The Courageous Brilliance of Steve Nash

The two-time NBA MVP was a dazzling player, but his outspoken opposition to the Iraq War forms his true legacy.

Phoenix Suns guard Steve Nash celebrates his team's win over the Los Angeles Lakers during the final seconds of Game 3 of the NBA Western Conference finals in Phoenix, Arizona May 23, 2010. (Lucy Nicholson/Reuters)

For a player who won the NBA Most Valuable Player award twice, Steve Nash didn't look much like a professional basketball player. Lean and shaggy-haired, Nash resembled a marching band member who accidentally wandered onto the court. But for a multi-year stretch in the last decade, Nash, who announced his retirement on Saturday, was better than them all. A dazzling point guard who combined precise passing skill with a devastating jump shot, Nash drove an up-tempo Phoenix Suns team that evoked memories of Magic Johnson's Showtime Los Angeles Lakers.

Nash's 19-year career provided no shortage of on-court heroics. But his real legacy may be his exceptional willingness to speak out politically. As the U.S. planned its invasion of Iraq in early 2003, Nash, then with the Dallas Mavericks, appeared in warmups wearing a t-shirt that read "No War. Shoot For Peace." He didn't back down while speaking to reporters.

I believe that us going to war would be a mistake. Being a humanitarian, I think that war is wrong in 99.9 percent of all cases. I think it has much more to do with oil or some sort of distraction, because I don't feel as though we should be worrying about Iraq.

Nash's comments provoked a fierce reaction in the media, particularly by journalists outraged that a professional athlete had the temerity to express an political opinion. ESPN gadfly Skip Bayless, then of the San Jose Mercury News, told Nash to "shut up and play" and reminded readers that basketball players "are paid money because they serve as an escape." Dave Krieger of the Rocky Mountain News, meanwhile, said that athletes "seldom know what they're talking about."

Nash continued to speak out on politics throughout the rest of his career, notably opposing Arizona's draconian immigration policy while playing for the Phoenix Suns. In recent years, Nash's opinions have attracted less publicity. But the rest of the NBA has caught up. Before a Cleveland Cavaliers-Brooklyn Nets game last fall, players on both teams donned warmup shirts referencing the death of Eric Garner, a Staten Island man whose choking death by a New York police officer sparked nationwide outrage. Four-time MVP LeBron James, the most high-profile player to wear the shirt, told reporters he felt an obligation to speak out.

"As a society, we know we have to get better," he said.

James' statement elicited widespread debate throughout the sports media. But in contrast to Nash's 2003 comments on the Iraq War, the vast majority have focused on the content of James' opinions rather than criticize his audacity in expressing them. This shift was hardly inevitable. Two decades ago, when Nash was lacing up his shoes for Santa Clara University, basketball players went out of their way to avoid political controversy, epitomized by Michael Jordan's famous quip that "Republicans buy sneakers too." Now, Magic Johnson has called for players to "get involved socially."

Steve Nash remained an elite player well into his thirties, but a leg injury sustained in his second game with the Los Angeles Lakers in 2012 limited his effectiveness thereafter. Nevertheless, Nash retires as one of the game's all-time greats, and a player all but certain to be enshrined in the Basketball Hall of Fame as soon as he becomes eligible. But Nash will have a unique distinction as player whose political points—rather than the 17,000 he scored on the court—form the greatest part of his legacy.