... is for athletes to commit fully or have a real sort of professionalism in terms of how they prepare and how they maximize their performance.

"Here's a guy that has done that in every way to the Nth degree possible. How can you ever fault somebody that is so honest and so committed and focused and so giving to not only himself and the team, but to the game?"

There are those who think retirement is a noble option, a personal sacrifice that would help the Lakers' finances. But again, that's about the future, not the present in which a 40-year old future Hall of Famer is playing through pain in a meaningless game because he finds meaning in helping his teammates through a rough time, and joy in playing the game of basketball for as long as he still can.

"He looks at it like, 'I made a commitment, I can't not fulfill my commitment,'" Nash's agent, Bill Duffy, said.

"Whether it's helping the young guys, or doing whatever he needs to do to get back on the court, that's what he's going to do.

"He respects the organization and he feels that the best way he can help them is to get healthy and get back on the court."

Just what did it take for Nash to get healthy this last time?

Before Celebrini even began working him out last summer, he made him explain why he wanted to do it. The physical part of his recovery would be so daunting, Celebrini figured, it wasn't worth it to even try if Nash didn't have a deep well of desire to keep playing.

"Our work is demanding mentally and physically," Celebrini said. "Maybe even more mentally than physically because you're focusing on every single movement. It takes a lot of mental focus to do that twice a day, every day."

Celebrini essentially had to retrain Nash's way of moving. The nerve root irritation in his back affected his every movement. To treat it, he had to unlearn and then relearn everything he did on a basketball court in a way that wouldn't irritate the nerve.

Their workouts have been a mix of intense core strengthening and conditioning that would make a rigorous Pilates class feel like a warmup.

"One of our drills is called Basketball Tai Chi. We go through a lot of his basketball specific movements in slow motion," Celebrini said. "He's trying to perfect the transitions and the motions he makes."

It's very different from the work Nash and Celebrini did earlier in their 15-year partnership, when the trainer helped him after he was diagnosed with a congenital back condition called spondylolisthesis.

"At that point, people were saying he was only going to last a few more years," Celebrini said. "Of course that was before his two MVPs.

"He came to Vancouver and we worked two-a-days for eight weeks in the heat of the summer, jumping into the ocean to cool off in between sessions because [the training] was so intense."

It's very different from the basketball tai chi they work on now, but the principle is the same. Whatever the challenge, Nash will try anything to work through it or around it.

Perhaps this would have gone differently in Phoenix, the same way it will go differently for Bryant in L.A. or Derek Jeter in New York. Perhaps Suns fans got to know Nash well enough over the years to understand why he keeps doing this, why he won't give up.

You see, it's always been enough for Nash to know he gave it everything he had. Others dwell on all the bad luck that befell his great Suns teams in the playoffs, the games they could've or should've won but for an unlucky break -- or suspension -- or two.

Not Nash.

"I do remember those things," Nash said in an interview last season. "But I don't look back on them. That's life. You move on. We never got to the Finals, we never were a championship team. But we also accomplished a lot and had a lot of success.

"We also never played with a defensive center. We were a flawed team that got pretty dang close to our potential and maybe it was never quite good enough."

They're the words of a man who seems to have made his peace with the past.

At some point, he learned that all he can do is train hard in the morning, jump in the ocean in between sessions to cool off and do it all over again in the evening.

There will come a day when Nash won't want to do any or all of it anymore, of course. When he'll get out of the ocean and simply want to relax on the beach.

"Obviously he's 40 years old, so that's imminent," Duffy said. "It's just a matter of when, whether he's 100 percent healthy or not. He's one of three guys, from what I'm told, who played beyond this age at his position.

"But he's made the comment that he wants to fulfill his contract, so anything less than that, or short of that, is something we'd have to discuss."

Celebrini sometimes wonders when Nash will walk away, too.

"Before last summer, we talked about the, 'Why?'" Celebrini said. "Why he does what he does. And why he wanted to go through this at his age, after all that he's accomplished?

"It was for no other reason other than he loves playing and he loves preparing to play. Once that goes, once it's not enjoyable anymore . . . once he loses that essence, then I think he'll walk away."

Nash wasn't a part of the Lakers' past. He won't be a part of their future either.

But he is a part of their present, and win or lose, his essence distinguishes this time.

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