Jason Kidd: The Playmaker Gives Up the Ball

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Photograph by Danielle Levitt - Illustration by ILoveDust

He looks no less aerodynamic than he did when last we saw him in the blue and orange togs of the New York Knicks: the cue ball razor-shave from head to toe, the Tour de France build through the hips and haunches. Striding into a boardroom at the practice facility of his brand-new employers, the Brooklyn Nets, Jason Kidd could clearly run an NBA offense if the need arose or he were still inclined. But he’s done with all that, as he convinced the Nets when they hired him in June to lead the team. Not every head coach can back his point guard down or beat him up the floor on a one-man break, but Kidd was no one’s idea of usual when the Brooklyn Nets brought him aboard. He had never coached before at any level, was a few weeks removed from a post-season flop that brought his playing days to a whiplash halt, and, at 40, was barely older than the aging forwards the team would trade for a month later, betting the ranch on a win-now squad with a two-year shot at a title. Moreover, the Nets had moved to a billion-dollar building in a terminally jaded borough of New York City, competing for eyeballs with their Boss Hogg rivals, the moneybag New York Knicks. For a franchise whose history is littered with wagers that rarely, if ever, cashed, bringing Kidd aboard was the biggest risk of all. An epic fail could set them back a decade.

But if anyone is ready to do this and do it here – come flying out of the gate, make the Conference Finals, and win the hearts and minds of entitled fans in the most noxiously fickle sports town on the planet – it is Jason Frederick Kidd; he’s like a post-racial, post-you-up James Bond. Put him on the line at the Boston Garden with chants of “wife beater” ringing in his ears, and he calmly drains two free throws for a playoff win. Trade him to Dallas, a floundering team with a me-first superstar, and he persuades Dirk Nowitzki to share the ball en route to the Mavs’ first title. “The word pressure is not in my vocabulary,” he says, walking into the Nets’ grubby practice center off Route 17 in East Rutherford, New Jersey. “I use challenges, and I’ve won some and lost some of those. This job is really just another challenge.”

He grabs a bottle of water and parks us at a table in his no-frills conference room. Though they’ve built one of the great new ballyards on the planet, the boogie-down spaceship that is the Barclays Center, at a busy intersection in downtown Brooklyn, with beautifully raked sight lines and concert-quality acoustics, the Nets are still quartered in this sad-sack facility in New Jersey’s truck-stop wilds. Kidd’s office is like something at a community college: colorless walls, an Office Depot desk, and a couch he could have bought for cheap on Craigslist.

Given the stakes in this break-in season – a jaw-dropping payroll of $100 million and another $87 million in luxury tax; the complex care and feeding of big-ticket graybeards Kevin Garnett (37) and Paul Pierce (36), who may both need walkers by midseason; and the improvement of the Eastern Conference, which boasts five teams with title hopes – it seems fair to ask if the challenge he speaks of allows for a learning curve. But Kidd shrugs and gives me the plate-glass stare that is his stock expression. “I’m not even thinking about a learning curve,” he says. “I’m all about these 82 games. We’ve got one of the best owners, who’s given us every resource to win. But the thing with winning it all is, you have to have some luck – that one play or call that goes your way.”

It’s a masterful answer, brash but hedged. Kidd is a born magician at knifing his way through life’s traps and half-court presses, gliding head-up, the ball on a string, searching out the pass that brings the house down. But it’s a different story when someone else has the ball and you’re on the sideline. As Magic Johnson learned before him – and Larry Bird, and Bob Cousy – it’s hard to win when your point guard doesn’t see the floor as you do.

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.

Over the course of his career, Kidd earned in the vicinity of $185 million – not counting what he made at cards. He’s a shark at Texas Hold’em, fleecing people on the plane and in the clubhouse between games. “K-Mart and [Nets GM] Rod Thorn were his biggest whales; he’s the reason Rod’s still working in his 70s,” says Kittles, laughing. Kidd has the best poker face in the league; you could never spot his tells.

It was much the same thing with his interest in coaching: No one had a clue till he retired. But he’d nursed the idea since his second stint in Dallas, when he began jotting notes in a journal after games, parsing play-calls that his coach Rick Carlisle made and what he’d do differently. When he signed with the Knicks, he thought he’d play three years, then mull it over. But his coach Mike Woodson badly overworked him, and 60 games into his first (and last) season in New York, Kidd’s legs were gone for good. In the playoffs, he set a record that no one wants, shooting 0 for 17 the last 10 games. Two days after the season, he decided he was done.

The Nets were intrigued, having canned two coaches during their inaugural year in Brooklyn. They had a soft, slow team that got pushed around in the playoffs, a great but uneven point guard in Deron Williams, and an owner, Mikhail Prokhorov, with a willingness to spend like a Cossack. Kidd convinced Prokhorov and Billy King, the Nets GM, that he didn’t need a couple of years of seasoning as an assistant coach. “I said, ‘Look, I’ve been coaching as a player for years; I’m ready to take that next step.’ ” He expounded on what had worked at his previous stops, which was sharing and sacrifice. “Dirk wouldn’t give up the ball when I went back to Dallas, but we won a championship because he learned to trust his teammates. Paul said it, first thing, when we talked after the trade: ‘We have to sacrifice and not be selfish.'”

That’s Paul Pierce, one of nine Nets who’ve averaged 10 points or better. That’ll test Kidd’s skill at managing egos but will also allow him to cut minutes for older stars like the warrior-king Garnett. “I won’t do a Popovich and send him home to golf,” Kidd says, “but we’re planning to keep his games down.”

In the end, though, Kidd’s fortunes will rise or fall on the play of his temperamental point guard, Deron Williams. Williams has been brilliant and baleful in equal measure, an All-Star who has clashed with two coaches and underperformed at crunch time. Kidd will get him to play defense, which he’s done indifferently; stop dribbling so much in half-court sets; and pass the ball sooner on the break. It should make for great theater, assuming the two see eye to eye. If they don’t, though, it’ll be Kidd who takes the fall this time. The star with the ball is always the last man standing.

Contributing editor Paul Solotaroff wrote about Hector Camacho in the April issue.

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