If ever a man were born to play this game, it was Kidd – though he thought his game was going to be soccer. "I started at age four and went up to eighth grade, kicking a ball around and learning to pass," he says in the Sunday-morning-go-to-worship voice he uses when he's off the court. He speaks so gently, in fact, that you wonder out loud if his players will be able to hear him from the bench. "Oh, I can yell," he says, laughing, "but I won't have to. That's what assistants are for."
A product of Oakland and a mixed-race marriage (his African-American dad was an airline lifer who died suddenly in 1999; his white mother was an analyst at a bank), Kidd, the oldest of six middle-class kids, was a natural at everything he tried. A superb soccer striker, he'd spend his spare moments playing b-ball by himself, throwing behind-the-back passes off the wall. "I wanted to be Magic; it was all about him – the imagination and fun he always played with," says Kidd. He was 6-foot-4 in middle school, but he stopped growing there. He'd have to settle for being Magic's shorter brother.
By 16, Kidd was an AAU legend who had camera crews trailing him to games, a beige baby Jesus whose game was pure street. Any softness he might have had growing up in comfort was beaten out of him on the courts of East Oakland, where he was smacked around good by older gods like Gary Payton and Mitch Richmond. "G.P. sent me home to my parents crying, because he talked such shit and backed it up," says Kidd. "We'd play one-on-one and he wouldn't let me score – I'm talking none, man; no points, period. But he opened my eyes to what it meant to work, because his ethic was second to none."
The Glove, as they called Payton, taught him something else, besides: that winning starts and ends on defense. "Jason's the master of the hidden asset – loose balls, layups off of steals – and most of that happens on D," says Brian Scalabrine, Kidd's Nets teammate, who's now an assistant coach with Golden State. "I'm telling his players now: They'd better move their feet, 'cause if they don't, he's gonna give 'em all the look," says Kerry Kittles, the wire-thin two-guard who played beside Kidd for four years. The hook, you mean? "No, the look," he says. "That glare of his when you don't bust your ass."
Kidd propelled his tiny high school to two state titles, then stunned the country by choosing the University of California, Berkeley. The Bears had made the national tourney once in 33 years; Kidd took them to the sweet 16 his freshman year, bumping off two-time defending champs Duke before losing in the regional final to Kansas. Along the way, coach Lou Campanelli was fired after they'd lost five of the first nine in-conference games, and, fairly or otherwise, his boy-wonder guard was blamed for pushing him out. This would become a trope for Kidd in his travels: the b-ball savant who made his teammates better – and his head coaches bitter, then unemployed.
It would happen again in Dallas, though the fault wasn't Kidd's, or at least not his alone. The number two pick in the 1994 draft, he led the Mavs to 36 wins, up from 13 the previous season, the greatest one-year leap in the franchise's history (Kidd set the Nets' mark of 26 in 2001, his first year there). But two of the three stars there – Jim Jackson and Jamal Mashburn – took turns getting hurt, and midway through his third season, Kidd stopped speaking to Jackson and coach Jim Cleamons; Cleamons was fired a year later.
By then Kidd was on to his next team, the Suns. There, backed up by a young Steve Nash, he spearheaded Phoenix to a 16-game bump and three 50-win seasons. But as in Dallas (and Cal before that), Kidd got in dutch with his coach, saying Scott Skiles was frightened of his power. "The team respected a player more than they respected [him], and so he felt threatened," he told 'Sports Illustrated' after being traded to New Jersey. "I have no idea what that means," Skiles retorted. "I was really fond of coaching him."
Skiles was canned in 2002, by which time Kidd had a rep for being a coach killer. Worse, he seemed to have a sell-by date. After four or five years of run-and-fun ball, he would agitate to go somewhere else, pull a stunt that pushed management to cut its losses and get what they could for him. In Phoenix, Kidd punched his ticket by punching his then wife, Joumana. They'd been bickering all day – or years, to hear her tell it – over his refusal to be of help around the house. Kidd's style up until then was to seethe and say nothing, to give Joumana, like his coaches, the silent treatment. This time, however, something snapped, some hinge in his head that sealed the vent. Right there, at the table, in front of their two-year-old, T.J., he smashed her in the face, drawing blood. She fled upstairs, barricading herself in the bathroom and calling the cops. That should have wrecked his marriage, if not his career, but Kidd called her from the precinct, vowing changes, and she took him back. In the back of the cop car, he'd seen the big picture: He needed to grow up, stop being the spoiled prince on whom the whole world danced attendance. "It's not about me anymore," he'd said to himself. "You've got to make sacrifices. Some people learn that faster than others. Some learn it the hard way."
Kidd was sentenced to six months of anger management, and on his own saw Gary Mack, a sports psychologist. "Dr. Mack taught me that I have to talk, make my feelings known, whether here or at home."
The Kidd who landed in New Jersey eight months later was a much better man and teammate: a guy who'd grown up enough to finally lead. He pulled players aside now to calm them, sotto voce, an arm around their waist at center court, or to tell them the ball was coming their way if they kept on running full out. "He was all about, Share the wealth, get everyone involved," says Kittles. "I'd say, 'But, dude, I'm white-hot,' and he'd say, 'I'll come back to you; right now, I gotta get K-Mart [power forward Kenyon Martin] a bucket.' " "Your night looks a whole lot better after he gets you a couple of layups," says Scalabrine, the former teammate. "It's unbelievable how many guys got paid off of him when they signed their next big deal. He built our checks like no one I ever saw."
Ex-teammates gush about Kidd, and it isn't just the gratitude talking. Every game, he'd make a play so staggeringly great, they'd have to stop themselves from laughing on the court. Whether it was the 70-foot bowling-ball pass to Lucious Harris, or the over-the-head touch lob from his own foul line that hit Richard Jefferson in stride at the other end, he turned great athletes into giddy boys who played their hearts out for him. Kittles recalls a playoff series against Detroit, in which Kidd, who had an injured left knee that would need microfracture surgery, passed him the ball on the break while falling to the floor. "As he's slipping, he puts it between the legs of the defender, only it's too far ahead of me to reach," says Kittles. "But it had backspin on it and bounced right back to me! I'm like, fuck, man, who puts brakes on a pass?"
Even Kidd's flaws seemed to endear him to his guys. It wasn't much of a secret that Kidd had a history of liking to drink and chase tail. Those proclivities landed him on Page Six of the 'New York Post' for groping a model in a downtown club, in published reports from college that he'd hit a woman at a party, and on a police blotter for leaving the scene of a car wreck. (He pled no contest and paid a fine.) It gave him credibility when he ordered his team to cool it before a game. "He'd tell us, 'Get your rest tonight, then we'll all go out and party tomorrow,' and we'd be like, check, we can do that," says Scalabrine. "He knows the game, but he knows the traps that are out there, too."
He certainly knows those trapdoors: For him, they were more like turnstiles. In court papers filed during their scorched-earth divorce, Joumana described Kidd as a binge-drinking cheater who bedded strippers, slept with on-air reporters, and carried a prepaid cell phone bearing texts and naked selfies from women. Their marriage, which produced three kids, ended in 2007. Kidd wedded former model Porschla Coleman in 2011; he has two small children with her. Word got around that he was finally becoming a dutiful spouse and father. But in the summer of 2012, after leaving Dallas for New York, he plowed into a telephone pole while driving home, drunk, from a nightclub in the Hamptons. Again, he struck a deal that entailed no jail time in exchange for making public-service speeches, and he was terse, if not glib, when I asked about it.
"Bad decision," he said, stiffening at the mention of the crash. "Lesson learned."
Not exactly the voice of dear-bought wisdom or glad-to-still-be-alive contrition. But Kidd has always been wiser on the court than off it.