by Josh Cooper
VANCOUVER, British Columbia - On an unseasonably warm day in mid-September in this hotbed of hockey, a crowd packed around a makeshift fence at David Lam Park to watch a slightly staged pickup soccer game.
One team had members of the Vancouver Whitecaps, who play in the top tier of the United Soccer Leagues and are destined to join Major League Soccer in 2011.
On the other team was a scruffy-haired local athlete: Steve Nash.
The several hundred fans who came for this "Showdown in Downtown" charity match - put together by Nash - watched the Suns point guard, Whitecaps minority owner and full-time soccer nut set up headers with precision passes, boot one-time kicks and control the general speed of the match.
Five days later, 5,135 fans crowded the Whitecaps' home at Swangard Stadium to cheer a different local athlete with the same jutting jaw and petite facial features: Steve's brother Martin, the Whitecaps' starting midfielder and captain. He did much of the same - paced the soccer pitch with high lobs and passes, continuously finding teammates throughout the match.
While their playing styles might appear similar, the Nash brothers have increased the profile of soccer in this city in different ways - Steve with his name recognition, Martin with his behind-the-scenes grunt work.
"I'm out and about in the community here, in being a part of this team and coaching. I think it was good for (Steve) to get involved, to be behind the (Whitecaps' MLS) bid," Martin Nash said. "I think it is good for publicity for the MLS as well to have him interested and being involved."
Around Vancouver, signs of Steve Nash's celebrity are pasted across the city: sports clubs he owns, billboard advertisements, people wearing his No. 13 Suns jersey. Although hockey rules Vancouver, Steve, who grew up in nearby Victoria, is the region's favorite son.
"He is a recognizable face, a huge celebrity here in Canada - our most famous current athlete," Whitecaps defender Marco Reda said.
In July 2008, after talking with his friend, Whitecaps co-owner and former Yahoo! president, Jeff Mallett, it was announced that Steve would make a financial commitment to the Whitecaps as a minority owner. At that point, the Whitecaps were planning to bid to join MLS in 2011.
Formed in 1974, the Whitecaps boasted a sound fan base, good facilities, and stable ownership with Mallett, majority owner Greg Kerfoot and Boston Celtics co-owner Steve Luczo. But Nash brought a different type of quality to the bid - a star quality.
"You can just see the positives in terms of him, not just being known by the fans, but interacting with the fans and having a passion for the sport which is really important here," MLS president Mark Abbott said. "You can tell that he loves the game."
And on March 18, this helped Vancouver win its bid.
"I think the MLS was very excited that Steve would be a tag associated with our club," Whitecaps president Bob Lenarduzzi said. "It was very exciting to have someone of his stature and the way he conducts himself. He brings a lot of, a lot more profile to the club."
Steve's celebrity status with the Whitecaps could easily overshadow Martin's accomplishments, but the younger Nash has carved his own soccer niche in the area. Martin, 33, who is in his ninth season with the Whitecaps, spends close to 20 hours a week coaching soccer. Some of it is for pay, some of it is for fun, but all of it comes from his social conscience - to give back to the game.
One day before a Whitecaps' playoff game against the Portland Timbers in October, Martin spent his Wednesday night teaching a U-11 team how to dribble, pass and shoot. He even showed off a little, as the group of 10 stared in awe when Martin balanced a ball on his forehead.
"You always want to help out and see the game grow because it is what I have been doing my whole life and it is what I love doing," Martin said.
As the team prepares for its move to MLS, the brothers see their roles with the Whitecaps evolving.
Owning the team is part of Steve's post-basketball plan, to keep his hand in a sport he cares about, while also moving the game forward in his home area. It's something he hopes to be more involved with once his basketball career is over.
"I feel like I still have a lot to give as a basketball player. But I have to realize that I am mature enough now and at a stage where I am happy to start other pursuits," Steve said. "So, being a part of the ownership group of the Vancouver Whitecaps is one of those pursuits that fulfills a passion of mine, but also brings something really incredible to our home province."
Meanwhile, Martin would like to simply get to 2011. With soccer mortality inching closer, he wants to play on his hometown team when it reaches the highest professional soccer level in North America.
"Personally, I would love to be a part of it because it would be that final progression," Martin said. "To be there for it would be great."