JASON KIDD HAS EMBODIED the qualities of a Hall of Fame player throughout the course of his NBA career. He is fiercely competitive; he is devoted to playing perfect team basketball; he is a tireless worker and student of the game, meticulously professional in everything he does on the court. Every team he has ever played for has been dramatically more successful after his arrival, and dramatically less so after his departure.
But beyond all of these attributes, beyond the intangibles that Jason Kidd has exhibited for thousands of hardwood days, he is simply a uniquely talented athlete, blessed with once-in-a-generation court vision that borders on extrasensory perception. From his youth to the present, Jason has left coaches, teammates, and onlookers awestruck, making the on-court impossible possible, all the while evolving into one of the statesmen and leaders of today’s professional game.
With all that Jason has achieved on a basketball court, it seems improbable that he could have accomplished even more off it. He has. One of the most community-oriented players in the NBA, Jason and his foundation have given time and resources generously to support hundreds of causes, literally transforming the lives of thousands of individuals. For Jason – dating back to his rookie season – the ability to give is one of the greatest blessings of his success. As he told CNN then:
“Role model is something that comes with my job description. It's a given that kids will look up to you.”
Years later, the basketball world is still looking on in wonder at 10-time All-Star, NBA superstar and Olympic champion, Jason Kidd.
Born in San Francisco, California, on March 23, 1973, to parents Steve and Anne, Jason Frederick Kidd played soccer – not basketball – until he was in the second grade. Shortly after he began playing competitive basketball, however, Jason was mesmerizing anyone who happened to catch a glimpse of him on the court.
His high school basketball coach, Frank LaPorte, saw Jason for the first time at a summer youth basketball tournament. As LaPorte told the San Francisco Chronicle in 1991:
''He did some things out there even that amazed (college) coaches,'' LaPorte said. ''One approached me and wondered if he was a junior (in high school). I said, 'No he's a freshman.' Everybody knew. As an eighth-grader, Jason Kidd was the talk of the town.''
Another of Jason’s admirers was none other than Gary Payton. Five years Jason’s senior, Payton hailed from the same Oakland neighborhood, and took the young prodigy under his wing.
"Jason grew up just playing on the basketball courts," Payton recalled yesterday. "But he didn't know nothing about going to playgrounds, where a lot of guys are going to talk trash to him, challenge his manhood and things like that.”
"We started going to places where people are really rough and play physical basketball and talk a lot of smack. He didn't ever know nothing about that. He was always in a gym where the guys didn't come from streets or anything like that.”
"As soon as he started playing that way and starting changing his game, he started getting a lot of heart and a lot of courage."
Emulating Payton and Magic Johnson – his childhood idol – Jason’s legend grew. By the time Jason reached his junior year at St. Joseph High School in Alameda, California, he was a national sensation. He took St. Joseph to two straight state championships and accumulated a host of honors in his senior year: the Naismith Award as nation’s top high school player as a senior, averaging 25.0 points, 10.0 assists, 7.0 rebounds and 7.0 steals, and Parade and USA Today High School Player of the Year.
Every major college basketball program in America wanted Jason, who by the end of high school was 6’4” and 200 pounds. The decision came down to two schools: Kansas and the University of California, Berkeley. Jason chose Cal for a simple reason:
"It was a life decision…It came down to staying home and letting my parents see me play like they did in high school."
Cal basketball fans could not have been happier. The year before Jason arrived, the Bears finished 10-18, ninth in the Pacific-10 Conference. At the end of his freshman season, the National Freshman of the Year led California to a 21-9 record – second in the Pac-10 – and the NCAA tournament for only the second time in 30 years. The Bears reached the Sweet Sixteen thanks to two game-winning shots by Jason – the first in Cal’s opening round game against LSU, the second against two-time defending champion Duke.
As the St. Louis Post-Dispatch wrote:
Someone dubbed his twisting, last-second layup to beat LSU the "Pretzel Shot."
What about the scrambling layup off his own deflected pass to beat Duke?
"It wasn't the Pretzel Shot," Kidd said. "This one won't have a name."
A year later, in his second and last collegiate season, Jason led Cal back to the NCAA tournament – at that point, the first back-to-back trips since the 1958-59 seasons. He became the first sophomore in the history of the Pac-10 to be named its Player of the Year, and broke Kevin Johnson’s records for assists and steals – which he accumulated in four years at California – in only two seasons.
The current California media guide sums up Jason’s college legacy:
“Although his Cal career spanned just two seasons, Kidd had perhaps the greatest impact ever on the Cal basketball program.”
Welcome to the NBA
Jason was the second overall pick in the 1994 NBA draft, chosen after Purdue’s Glenn Robinson and before Duke’s Grant Hill by the Dallas Mavericks. His impact was immediate. Dallas was 13-69 in the season before Jason arrived; a year later, the Mavericks finished 36-46. The league, fans and media took notice. At the end of the season, Jason and Hill shared Rookie of the Year honors.
As the Dallas Morning News wrote:
Hill had TV commercials before he ever played an NBA game.
Unlike Kidd, he was born into a wealthy family. And, with two months left in the season, he seemed headed toward a runaway Rookie of the Year victory based on popularity alone.
But voters noted Kidd's late-season surge, as he led Dallas to a 23-game turnaround from last season. Kidd and Hill each received 43 first-place votes. Milwaukee forward Glenn Robinson finished third with 15 first-place votes.
"For me, I just went out there and let my talent and my game speak for itself," Kidd said. "Some people want to do TV commercials and be seen that way, but I thought if I could play well, the writers would vote on talent and not on who's seen."
Now, though, by winning the most prestigious post-season award ever won by a Maverick, Kidd is about to become the most nationally visible Maverick ever.
Jason would remain in Dallas for only one and a half more seasons, however. On December 26, 1996, in a shocking move, the Mavericks traded Jason, Tony Dumas and Loren Meyer to the Phoenix Suns for Sam Cassell, Michael Finley, and A.C. Green.
Dick Motta, Jason’s coach for his first two NBA seasons, voiced what many thought at the time:
"I don't know who got the best of it…But usually, when a star is traded, the team that gets the star comes out on top…I had him for two years and I still think he's going to be a star. There are some things he still has to work on, but I do believe he will be a star in this league."
Dallas finished that season 24-58. Phoenix finished 40-42 and reached the postseason.
A year after joining the Phoenix Suns, Jason was doing what he had done for every other team he had played for – revitalizing it.
In December of 1997, Phoenix was 47-31, while Dallas was 20-63. Suns coach Danny Ainge told the Fort-Worth Star Telegram that acquiring Jason still one of the most surprising and welcome things to happen to him and his team:
"I'm not saying it was a steal because we hated to give up Michael Finley," Ainge said. "But gosh, any time you can get your hands on a player like Jason Kidd, it's a gift. We unwrap him 82 times a year, and it's just as energetic, exciting and pleasurable every time. "
Phoenix finished the season 56-26, its best record in three years. The Suns would make the playoffs in every one of Jason’s five seasons with the franchise, reaching the conference semifinals in 1999-2000, where they fell 4-1 to the eventual league champions, the Los Angeles Lakers.
That season – during which Jason led the NBA in assists – was Jason’s best-to-date, and it came on the heels of personal tragedy. As he explained to Sports Illustrated in December of 2000:
His determination to make the most of what he has is also a result of what he has lost. In May 1999, three days after he had hugged his father, Steve, goodbye at the end of a visit to Phoenix, Kidd got a late-night call from his parents' home in Oakland. Steve Kidd, 61, had died of a heart attack. It is no coincidence that Jason has played with a renewed vigor since the loss of his father, that he has stayed even longer after practice… He realizes that it's not the heavy minutes that eventually wear a man down but the wasted ones. "My dad's death made me value things more," Kidd says, "knowing God can take things away from you, just like that."
At the same time, Jason continued to accumulate individual honors, making the NBA All-Star team for the second and third time (1998, 2000) and being named to the NBA All-Defensive team every season. In every year with Phoenix, he ranked in the league’s top 10 players in steals.
During the summer of 2000, Jason also enjoyed playing with Team USA in Sydney, helping to bring America its last Olympic gold medal in basketball. One of three team captains, Jason averaged six points and five rebounds, shot 51.6% from the field and 50% from three-point range, and led the squad in assists (4.4) and steals (1.1) per game.
A Home in Jersey
Despite all his success both in the NBA and as an Olympian, for the second time in his career, Jason was the center of another sudden blockbuster trade. During the summer of 2001, Jason was sent to the New Jersey Nets for Stephon Marbury.
Even in print, New Jersey president Rod Thorn’s enthusiasm was evident. As he told the New York Times:
"He's a four-time All-Star, all-N.B.A. first team. Stephon is a terrific player. Kidd is a passer, defender, rebounder, and the type of player that I think the places he's been, he tends to make other players better."
Shortly after joining the Nets, Jason made a bold prediction: New Jersey, winners of 26 games in 2000-01, would win at least 40 games.
"Hopefully, I haven't put too much pressure on Rod Thorn and Byron Scott," he said.
Jason’s prediction fell woefully short of what New Jersey would actually accomplish in the coming year. The basketball world saw precisely how misguided the Kidd-Marbury trade was when Phoenix played New Jersey on December 6, 2001. The Nets won, 106-87, and they did it on the back of 13 assists from their new point guard.
As Scott told New York Newsday:
"It was a great, great win for our guys. We love having Jason here. He's turned our team around."
Jason completed resurrected the wayward Nets, taking the same team from a season earlier, leading it to a 52-30 record, and propelling it inconceivably into the NBA Finals. Then teammate Kenyon Martin said that all praise was due to Jason’s leadership. As he told Newsday:
"Jason is the one who gave us the confidence to know [the end of the game] belongs to us…Good teams play their best when they need to. When we are in a tough position, we don't panic."
Thorn spoke glowingly of his superstar’s abilities.
“Jason's not a real loud guy," Nets president Rod Thorn said. "He doesn't stand up and give speeches. It's more about how he plays and conducts himself. What he does do is play extremely hard on both ends of the court, which is a tremendous thing for other players to see. When your best player is unselfish and carries himself professionally, then most of your other players will, too."
Individually, it was one of the most phenomenal seasons of Jason’s career. He finished with a league-high 171 steals, ranked an NBA fourth-best in assists per game, and finished second to Tim Duncan in the MVP race.
Still, even Jason was amazed by what New Jersey had accomplished.
"If somebody was to tell me after I got traded that I was going to be in the Finals, I would have thought they were just as crazy as when they traded me…We kind of pushed the envelope farther than anybody would have expected."
On the eve of New Jersey’s Finals showdown against the Los Angeles Lakers, David Steele of the San Francisco Chronicle did a thorough job assessing Jason’s impact on the Nets that inaugural season, and placing his career in context:
Kidd's departure from the Suns last summer made no basketball sense…the basketball world's response to the deal, which was repeated by [Kobe] Bryant on Tuesday: "What in the world is Phoenix doing?"
What the Suns were doing with Kidd, in their defense, was losing in the first round, four times in five years. The top-heavy Western Conference deserves more of the blame for that than Kidd does. Still, not even the comparative weakness of the East can dilute the feat of overcoming the Nets' wretched legacy. Any doubts about whether Kidd could translate his gifts into a championship, or anything close, are gone. This has been a transformation and a validation.
New Jersey would lose to Los Angeles in five games, but Jason status as one the greatest point guards and floor leaders in NBA history was firmly established – particularly when he led the Nets back to the NBA Finals a year later. Unfortunately, Jason and New Jersey fell again, 4-2, to the San Antonio Spurs.
Jason would lead New Jersey to the playoffs in every year that followed, reaching the conference semi-finals three more times. He would also be named to the NBA’s All-Defensive First or Second Team for six straight seasons.
A New Beginning
In February of 2008, Jason and Malik Allen were traded to the Dallas Mavericks for Devin Harris, Trenton Hassell, Keith Van Horn, DeSagana Diop and Maurice Ager. Unlike the departure from his previous two franchises, Jason left New Jersey on amicable terms, with both parties ready for a change.
The return to Dallas marked another opportunity for Jason to win a championship, and to end his career where it began. As the Dallas Morning News reported:
Kidd has been handed the quarterback role by a franchise that blew a 2-0 lead in the 2006 NBA Finals then suffered a historic first-round ouster after winning 67 games last season.
This franchise's expectation level and Kidd's charge could not be clearer.
"In Jersey, I tried to help show those guys how to win. Once they believed, that was it."