Over the course of his career, Jason Kidd has taken on many challenges and the results have always been pretty special. From Cal to Dallas, Phoenix to New Jersey, and Dallas to New York, teams that Jason played for were always significantly better with him than they were prior to his arrival. 

As Jason prepares to encounter the next challenge in his new career, as coach of the Milwaukee Bucks, JasonKidd.com is looking back at the impact he’s had at each stop along the way in a series entitled “Driven to Improve.” 

The first stop on Jason’s path, the University of California, gave plenty of indications at a young age that Kidd was the type of player that could change any team for the better.

Before Jason arrived on campus in Berkeley, the California men’s basketball team had recorded just one NCAA tournament win since 1960 and was coming off consecutive losing seasons. But once J-Kidd took up the point for the Golden Bears, that quickly changed.

A native of nearby Alameda, Calif., Jason was one of the nation’s top recruits with suitors from every major program in the nation.

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But after visiting Cal on several occasions, he decided that staying home was the right choice and shocked many by signing with his struggling hometown team rather than attending a blue-blood program like Kentucky or Kansas.

He was soon after anointed as the savior of the Cal basketball program.

“I told my high school coach that I felt that me staying home is something I want to do,” Jason recalled. “And I think I can help this program. I think I can help us get to the tournament and maybe win a national championship.”

J-Kidd ultimately fell short of that national title goal, but by the end of his freshman year, he not only had his Bears in the NCAA tournament, he had orchestrated one of the season’s most exciting stories—and perhaps its biggest upset.

Even though the Bears finished just 4-14 in Pac-10 Conference play in the 1991-92 season, expectations were high with the arrival of J-Kidd for the 92-93 campaign.

However, things didn’t go as planned early on. The Bears got off to a of a rough start, and even endured the midseason departure of head coach Lou Campanelli. He was replaced by Todd Bozeman, and the change proved to be a coming-of-age moment for the young team. While being thrust into the new role, Bozeman recognized that he had a special type of player to lean on in Kidd.

“He was a throwback,” Bozeman told the New York Observer. “He just played all out and he played the whole game, meaning he didn’t stop until there were zeros on the clock.”

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That mentality ended up as one of the driving forces behind Cal’s impressive run. The squad finished 16-2 in Pac-10 play and 21-9 overall, marking the Golden Bears’ first single-digit loss season since 1975.

The last two of those 21 victories cemented J-Kidd’s legacy while in Berkeley.

After finishing second in their conference, the Bears reached the NCAA tourney as a No. 6 seed, but a second-round contest with the two-time defending national champion Duke Blue Devils loomed.

California vs LSU NCAA 1993Before they could get to the champs, Cal had to handle the challenge of No. 11 seed LSU.

The Bears got off to a strong start against the Tigers, but after building a seven-point halftime lead, they saw their advantage dwindle to nothing in the second half as they tried to fend off elimination.

In the waning seconds, with the game tied at 64, J-Kidd took the game and the season into his hands. The freshman drove into the teeth of the Tiger defense and tossed up an underhand layup that fell through for two with just one second left on the clock, sending Cal to the second round.

“I don’t know how he did it,” said LSU coach Dale Brown. “It was the kind of shot we would have wanted him to take.”

While LSU’s coach praised Kidd for his phenomenal last-second effort, he didn’t give his squad much credit going into Round 2 against the reigning national champs.

“I don’t think they have a prayer,” Brown said.

Whether the Bears had a prayer or not, it didn’t matter—they had a Kidd.

Tasked with taking down NCAA Basketball’s Goliath, Cal built a 70-53 advantage on Duke early in the second half of play on the strength of a double-digit assist performance by J-Kidd.

But it wouldn’t be that easy for the West Coast underdogs. Coach Mike Krzyzewski’s Blue Devils squad went on a tremendous run to claim a 77-76 lead with just over two minutes to go. However, just when it looked like all was going the way of Duke, J-Kidd tipped the scales back in favor of Cal.

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One of the game’s biggest plays came at the 1:11 mark. No. 5 won a physical battle for a loose ball, knocked down a shot through a foul and finished the three-point play to give Cal the lead once again, 79-77.

“It was one of those plays that, as a competitor, regardless of all the success that I had, I wish I had that play back to get that loose ball,” guard Bobby Hurley, who led Duke with 32 points, told the New York Post years later. “It was really a turning point late in the game when Jason made that play.”

The Bears never looked back after that play, as Jason’s 11 points and 14 assists powered his squad past the defending national champions and into the Sweet 16 with a 82-77 win. It also ended the reign of Duke, which had gone to the Sweet 16 in each of the previous seven seasons.

“Almost every time I see them,” Kidd said of how often it enters the conversation with his colleagues from Duke. “Sometimes Coach K will bring it up and say, ‘This is the guy who ended our run.’”

While that game was the end of Duke’s run, it was the beginning of something new in Berkeley. Cal went on to lose to No. 2 seed Kansas in the Sweet 16, but the season was already a smash hit. The Bears had reached the Sweet 16 for the first time in more than 30 years, largely thanks to their fantastic freshman, who would go on to be named National Freshman of the Year and donned the cover of Sports Illustrated.

Jason was named to the All-Pac-10 team, averaging 13 points, 7.7 assists, 4.9 rebounds and 3.8 steals per game. He still holds the record for the highest steal average for a freshman in NCAA history.

“It was something as a player and a student athlete that you’ll never forget,” Jason said of his freshman campaign and the monumental win over Duke.

While J-Kidd will never forget that moment, the Cal program would never forget the efforts of No. 5 — a jersey that now hangs in the rafters at the Haas Pavilion.

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Jason returned for his sophomore season, and led the Bears to a phenomenal 22-7 regular season mark, after which he was named an All-American and the Pac-10 Player of the Year.

Unfortunately, the Bears didn’t have any tournament magic that year, as they were upset in the first round of the NCAA tournament by No. 12 seed Wisconsin-Green Bay. It was the last game Jason would play in a Cal uniform as he declared for the NBA Draft shortly after the loss.

Though he stayed for just two years, Kidd changed the Cal basketball program the second he signed up to become a Bear. While reflecting on Jason’s legacy in Berkeley, Kodiak of SB Nation’s California Golden Blogs wrote of how J-Kidd changed the culture of the program for the better.

“My dad and I drove up to watch Night Court for the first time because Cal had this new player who was supposed to be pretty good. Despite coming off a losing season (10-18?), the stands in old Harmon were packed. It was a long wait to get in – almost like trying to get into a concert,” he wrote. “There were so many moments he gave us…He made Cal basketball such a big deal that even after he left, it was crazy getting tickets.”

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