Former coach is courtside as Steve Nash honoured

Basketball: NBA star remembers his Island connections

Steve Nash never forgot the man who built the high school program that produced him.

When the retired NBA superstar was inducted into the Phoenix Suns’ Ring of Honor in October, he made sure that Bill Greenwell was there, along with several other of his former coaches.

Greenwell, who grew up in the Cowichan Lake area and now lives in Youbou, helped turn St. Michael’s University School into a provincial contender in the 1980s and ’90s. He was an assistant coach to Ian Hyde-Lay when Nash came through the program in grades 11 and 12 on his way to becoming a two-time NBA MVP, the 2005 winner of the Lou Marsh Award as Canadian male athlete of the year, and the greatest basketball player in Canadian history. Greenwell was on hand as one of Nash’s many guests during the big ceremony on Oct. 30.

As part of the celebrations, Greenwell got to attend the Suns’ game in a skybox with all of Nash’s guests and attend some other events in Nash’s honour.

“It was very, very special for me,” the retired coach said. “That’s not the kind of thing I normally do.”

Greenwell was first on hand as Nash was recognized by Educare Arizona, a major beneficiary of the Steve Nash Foundation, which provides educational and other opportunities for children from disadvantaged backgrounds.

“They get medical care, they get dental care, everything else,” Greenwell said. “It’s really neat.”

There was also a party in Nash’s honour at the Talking Stick Resort — namesake of the Suns’ arena — where Greenwell got to hobnob with the likes of Nash’s former Dallas Mavericks teammate, Dirk Nowitzki, Nash’s brother-in-law and former Vancouver Canucks centre Manny Malhotra, and Mike D’Antoni, the Suns’ former head coach, who devised the system under which Nash won his MVP awards.

“There were all kinds of NBA guys and guys he played on the national team with,” Greenwell said. “It was kind of a neat crowd.”

All of Phoenix’s Ring of Honor members were there for the ceremonies, with the exception of late coach Cotton Fitzsimmons, whose widow was in attendance, as Nash became the 14th member of the prestigious circle.

One of those members, Jerry Colangelo, the former Suns general manager, who drafted Nash out of college, made a promise that shouldn’t be too hard to keep.

“I just want you to know that Steve is going to get into the Hall of Fame,” Colangelo said, according to Greenwell. “Because I’m the chairman of the board.”

The characteristics that made Nash a very likely Hall-of-Famer are the same ones that Greenwell remembers setting Nash apart as a high schooler.

“The thing that always characterized Steve to me was his incredible work ethic,” Greenwell remembered. “He was the hardest worker I ever had. He was always prepared to work on things until he mastered them. And he mastered them, obviously.”

Nash also brought phenomenal leadership abilities to his teams at all levels.

“His teammates always kind of rallied around him,” Greenwell said. “He was a great leader; an awesome leader. Much more than his ability to score, I knew that would carry him on to be successful, especially as a point guard.”

Greenwell laughed when he is asked if he ever considered that Nash the high school player might make the NBA some day.

“We were just hoping maybe he would get the chance to play [NCAA] Div. II,” he said.

SMUS was a big deal in B.C. high school basketball at that time, though. Despite being of single-A size, the teams were able to compete at the AAA level.

“We had such an outstanding group of kids,” Greenwell recalled. “We actually had two teams. The Grade 11 team Steve’s brother Martin played on beat most senior teams.”

Heading into the B.C. AAA championships in Nash’s senior year, they hadn’t even had a call back from a university interested in the star point guard. Dick Davey from the University of Santa Clara, however, had received one of the SMUS coaching staff’s tapes, and despite the video’s questionable quality, decided Nash was worth seeing in person.

“He said, ‘Hmm. If this guy can dribble and make guys fall down while dribbling, maybe I’ll take a look at him for a lark,'” Greenwell said.

Greenwell remembers that Davey looked into the stands when he arrived at the provincial tournament and was surprised that there were no other American coaches in attendance. Davey knew that he had found something special, though, and offered Nash a scholarship.

“He got the chance to go, and then he was looking to get the opportunity to get some playing time,” Greenwell said. “He had to earn his stripes all over again.”

Greenwell was there when Nash got his chance. The Santa Clara Broncos were hosting the Cable Car Classic tournament, and the starting point guard, a junior, got sick. Nash was called on to start and had an outstanding tournament, earning an all-star berth.

“He got the opportunity, and when he got the opportunity, he made the most of it.”

When the original starter came back, they couldn’t just bench Nash, and moved him to shooting guard until the point guard graduated.

“He was better suited to being a point guard. He was a good shooter, but he’d rather pass than shoot.”

With Nash in the lineup, the Broncos went to the NCAA tournament in 1993, 1995 and 1996, the only times since 1987 that Santa Clara has gone to the dance.

“That’s when people started to notice him,” Greenwell said.

The rest is history.

And there’s no denying Bill Greenwell played a role in the process.

After a playing career at Lake Cowichan Secondary, Greenwell started coaching at Duncan High School in 1962 when he was in Grade 13.

“I was only a year older than most of the kids, so I got my baptism pretty good,” he laughed.

Officially, his coaching career started in Port Alberni, where he led teams and taught math for 13 years before moving on to SMUS in 1980. The move to SMUS almost didn’t happen.

“I told them if I can’t coach basketball, I’m not coming,” he said. “They said I could coach basketball as long as I win a Canadian championship in mathematics.”

When he arrived at SMUS, it was a long way from producing an NBA player. The barebones gym had backboards and rims for basketball, but no nets.

“They were known more for rugby and cricket than basketball,” Greenwell recalled.

Greenwell retired in 2000 after 33 years of teaching and coaching, and returned to the Cowichan Lake area five years later when he settled down in Youbou. He still follows basketball closely.

“Fortunately, my wife and I are both fanatics,” said Greenwell, who has two sons, who live in Victoria and Alberta.

Over those three-decades-plus as a basketball mentor, Greenwell coached several great players, and he has remained friends with many of them, not the least of which will be remembered in the NBA and Canada for a long, long time.

Nash made sure to acknowledge Greenwell, just as he made sure to acknowledge Hyde-Lay, and even his junior high coaches from Arbutus Middle School, when he was named to the Ring of Honor.

“He doesn’t forget his roots,” Greenwell said. “Without a doubt.”

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