The story of Steve Nash isn’t just about his impact on basketball in this country. It’s the story of how he’s impacted everyone around him.

It’s been over two decades, but the legacy of the Team Canada men’s basketball team and their performance at the 2000 Summer Olympics in Sydney, Australia, remains. For Rowan Barrett, a long-time member of the national team and currently their general manager, the story begins back in 1992. It was the first time he met a point guard from Victoria, B.C., named Steve Nash.

Born in Johannesburg, South Africa, Nash’s family moved to Regina, Saskatchewan, when he was 18-months-old before eventually settling down in Victoria. Nash loved playing soccer growing up and started playing basketball in his pre-teens. He was set to play college basketball at Santa Clara University in California in 1992 while Barrett attended St. John’s University in Queens, New York. It was the perfect alignment. Nash being the prototypical outdoorsy type and Barrett being the city kid.

Both players made the cut for the national program and trained together for the first time at the University of Toronto’s Erindale campus. They quickly became close friends. The two roomed together and hung out all the time. Nash even got special permission from his parents so he could stay with the Barrett family whenever he was in Toronto. Barrett’s grandmother Sybil Lodge owned a Jamaican food-catering company and would regularly provide her grandson with plates of food. It was a natural way for Barrett to bond with Nash, his teammate. “Man, he wanted that spice,” Barrett recalled. “We’d get some beef patties and jerk chicken. He always seemed to get the jerk chicken, the curry chicken. He had an open palate.”

The two were an undeniable pairing on the court as well. Barrett was a bonafide scorer and fit seamlessly next to Nash, who brought his own distinct flavour to the basketball court. “He was a fast point guard that wanted to play with tempo and pace,” Barrett said. “All that stuff that he was doing for Phoenix, he was always playing like this. They didn’t change his game or make him different, they actually just brought out what was there.”

The first time we got a taste of what Nash was capable of on the international stage took place at the 1993 World University Games. He, along with Barrett and the rest of the Team Canada roster, stayed at the dorm rooms at the University of Buffalo during the tournament. Barrett remembers how the team could barely sleep because of the mid-July heat and there being no air conditioning. Teammates would take showers just so they could cool off in their rooms only to repeat the routine several hours later. In order to create a healthy distraction, Nash, whose passion for soccer stems from his English father, John, spread his love of the sport to everyone. Hours were spent inside those dorm rooms with his teammates kneeling on both sides of the bed heading a soccer ball back-and-forth until someone set a new record amongst the group that they imagined being the world record.

On the court, Nash was a man on a mission. The point guard led Team Canada to the tournament final, where they faced a United States team that included Michael Finley, Shawn Respert, Ed O’Bannon, Eric Piatkowski and former Raptors Carlos Rogers and Damon Stoudamire, who was the point guard for a number-two seeded Arizona squad which Nash’s 15th-seeded Santa Clara team had upset at the NCAA tournament a few months earlier.

Entering the final, Team USA’s average margin of victory was over 40 points against their six previous opponents. As much as they were favoured to cruise to the gold medal, Canada and Nash weren’t having any of it. They jumped out to a 17-point lead at one stage and at halftime, led by 12 points and appeared on their way to an improbable upset. The United States would eventually restore order on the court as Stoudamire got some measure of revenge for the March Madness upset with clutch plays down the stretch to seal a 95-90 comeback victory.

Nash finished with 11 points and 17 assists in a losing effort. Even though he had to settle for a silver medal, it was a moment that foretold what was to come for Nash’s international career. “He was amazing,” Barrett said. “He was controlling the game, going head-to-head with Damon and gave him all he wanted. At that time, he was still figuring it out. ‘Do I pass? Do I score?’ He was very unselfish. He’s one of those guys that gets more of the thrill by making you score than he does by scoring himself.”

Four years at Santa Clara elevated Nash’s profile heading into the 1996 NBA draft. By the time he turned pro, Nash had guided his school to two NCAA tournament appearances. Santa Clara won the West Coast Conference tournament in three of his four years there. Nash also added two Conference Player of the Year accolades to his trophy cabinet. He was selected 15th overall by the Phoenix Suns and became the first Canadian selected in the first round in over a decade.

After a trade to the Dallas Mavericks, Nash began to establish himself as a premier point guard in the NBA. But even as he entered the prime of his career, Team Canada remained one of Nash’s top priorities. The core of the national team established great chemistry under head coach Jay Triano and the bond they had forged together became a key pillar in maximizing their talents.

The goal was clear: ahead of the 2000 Olympics in Sydney, the players wanted to bring the men’s senior basketball team back to the Olympics for the first time in 12 years.

Nash and Barrett were co-captains of the team. They had grown close to players like Sherman Hamilton, Michael Meeks, and Todd MacCulloch, a seven-foot, 280-pound centre who had been recently drafted in the second round by the Philadelphia 76ers but was struggling for confidence heading into the 1999 Tournament of Americas, where the top two teams had a chance to automatically qualify for the Olympics.

MacCulloch, a Winnipeg, Manitoba, native who went to the University of Washington and averaged 18.7 points and 11.9 rebounds in his senior season, had expectations of being drafted in the first round. When those hopes didn’t materialize, a sense of failure hung over his head. MacCulloch showed up to training camp with Team Canada down on himself.

But the mood quickly changed once he got on the court with Nash. The point guard’s breathtaking passes in practice left MacCulloch with the easy job of finishing plays within a foot of the rim.

“All I had to do was lay it in,” he recalled. “Playing with Steve brought back my love of the game. It brought back my confidence. Just the way that he would play and the way that he would set you up, it made me feel like I was a good player.”

The pieces were falling into place.

Team Canada headed to San Juan, Puerto Rico, determined to return with one of two available qualifying berths for the Olympics. Team Canada managed to navigate a difficult group stage and won every game except for another hard-fought battle against Team USA. Nash was Team Canada’s leader in every way during the tournament, both on and off the court.

Canada earned a confidence-boosting win against Brazil to clinch a spot in the knockout stage, setting up a semi-finals matchup against the host team Puerto Rico. Team Canada was one victory away from qualifying for the Olympics. The players started to understand the enormity of the moment. Barrett remembers the hostile environment they walked into that day.

“We had police escorts,” he recalled. “It was a short drive [to the arena] made longer by the fact that the cars were parking on the street. The cops were moving people out of the way, the bus was detouring, we finally got there and you could feel the whole country watching this game.”

Nash delivered 26 points on 10-of-15 shooting in a victory over Puerto Rico, helping clinch an Olympic berth for Team Canada.

“He took it to the next level,” MacCulloch said. “That’s what the great ones do. They’re able to manage their emotions and treat it like you’re just having fun playing in the backyard. He played out of his mind. I’m indebted to him for leading us to victory.”

Team Canada’s run at the 2000 Olympics remains one of the iconic moments in the history of international basketball in this country. The team surprised everyone by finishing top of their group with wins over Australia as well as upset wins over Spain and Yugoslavia against whom Nash either scored or assisted Canada’s final 18 points to clinch the top spot in their group.

Seeding was important in avoiding Team USA on the other side of the bracket until the finals. The tremendous group stage run put Canada in prime position to win a medal in the event for the first time since 1936.

They would square off against a French national team that finished group play with an underwhelming 2-3 record. France came out with a strong game plan, relentlessly attacking Canada’s interior and mixing in some timely threes on offence while daring their opponent to beat them with jumpers on the other end. They took a commanding 15-point lead into halftime with the Canadians shooting just 34 percent from the field. Despite a valiant second half push that cut the deficit to five, Canada couldn’t get any closer. Nash finished with just 10 points and recorded nine turnovers to his eight assists.

Shortly after he shook hands with the opposing team and huddled with his teammates, Nash was inconsolable. The Olympic run had come to a premature end. The national team would not be returning home with a medal. The image of Nash walking off the court in tears with teammate Sherman Hamilton’s arm around him remains etched in the memories of Canadian basketball fans across the country today.

MacCulloch, who scored 23 points that day, still remembers it today. He also remembers how every teammate in the locker room sought to comfort their leader after such a disappointing loss. “We love him,” MacCulloch said. “I think he felt a responsibility or maybe felt like he let us down but nothing could be further from the truth. There’s no way we would have had anywhere near the level of success we had without him.”

Nash may have missed out on an Olympic medal, but his NBA games soon became appointment viewing. He reached an historic peak with back-to-back MVP awards after joining the Phoenix Suns, playing a super-charged ‘Seven Seconds or Less’ style of basketball which revolutionized the modern-day NBA. When Nash retired after an 18-year career in the league, he walked away an eight-time All-Star.

In retirement, the leadership qualities which defined Nash’s playing career have remained. Despite not winning an NBA championship as a player, the institutional knowledge, reading of the game, charisma, and selfless nature helped continue his relationship with the game of basketball.

In 2012, Nash was named general manager of the Canada men’s senior team before relinquishing the position to Barrett several years ago. The cherished bond between the two has remained. Nash is godfather to Barrett’s son RJ, who is now a rising star with the New York Knicks. In 2015, Nash became a player development consultant with the Golden State Warriors. One of the key relationships he built during that time was with superstar Kevin Durant, which contributed to being named head coach of the Brooklyn Nets ahead of the 2020-21 season.

Nash’s influence extends beyond basketball as he’s become a symbol for any Canadian athlete looking to overcome the odds. When Canadian tennis pro Leylah Fernandez was still in the beginning stages of her professional career, she struggled playing against women who were more experienced and had better physical strength. In order to break through the glass ceiling in her mind of what she could accomplish, her father and tennis coach Jorge Fernandez looked beyond the sport of tennis to find examples of athletes who overcame size and strength disadvantages.

One of them was Steve Nash.

“You would just see him not being as tall as his teammates or opponents but you see the way he competed, the way he acted on the court, he wasn’t intimidated by any of these attributes,” Fernandez said. “Yes, they’re taller, stronger, but he had something that they didn’t and then there was finesse, quick hand movement, and of course, the speed, how fast he can move but also how fast he can read the play.

“He impacted me as an athlete and kind of opened my eyes growing up. When my dad was introducing me to not only different sports but different athletes who achieved so much in their sport, Steve was definitely one of them who has helped me through the toughest times and kind of made me believe more in myself and what I’m capable of.”

Fernandez became a global star at the U.S. Open last year when she made a captivating run as a teenager to get all the way to the women’s singles final. When Nash showed up as a guest and sat in her player box along with her family in the semi-finals, it was a full-circle moment for the tennis pro who was taken aback by the presence of one of her childhood idols. In an effort to not distract Fernandez from her pre-match routine, her coach and agent did not share the news before the match that Nash had offered his support and had plans to attend the match. It made the moment that much more special when Fernandez looked up in the stands during the match and noticed a familiar face.

“It was very, very surreal, because never in my life would I have imagined meeting or seeing Steve in my player box,” she said. “He’s truly an inspiration for me.”

Despite a finals loss to fellow teenager Emma Raducanu, Fernandez learned about the value of the journey from one of her idols. “Just meeting him and seeing how humble he is, [he was] giving me advice and encouraging me,” she said. “Even though I lost, he was still there and he said, ‘You’re doing the right thing, keep going, keep working hard, in the defeats you learn a lot more than in victory.’ That really helped me and kind of put things in perspective that not all victories will be positive.”

There is a strange irony in knowing that someone so selfless, gracious, and talented like Nash received the highest of individual accolades but finished without the team trophies he most cherished in his playing career, but that’s sports. It’s never been about the final lap, but rather everything done in preparation to start something and inspire people along the way. Nash may be well beyond his playing days, but his legacy lives on in those that still seek his guidance, still seek his inspiration, and still want to give to him in a way that’s a reflection of how much he always did.