This Nash Is a Scrambler : College basketball: Santa Clara boasts its first conference player of the year since Kurt Rambis.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

A hand-written sign in the men's locker room at Santa Clara's Toso Pavilion advises all who enter, "There are two places in this league: First place and no place."

Nobody has to tell basketball Coach Dick Davey where the Broncos would be without point guard Steve Nash, a junior who has led Santa Clara to its first West Coast Conference regular-season championship since 1970 and a No. 1 seeding in this weekend's WCC tournament at Santa Clara.

"We're not a great team without him," Davey said.

And without him the Broncos would be if Davey hadn't acted on a tip from a friend, ignored a comical videotape that was supposed to impress coaches with Nash's potential and tracked down the future WCC player of the year in his hometown of Victoria, Canada.

Despite a high school career in which he was named provincial player of the year in basketball and soccer and led his rugby team to a provincial championship, Nash had a hard time attracting college basketball coaches to his picturesque hometown at the southern tip of Vancouver Island.

A videotape produced by a friend's father didn't help much, only because it reinforced in some people's minds that Nash's competition in Canada was less than stellar.

At one point, as Nash is shown bobbing his head on a shot fake, his defender stumbles to the floor.

"When I walked by the room where (another assistant) was watching the tape, he was laughing," Davey said. "I said, 'What's wrong?' And he said, 'I got this tape of the Canadian kid. He makes people fall down.' "

Davey, though, was intrigued enough to request a second tape, which showed an entire game, and to follow up by going to Canada for a postseason tournament.

"And then, about two minutes into the game, he makes a play and I'm looking over my shoulder," Davey said. "And I'm hoping--praying--there are no big boys there (from higher-profile U.S. programs) because if there are, they're going to have some interest in the guy and I'm going to be out of luck. Sure enough, we were the only ones there, and it managed to work out pretty well."

Nash's high school coach sent letters to several U.S. colleges, including WCC members Gonzaga, Pepperdine and Loyola Marymount, but all ignored them.

"That wouldn't be unusual," said former Pepperdine coach Tom Asbury, now at Kansas State. "When you're at Pepperdine, you get, oh, 300 letters a year. And for a (6-foot-3) white guard from Canada, you're probably not going to do a lot of follow-up."

Other than Santa Clara, only Canadian schools Simon Fraser and Victoria pursued Nash, who long ago had decided that he would have a better chance of attaining his goal of playing in the NBA by playing at a U.S. college.

"I decided that I couldn't be as good as I wanted to be if I stayed in Canada," he said. "I had to come."

Nash and Santa Clara have proven to be a good fit, much to the consternation of some of the schools that ignored him.

In his first season, he became the first freshman voted most valuable player in the WCC tournament after making 10 of 13 three-point shots in three games, including seven of nine while scoring 23 points in a championship-game upset of Pepperdine.

A week and a half later, he made six consecutive free throws in the last 31 seconds as the Broncos upset Arizona in the first round of the NCAA tournament.

In the summer of 1993, he helped Canada reach the gold-medal game at the World University Games. Matched against Arizona's Damon Stoudamire in the final, a five-point U.S. victory, Nash had 13 points and 17 assists.

As a sophomore, he led the Broncos in scoring with an average of 14.6 points and set a school record by making 67 three-point baskets. Last summer, as the team's youngest player, he started all eight games for Canada in the World Championships.

And this season, after moving to the point after two seasons as an off guard, Nash is the WCC's top scorer and playmaker, leading the conference with averages of 20.9 points and 6.5 assists. His three-point shooting percentage of .450 ranks second in the conference, as does his .880 free-throw percentage. After making all 15 of his free throws in Saturday's upset loss against Pepperdine, he has made 38 in a row, a school record and five short of a conference record.

Nash has broken his own school record by making 77 three-point baskets and has led the Broncos to a 21-5 record as they prepare to play Loyola Marymount (12-14) on Saturday in the first round of the conference tournament.

On Monday, he became Santa Clara's first conference player of the year since Kurt Rambis in 1980.

"It feels good when I play well against teams that ignored me," Nash said. "But when it comes down to it, I'm not trying to spite anybody. I've gotten my chance.

"I wish I'd gotten a better look, but everything's worked out fine. The level I'm trying to get to is for myself, not to prove any points."

Nash is so good that several higher-profile programs tried to persuade him to transfer.

"I think there have been a couple of tampering situations, but I'm not going to worry about it," said Davey, who, like Nash, declined to name names. "If he wants to be here, I want him here. If he doesn't want to be here, he can go somewhere else. I realize we were lucky to get him."

Nash was flattered by the attention--and tempted to leave.

"I finally decided that this school would provide me with the opportunity if I made the most of it," he said. "The NBA scouting network is so widespread that they're not going to miss players.

"And, of course, loyalty entered into it. They gave me a chance when nobody else did."

Nash's emergence as an NBA point-guard prospect from the WCC has led to the inevitable comparisons to former Gonzaga star John Stockton, who overtook Magic Johnson this season as the NBA's all-time assist leader.

Is it fair?

"To compare Steve Nash with John Stockton borders on the absurd," said Gonzaga Coach Dan Fitzgerald, who coached Stockton. "He certainly is a great player, don't get me wrong, but he's got one-fourth of his college career left to play.

"Is he a kid that you would think can make it? I think he has the competitive makeup to play in that league. I tell (scouts), 'You've got to take a real hard look.' I certainly think he can make it. But making it and being John Stockton--there's a little bit of a stretch there."

Nash already has caught the eye of Marty Blake, the NBA's director of scouting. Blake saw Nash at the World Championships.

"He played against the best players in the world and more than held his own," Blake said. "He knows how to play. Who knows what's going to happen in the next year? But at this point in time he's a very good player, a draftable player. He's probably the best Canadian to come out in years."

Nash is hoping that will get him a better look from the NBA next year than he got from college coaches a few years ago.

"I'd be lying if I said I didn't think about it every day," he said of his dream of playing in the NBA. "It's the main focus of my life."

And with the NBA adding expansion teams next season in Toronto and Vancouver . . .

"If they had a team in Antigonish, Nova Scotia, I'd play for them, but if I had my pick, I'd love to play for Vancouver," Nash said.

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