By Jim Morris
VANCOUVER, B.C. — First he dazzled them with his moves on the pitch, then Steve Nash impressed a group of young soccer players with some advice for life.
Nash, the two-time NBA most valuable player, spent about 90 minutes practising with the Vancouver Whitecaps residency players Thursday. The Phoenix Suns point guard ran drills, made some pretty passes, and just missed scoring a goal with a diving header that left him face down in the grass.
"It was great, I had a blast," said Nash, a minority shareholder in Vancouver's Major League Soccer franchise which begins play in 2011. "For me it's always a treat to get to play the game."
Nash, who won a provincial championship playing high school soccer while growing up in Victoria, managed to keep pace with the 16-and 17-year-olds who are part of the Whitecaps development system.
"Not bad, I was surprised," he laughed when asked how his 35-year-old legs felt. "I thought I might fade there for a little bit.
"I haven't played for a month or so. I got through it. I think they took it easy on the old man."
Bobby Jhutty, 17, a defender/midfielder from Surrey, B.C., was impressed.
"It was great," said Jhutty. "The guy is old but still has a touch. He has been playing soccer for a long time. He's still got it. He's fit."
Goaltender Richard Causton, 17, of Coquitlam, B.C., was surprised by the velocity of Nash's shot.
"I wasn't expecting him to have the level of play he did," said Causton. "I always heard he was a decent soccer player but I didn't think he was up to that standard.
"Being in net, having him shoot on me, I was very surprised how hard his shots were, how good he placed them."
The practice was held in Stanley park, on a field just a corner kick away from the ocean.
At the final whistle, Nash high-fived some of the players, and slapped others on the back.
After catching his breath, and sipping from a water bottle, Nash spent several minutes talking to the players. He spoke softly, arms folded at his chest. The players sat in a semi-circle around his feet, quietly soaking up his words.
"I just talked to them about what it takes to be a pro," said Nash. "How important it is to set goals for yourself and declare what it is you want to become and make yourself accountable to that.
"Find a way to find the passion for that every day. Be creative. Find a way to make it fun when it's not. The days you don't feel like doing it, those are the days that separate you from being a great player and just being a good player."
Nash's words resonated with Causton.
"Hearing it from a guy I've grown up watching all my life . . . it definitely motivates me," he said.
It's a busy weekend for Nash. He will receive an honorary degree from the University of Victoria on Friday.
"It's about time," he said straight faced, before breaking into a grin. "I don't know how many theorems and papers on science I had to come up with to get recognized."
On Saturday, he will host a charity soccer match called the Showdown in Downtown. Among the stars expected to join him in the eight-a-side game will be Baron Davis, a point guard with the L.A. Clippers; Hasheem Thabeet, the second player taken in this year's NBA draft; and Youri Djorkaeff, a midfielder with France's 1998 World Cup champion team.
The game will be held outdoors in Yaletown, one of Vancouver's trendy, waterfront neighbourhoods.
"It's going to be a lot of fun," said Nash, who staged a similar event in New York. "It's for a great cause.
"It's a great format to have guys from basketball and soccer playing together and not in an arena. It will be a great chance for fans to be within an arm's length of people they watch on TV."
Money raised from the game, and a $1,500-a-plate dinner, will go to the Steve Nash Foundation's B.C. Grants platform, which funds child-focused services throughout the province.
Nash and his Phoenix teammates be back in Vancouver on Oct. 22 when they play the Portland Trail Blazers in an NBA pre-season game at GM Place.
Silky smooth on the basketball court, Nash also showed some finesse when asked about the B.C. government's decision to reduce funding for school sports.
"It's difficult," he said. "We don't really put money into sports in this country, at least the government doesn't. On one hand it's disappointing because I'd love to see more kids exposed to sport and more elite athletes exposed to the opportunity to compete with the world's best.
"At the same time, we have a great quality of life. Let's hope the funding for sport and the model that exists for sport improves and grows."
Nash is also excited about carrying the Olympic torch, although he still isn't sure where he will be running.
"I'll run through those mountains if they ask me too," he said. "To carry the torch is an honour, and to do it here in B.C. is a dream come true."
Copyright © 2009 The Canadian Press. All rights reserved.