LOS ANGELES -- Long before Mike D'Antoni became such an icon overseas that a young Kobe Bryant chose to wear D'Antoni's No. 8 in his own Italian youth league because he wanted to play like the free-wheeling, mustachioed guard, the current Lakers head coach failed to find his footing in the NBA and ABA.
D'Antoni scratched out four seasons with Kansas City, St. Louis and San Antonio in the mid-1970s, averaging 3.4 points, 1.5 rebounds and 2.0 assists before his only option to continue playing came with a transatlantic plane ticket.
Not that D'Antoni has anything against how his career panned out, but there's part of him that wonders what life would have been like if he had been able to stick around in the NBA. And it's with that mindset that he looks at his current Lakers team full of young players trying to prove themselves in the league and wonders why more of his guys aren't doing more to maximize their situation.
"We're giving them an opportunity to do something, and I think it's a great opportunity for them," D'Antoni said before the Lakers lost 117-107 to the Washington Wizards on Friday. "That's why sometimes I get kind of beside myself when they don't take advantage of it in the sense of really focusing in and understanding this is like playoffs to them.
"They should understand this is their future. This is not just, 'Oh, you know, we're having a bad year.' No. Next stop is Europe. So it's like, 'You know what? Let’s buckle up.' You shouldn't have a minute where you don't play hard."
Ironically, the one Lakers player who seems to grasp the most of what D'Antoni is preaching is Steve Nash. Nash played Friday for the first time in nearly six weeks, without the benefit of a full-contact practice beforehand to test where he was but with the determination to play anyway.
"It was probably pretty stupid for me to play tonight," Nash said after racking up a season-high 11 assists to go with five points in 19 minutes. "But I just wanted to play."
Even though Nash already has 18 years of NBA experience, two MVP trophies and 10,307 career assists (Friday's game puts him just 27 dimes behind Mark Jackson for third on the all-time list), he has the urgency that D'Antoni is trying to pry out of the rest of his guys.
It's something that is so noticeable out of Nash that even Washington coach Randy Wittman marveled at the 40-year-old's dedication.
"He loves the game," Wittman said. "He loves to play. That's half the battle in our league. With as many games as we play, you got to have that love and drive."
Europe might not be the next stop for Nash, but the reality of retirement is, and he's fighting to ward that off as long as he can with the same vigor D'Antoni is hoping guys such as Kent Bazemore, Kendall Marshall, Xavier Henry, Ryan Kelly, MarShon Brooks and Wesley Johnson will show. He wants them to embrace the fight to prove they belong in the league as the Lakers play out the final 14 games of this lost season.
"Just a consistency," D'Antoni said when asked what he was searching for before the game. "Trying to figure out from day to day what we have and being able to build on it. It just seems like we feel like we've figured something out and then we go back to square one. For somebody to be good in this league, they have to do it every night. Everybody has got enough talent to do it one night or two nights, but you got to figure out a way to do it every night, and that's kind of what we're looking for."
Some of the younger Lakers have started to get it. Robert Sacre entered the league last season as the last pick in the second round of the 2012 NBA draft. He was the antithesis of a D'Antoni-type player -- slow-footed, bulky, awkward, or "sluggish," as D'Antoni on Friday used to describe Sacre's rookie form. Now? Sacre played so well off the bench with 11 rebounds against San Antonio on Wednesday that he started against Washington and scored 11 points Friday.
Not surprisingly, Sacre said he draws inspiration from Nash.
"He's a great leader," Sacre said. "He comes in and really works hard on his craft, and it shows."
Now, if only more Lakers players would notice.
Bazemore started Friday but played only 11 minutes after going 1-for-3 from the field with two turnovers. He is poster child of whom D'Antoni was speaking of -- someone who was mired on the bench in Golden State only a month ago and who could be one of those overseas candidates D'Antoni referred to if he doesn't get it together in the final month of the season.
"These are not easy times for them," D'Antoni said after the game, referring to Bazemore and the rest of the players on expiring deals.
"I got to still bring the energy," Bazemore said after the game, owning up to his poor performance. "Hopefully, by you giving it your all, when the season's over you can say, 'Hey, I did the best I could.'"
Or, in Nash's case, when his career is over.
"Just to run up and down the Staples Center court with these guys, in front of these fans, it's all priceless for me," Nash said.
That example could end up being priceless to a few of his teammates if they use it to carve out their own NBA futures.