SPRINGFIELD, MA – Back in the day, Steve Nash and Dirk Nowitzki were like two peas in a pod.
Anyone who saw one of them, usually saw the other one lurking nearby. It was as if the two Dallas Mavericks teammates were identical twins, because it seemed as though one couldn’t co-exist without the other.
To no one’s surprise, Nash and/or Nowitzki could start a sentence and the other one could complete it without missing a beat. Their bond was that strong, and the Mavs were better because of that tight-knit relationship.
It all started in June of 1998 when the Mavs craftily acquired both Nowitzki and Nash in separate trades on the day of the NBA Draft. The two mega-stars have been ultra-close ever since.
“Our relationship goes back to the beginning,” Nash said on Thursday. “It was my third year in the league, his first.
“Our apartments were in the same complex, we went to the gym twice a day together during the lockout. We seemingly had almost every meal together throughout the season.”
Those meals must have been extremely impactful, considering the course where the careers of Nash and Nowitzki have traveled.
Nash wound up being an eight-time All-Star, the league’s Most Valuable Player in 2005 and ’06, and will be inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame at 6 p.m. CT on Friday night at Symphony Hall.
Nowitzki is a 13-time All-Star, was the league’s MVP in 2007 and will undoubtedly be a first-ballot Hall of Famer the minute he’s eligible.
Those days when Nowitzki was in Dallas – far, far away from his home country of Germany – he leaned on Nash for immense support and to help him get through his darkest moments. And Nash came through, just as he threaded the needle on so many of his awe-inspiring passes to Nowitzki and others.
“It’s been a great ride for Steve,” Nowitzki said. “When we first got him I don’t think anybody expected anything. He was a little undersized, he wasn’t the quickest guy, but he had a huge heart, he was an unbelievable competitor, he worked every day incredibly hard.
“He wanted to be great and his court vision was next to no other. One of the best passers obviously this league has ever seen, and just really worked his way up, so I’m really proud of him.”
That pride in Nash has always been heartfelt by Nowitzki.
“On the court it was easy to click with him,” Nowitzki said. “Since he’s a pass-first guy he always looks for an open teammate.
“He made my game incredibly easy. All I had to do was step in and take wide open shots.”
Because of the success on the court between Nash and Nowitzki, their friendship off the court went to extraordinary levels.
“Off the court, we both had European backgrounds,” Nowitzki said. “His parents are English, we talked a lot about soccer the first time I met him and that’s how we kind of clicked. We’re really, really close friends.
“Here, my first couple of years (with the Mavs) he always took me out of the hotels and out of my home so I wouldn’t get home sick. And he introduced me to a lot of his friends in his circle and I’m really thankful for that and I owe him a lot.”
When Nash and Nowitzki were Mavs teammates from 1998-‘04, Don Nelson was their coach. Nelson recalls Nowitzki and Nash nearly being joined at the hip.
“They just struck up a friendship because I just think their personalities kind of clicked and they both like to drink beers,” Nelson said. “They would hang out a lot after practices and after games, and they just became inseparable, and I think that had a great deal to do with their success as a team.
“The two of them were able to play together and I would imagine communicate all the time. Being together off the court as well I’m sure they talked a lot of basketball. I think it enhanced both of their careers by being good friends.”
Mavs coach Rick Carlisle noticed a narrative about Nash and Nowitzki that’s somewhat inescapable.
“The one thing that’s interesting about both of those guys is that it didn’t go especially great right off the bat here,” Carlisle said. “It took a while for those guys to get their footing and find their way, but they both became two of the greatest players in the history of the game.
“The fact that they played with each other, were close friends on and off the court makes it a super special relationship.”
Nash and Nowitzki had one of those unique relationships that defied the odds. And oftentimes their distinctive haircuts reflected that.
Carlisle said: “I see the picture very often of Nash and Dirk up there (on the dais) with Nellie with those crazy haircuts and the dyed hair and all that stuff.”
When asked on Thursday about those “crazy haircuts,” Nash pleaded the fifth.
“I’d rather not (talk about them),” he said. “I had a lot of bad haircuts.
“You’re young and dumb. You get reminded of it every time you see a photograph.”
To quantify Nash as a person, one need to look no farther than the summer of 2004 when he became a free agent. The Phoenix Suns sent practically everyone from their organization but their mascot to Dallas and offered Nash a contract.
Nash took the contract to the Mavs, who decided instead to part ways with Nash. Upon reflection, Mavs proprietor Mark Cuban said: “Although letting him go was the biggest mistake of my Mavs tenure and I know he was upset at the time, he has remained a friend. That says a lot about the quality person he is.
“I think leaving the Mavs motivated him in ways we obviously never anticipated.”
The pictures of Nash rifling a pass to a wide-open Nowitzki for a three-pointer are the stuff of which legends are made. Those two made more than just sweet music together.
They were poetry in motion who made a great living feeding off each other while getting the Mavs to the playoffs in four of the six years they played together.
“The bond was deep and we pushed each other and we supported each other through all those tough times in our career during the very, very formative period of our careers,” Nash said. “It was also a formative relationship that allowed us to form, but also at the same time be in the competition and push it and continue to grow and overcome.”
Indeed, Nowitzki’s rookie season wasn’t exactly the kind of stuff that had his name mentioned in the same sentence with someone in the Hall of Fame. And during Nash’s first season with the Mavs, his game was so fragmented that he was booed during a home game.
However, Nash and Nowitzki put in the hard work, were in the gym frequently at two in the morning on weekends, and mapped out a chart that eventually landed them in the same neighborhood with the NBA’s all-time greats.
It’s a message of perseverance, and of surviving the sometimes shark-infested waters of the NBA.
“There are a million clichés involved on the importance of persistence,” Carlisle said. “But those two guys just had a great belief in each other and a great belief in themselves, and they just weren’t going to take no for an answer.
“So they just stayed with it and stayed with it and they kept being resourceful and finding ways to do little things to make a big difference on the court for them and their teammates. The end result is really two of the most unique players in history.”
Those two unique players were down in the trenches when the Mavs rebounded from the terrible decade of the 1990’s to one of the more successful franchises during the turn of the century when they started a long playoff run in 2001. Nowitzki credits Nash for the turnaround, and for also helping make life easy for him.
“He’s smart, he’s funny, he’s just a good dude,” Nowitzki said. “He’s got a huge heart, he’s always fitting in stuff for the community, always up for a good time, for jokes. There’s never really a dull moment with him.”
Nowitzki, along with a legion of others from the Mavs’ organization, will be at Symphony Hall on Friday night to witness Nash being inducted into the Hall of Fame. And from the sound of it, Nowitzki is just as happy for Nash as Nash is for Nash.
“It definitely made me smile to see Dirk so excited to come and see us get in the Hall of Fame,” Nash said. “He’s pretty pumped, and that’s not always the case with the grumpy German.”
It probably won’t be long before that “grumpy German” joins Nash in the Hall of Fame. After all, it’s only fitting that the two players who are like two peas in a pod get back together again – this time on basketball’s grandest stage.