Kekuta Manneh and Steve Nash

Learning from a legend: 'Wide-eyed' Kekuta Manneh training under the tutelage of Steve Nash in LA

VANCOUVER, BC – If you were to tell someone that they’d be spending a week with their boss during what was supposed to be an offseason, chances are they wouldn’t be too thrilled.

Unless your boss is Steve Nash.

That’s why promising Vancouver Whitecaps FC youngster Kekuta Manneh was over the moon when he found out that he’d be spending some time with the Canadian basketball legend to help prepare for the upcoming MLS season. 

Manneh, 19, is currently in Los Angeles training under the tutelage of Nash – a two-time NBA MVP who also happens to be a part owner of Whitecaps FC. Manneh arrived on Tuesday and will be there for a few more days, but it’s already been an “unbelievable experience.”

“It’s really exciting,” Manneh told after a morning session with Nash at Manhattan Beach. “He’s an idol for a lot of people and for me as well.”

The opportunity to train with Nash arose through Rick Celebrini, Whitecaps FC’s head of sports medicine and science, who has been working with Nash for years.

Celebrini and his sports medicine and science team designed offseason training plans for each ‘Caps player. Some of the youngsters, for example, have gone abroad to train with teams like Rangers FC, Derby County FC, and Liverpool FC.

But since Manneh has to spend as much time in the U.S. as possible to maintain his eligibility for citizenship, Celebrini had to think of a creative way to get Manneh in an optimal training environment.

He didn’t have to think very long.

“I was thinking, ‘Who could he learn from?” Celebrini told “Who could any young athlete for that matter learn from, all the different aspects of mental toughness, discipline, commitment and professionalism? Considering my friendship with Steve, that was an automatic.”

“So I approached Steve about working with Kekuta, not just from the physical standpoint, but just to help him understand what it takes to do what Steve did, which is get to the very highest level of sport,” Celebrini continued. “And as he always is, he was so gracious and generous with his time.”

Manneh is staying at a hotel a block away from Nash’s house. They’ve been doing two-a-day sessions, focusing on areas such as efficiency and control of movement, core strengthening, and other fitness work – all while keeping in mind how these things apply to soccer-specific tasks. That’s why there’s been a lot of ball work involved. 

Last season, Manneh missed a big chunk of preseason due to a back injury and it took him a while to catch up from a fitness perspective. He also suffered a hip injury late in the season. The goal is that the work he’s doing now will help minimize the chances of that happening again.

“Kekuta is just a sponge right now, soaking it all up,” said Celebrini, who spent a few days with Manneh and Nash in LA before returning to Vancouver. “He’s got sort of the wide-eyes and to be honest with you, Steve is really leading the sessions. I’ve just provided a little direction here and there, but for the most part it’s Steve the student becoming the master.”

As Celebrini alluded to, this training camp isn’t all about physical training for Manneh. It’s about mental training as well. And Nash, one of the greatest Canadian basketball players of all time, has always been known by his peers to be a master at both.

Of course, you don’t play over 1,000 games, become an eight-time NBA all-star and two-time MVP without having ability, but Nash’s work ethic, professionalism, and mental toughness were often what set him apart.

“At the highest level, that’s the difference between the good players and the great players: the mental strength,” said Nash, a lifelong soccer fan/player whose brother Martin spent several years with the 'Caps. “I’m just trying to impart some of the lessons I’ve learned over my career so that Kekuta can continue to grow mentally and make that jump.”

And from what Nash has seen, the kid has been listening attentively.

“He’s been great,” said Nash, who has been ruled out of the 2014-15 NBA season as a result of injuries he detailed in a recent open letter to fans. “It’s exciting to see young people with talent working really hard, and if he can continue to work hard and learn to be a pro, his ability will shine.”

“He’s probably a little tired of hearing me lecture him,” Nash said jokingly, “but he’s worked really hard and he’s really trying to absorb everything I’ve thrown at him.”

It appears to be working.

Manneh said there’s one story Nash told him that has stuck in his mind. Back when Nash was in college, a lot of the athletes used to get together at the same time every day to watch the sports roundup.

That was Nash’s cue to go out and work on his game.

“He did that every single day,” said Manneh, who had met Nash a few times prior to this trip. “Hearing that kind of story has been really motivating.”

Nash has also been talking to Manneh about setting goals and being accountable to them.

“One thing he told me is, everything you do, you have to have an aim or an objective,” Manneh said. “Why am I doing this? What am I getting out of this? You can’t just go through the motions and kick the ball around. Make everything count. Have a plan. That made a lot of sense to me. Those little things I feel make a whole lot of difference.”

The trip hasn’t been all work and no play.

Nash had Manneh over for dinner a few nights where they were able to relax and have a few laughs. They were also planning to attend the MLS Cup Final on Sunday.

“We joke, mess around, laugh and all that but when it’s time to train, then he switches it on,” Manneh said. “That’s the first thing I asked him. How do you turn that switch on?”

“Honestly, I’ve never been more motivated in my life than I have been the last few days,” Manneh said. “Hearing his story and the things that he did, and how he got to where he is, and how he stayed mentally strong … those are the little things that I’m taking out of this. Everything he and Rick are saying makes sense. I think that’s what I need.”

By the end of this trip, Nash said he wants Manneh to be sick of him.

Good luck with that.

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