Long before Kevin Nash became a professional wrestler, he was a basketball player and a pretty good one.

A Michigan native, Nash played on a Midwest all-star team with Magic Johnson and later played center for three years for the University of Tennessee. His career ended after three years in a European league when he tore up his knee, but his affinity for the game remains strong.

Thursday night, Nash flipped through the channels at his Daytona Beach, Fla. home watching the opening night of March Madness as he reflected on his career prior to his Sunday appearance with Big Time Wrestling at the Augusta Civic Center. For the record, he picked Miami in his bracket to win it all and St. Louis as his Final Four sleeper team.

Nash considered a return to basketball after coming home to Detroit and getting his knee operated on, but the damage was too extensive. He happened to catch a WWF (now WWE) show at Joe Louis Arena around the same time and his career took a 180 degree turn.

“I hadn’t watched it since I was 12,” Nash said. “I said ‘I can’t run 94 feet anymore.’ “

Nash began his career with World Championship Wrestling as part of The Master Blasters, a tag team, but jumped to the World Wrestling Federation where he was billed as Diesel, a bodyguard to Shawn Michaels. At 6-foot-10 and 300 pounds, he quickly gained notice and ascended up the WWF ladder, winning the championship in 1994 and holding it for a year. He and Michaels would team up to win a pair of WWF tag team titles, the latter as Two Dudes with Attitudes.

Nash began a parallel acting career in the early 1990s, gaining roles like the Super Shredder in Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles II and as The Russian in The Punisher. He’s appeared in a dozen films and several television shows and last year drew critical acclaim for his role as Tarzan, an over-the-hill stripper in an all-male revue in the film Magic Mike starring Channing Tatum and Matthew McConaughey.

“I’m getting past that point where I’m an action guy,” Nash, 53, said. “I’ll be more of a character actor.”

Nash never left wrestling, though. He majored in psychology and minored in philosophy at Tennessee and excelled both in the ring and behind the scenes where he’s known for his intelligence and sarcastic wit.

“I think I’ve been a pretty good manipulator,” he said.

Along with Michaels, Scott Hall and Sean Waltman (aka the 1-2-3 kid and X-Pac), Nash formed The Kilq, a sort of wrestlers union that bargained for more money. They were later joined by Triple H. After going back to the WCW, Nash, Hall and Hulk Hogan formed the New World Order or nWo, another group aimed at gaining political power in the wrestling world. He and Hall won five tag team titles, eventually as The Outsiders and for a couple of years, the WCW surpassed the WWF in popularity.

These days, Nash wrestles on the independent circuit and appears occasionally on the WWE Legends circuit (he signed a five-year contract in 2011). He’ll wrestle nine dates before the month is done and it will take a toll on his body.

“Three in a row will be a push,” Nash said of his matches. “My knees are bad, I’ve got a bad back.”

Nash works out regularly and said wrestling dates are his motivation.

“It gives me the drive that I need to show up and look like I did 10 years ago,” he said.

He said young kids know who he is at these shows because of his appearance in so many video games.

He still carries the nickname “Big Sexy” something he and his wife came up with years ago after he dyed his hair blond. These days it’s gone back to it’s natural color and it doesn’t bother him at all.

“Now I’m more of the Silver Fox than I am The Big Sexy,” he said.

Gary Hawkins — 621-5638

ghawkins@centralmaine.com