Tonight, June 5, the New Jersey Nets debut in the National Basketball Association finals versus the Los Angeles Lakers, and it feels like a fantastic practical joke. A season ago, the Nets were, as usual, mired in the Meadowlands muck. They were hobbled with injuries, feeble offensively, inept defensively, losing like drunks at the track and playing to smaller houses than the Pizzarelli Trio.
Now the Nets are four games from being world champs. To win, they must ground the Laker acrobat Kobe Bryant, who drops down on the rim as if lowered from the rafters, like a set piece in Oklahoma! , and derail that oversized trailer from Newark, Shaquille O’Neal. No small task. But who knows? Six months ago, this Nets revival was merely miraculous; now, it’s unpredictably absurd.
The difference-maker, of course, is Jason Kidd, the wide-shouldered, 6-foot-4, green-eyed whirlybird from Oakland, Calif., who arrived in town last year from Phoenix in exchange for chronic malcon-Net Stephon Marbury. Kidd for Marbury is a pinch that would make John Robie blush-and not just because one player’s individual skills are demonstrably better than the other’s. Kidd, at 29, is basketball’s Great Socialist. On the court, he divvies the ball like a kindergartner with cupcakes-frontward, backward, behind the back, a bounce across midcourt-improving the livelihoods of everyone in his keep. In trading for Kidd, the Nets didn’t simply add a superior player. They ensured eleven more.
Kidd’s unselfishness is what distinguishes him from his peers; unlike the jazzy Walt Frazier Knicks or Magic Johnson Lakers, today’s N.B.A. is largely composed of well-paid soloists. Kidd’s team spirit runs counter to that ethos and has probably hindered his stardom and payday, since he rarely accumulates the scoring data needed to rattle eyeballs, attract advertisers and impress casual fans. And not just casual fans: Kidd was passed over for the league’s M.V.P. by Tim Duncan of the San Antonio Spurs, a fine player who outscored and out-rebounded Kidd during the regular season but is currently at home, resting on what one hopes is a most valuable couch.
There is certainly a personal opera to Jason Kidd, too. We’ve been bombarded in recent weeks by fetching photos of and appearances by his gorgeous wife, Joumana, a strange (though, one suspects, not unplanned) juxtaposition against Jason’s ugly spousal-abuse arrest last winter. But here we wanted to keep things on the court, and find out how Kidd became the N.B.A.’s best and most stylish purveyor of the team game. Specifically, we wanted to know how the heck Jason Kidd began.
So we talked to his C.Y.O. league coach, Johnny Lorigo; his favorite high-school assistant coach, Gordon Johnson (Kidd’s high-school head coach, Frank LaPorte, died in 1997); his college coach at the University of California at Berkeley, Todd Bozeman; and his first N.B.A. coach, Dick Motta. We found a guy, Aaron Locks, who Kidd schooled repeatedly in basketball camp, and a neighborhood hoops historian, George Baljevich, to compare Kidd to other Bay Area giants like Bill Russell, Paul Silas and Gary Payton.
What emerged was the portrait of a preternatural, driven talent who has tangled with the strains of celebrity since the eighth grade, is painfully shy among strangers but gregarious around friends, good at soccer and Nintendo and-as the Lakers are sure to learn in the next week-never saw a basketball he didn’t want to use to help someone else.
We also learned that Jason Kidd snoozes like a kitty before big games.
“I moved him to the point guard,” Johnny Lorigo said. It was early on the afternoon of Monday, June 3, and Mr. Lorigo was calling from Castlemont High School in Oakland, where he works as the athletic director.
The first time Mr. Lorigo saw Jason Kidd was when Kidd was 10 years old. He was a burly, quick-footed forward who pounded inside and scored a lot of points, Mr. Lorigo said, but didn’t run the show. In fact, for much of Kidd’s pre-high-school career, the star point guard in the neighborhood was a kid named Andre Cornwell-”We called him ‘Little Andre,’” Mr. Lorigo said-who would become Kidd’s best friend.
But in eighth grade, Little Andre had moved on, and Mr. Lorigo, the coach of the St. Paschal’s Church Bears of the local C.Y.O. league, decided to move Kidd to the point. The reason? Kidd was an altar boy getting ambivalent about basketball; the previous year, he had scored nearly 40 points a game hardly breaking a sweat.
“He was getting bored,” said Mr. Lorigo, whose son also played for the Bears. “I moved him to point guard to keep him more in tune with the game.”
The decision was not made lightly-Mr. Lorigo first consulted with Kidd’s parents, Steve and Anne (Steve Kidd, who worked for TWA, died in 1999). But Kidd flourished at the point almost immediately, Mr. Lorigo said.
What impressed the coach the most about his young star was his willingness to improve. He and Kidd worked obsessively on his left hand. Kidd worked on his jump shot, and after Bears games, Kidd, Mr. Lorigo and the latter’s son would often travel to college games in the area, where Kidd would assess the play of guards like Payton and Kevin Johnson, the latter then playing for Cal-Berkeley.
“There was one guy, and you can ask Jason about this, the guy I think had the biggest impact upon him was a kid named Corey Gaines, who was a starting point guard at Loyola Marymount,” Mr. Lorigo said. “Jason absolutely loved Corey Gaines. If anybody has seen Corey Gaines play, you could see Jason in Corey Gaines. Jason almost patterned his game after Corey Gaines.” (Corey Gaines would become a professional basketball player, although an itinerant one. He currently plays for B.C. Haifa in the Israeli basketball league.)
By the beginning of Kidd’s eighth-grade campaign, Mr. Lorigo became convinced that his pupil was destined to become a professional player.
“I had quite a few friends come on down to see him,” Mr. Lorigo said. One of the people Mr. Lorigo told to come evaluate Kidd was Payton, the brash Oakland product who was starring at Oregon State. “I’d ask them if they were seeing the same thing I was seeing.
“The word started spreading real quick,” Mr. Lorigo said. “When we played for the Northern California C.Y.O. championship, there were quite a few high-school head coaches and college assistant coaches.”
Mr. Lorigo remembered Kidd as a quiet-by-nature adolescent unstirred by the acclaim circulating around him. Among people he didn’t know, Mr. Lorigo said, Kidd was polite but shy. Around longtime friends, however, Kidd was “effervescent-real bubbly. People he’s comfortable with, you couldn’t stop him from laughing and talking.”
That description is echoed by Gordon Johnson, the late Frank LaPorte’s top assistant and now head coach at St. Joseph of Notre Dame, the local Catholic school which won the first Jason Kidd lottery.
“If Jason didn’t know you, he was a very bashful kid,” said Mr. Johnson. “But he was respectful. He was the type of kid who’d be like, ‘Yes ma’am, no ma’am’-but it wasn’t phony.
“Once you got to know him, you’d see a side of him that was funny. And you’d see his competitiveness. We used to play Nintendo until 2 in the morning when he’d spend the night at my house-we used to play that Techmo football. And he’d hate to lose.”
Mostly Mr. Johnson and Kidd worked on basketball. Mr. Johnson would let Kidd into the gym late at night and feed him rebounds; other times they would play one-on-one with players like Todd Lichti, a former N.B.A. player who at the time was playing for Stanford. Mr. Johnson said that whenever Kidd lost, he’d ask why, trying to figure out and correct his shortcomings.
“It wasn’t like with some kids, who lose and get angry,” Mr. Johnson said. “Jason would lose and he’d say, ‘How did you do that to me? What did you do to me to make me make this mistake?’ It was always a learning process with him.”
It was at St. Joseph’s that Jason Kidd’s reputation as a playmaker blossomed. He was a rarity: a gifted player who passed first and shot second and enthused in the successes of his teammates. He possessed exceptional speed and, rather than loitering at the three-point line like many guards, slashed to the basket, splitting defenses, creating openings.
Kidd’s razor-sharp competitive streak also grew. He became known for his late-game heroics, his refusal to cave in, even in meaningless contests.
“When he was a freshman in high school, he played an entire tournament with a badly sprained ankle,” said George Baljevich, a former college coach and semi-official historian of Bay Area basketball. “He’d hobble down the floor on one leg and still be very effective.”
Those who played against Kidd also recall his tenacity.
“You would hate to play against him,” said Aaron Locks, president of the University of Sports, Inc., a sports instructional company in California. Locks played against Kidd several times at invitation-only camps when both were in high school and admits to “getting worked” by the phenom.
“It’s one thing if a guy lights you up,” Mr. Locks said. “But the next thing he’d do is he’d pick you at the other end and then come back and score on you. He’d frustrate the hell out of you.”
In high school, Kidd exploded onto the national map. By his sophomore year, he was regarded as one of the finest point guards in the country. When St. Joseph’s played, the school’s tiny gym was packed and chaotic; soon, the team played its playoff games to the 19,000-seat Arena in Oakland. College recruiters practically crawled in through the windows. Mr. Johnson remembers sneaking Kidd out of the gym in the back of his car so he could avoid the crush of attention.
“Every game that we played, Jason was always the target,” said Mr. Johnson. “The hecklers would come and go after him, the girls would chase him-every girl wanted a piece of him since he was a nice-looking young man. It went on and on. But the court was his own personal world. He’d block everything out there and never let anything bother him.”
Kidd also developed a habit in high school that Mr. Johnson said continues to this day: Before a game, he would find a quiet place, away from his chattering teammates, and sleep-sometimes up to two hours.
“He loooooves to sleep,” said Mr. Johnson. “He loves his little catnaps before his games. He still does it.”
Kidd did have his detractors in the Bay Area; Mr. Johnson attributed it to petty jealousy. In his senior year at St. Joseph’s, Kidd won the Naismith Award as the nation’s top high-school player. Yet he was not a unanimous selection to the league all-star team.
“We had coaches who were anti-Jason,” Mr. Johnson said. “We had the kid who was the No. 1 player in the country, and he doesn’t make unanimous all-league.”
But Kidd won most of the Bay Area back with his decision to attend college at Cal-Berkeley. The program was not known as a national power, but Kidd wanted to remain closer to home, and he eschewed offers from virtually every top college-basketball school in the country.
Kidd’s start in college basketball, however, was rocky. Seventeen games into the 1992-93 season, Cal fired longtime coach Lou Campanelli and replaced him with Todd Bozeman, a young assistant coach popular with the players. Critics of the school screamed that Campanelli was done in by a player mutiny. Still, under Bozeman, the team prospered, advancing to the NCAA tournament’s “Sweet Sixteen.”
Mr. Bozeman, who personally recruited Kidd, was later forced to resign from Cal in 1996 amid an NCAA probe of the Cal program (He admitted to making illegal payments to the family of one player.) He now works for Pfizer pharmaceuticals and coaches a basketball camp in the Washington, D.C., area, but he can still recall the first time he saw Kidd playing for St. Joseph’s.
“He was a throwback,” Mr. Bozeman said. “He just played all out and he played the whole game, meaning he didn’t stop until there were zeros on the clock.”
By the time Cal marched into the Sweet Sixteen, Kidd was college hoop’s brightest new star. Mr. Bozeman said he handled the pressure well. “You got to remember he was always a celebrity; he’s been a celebrity since the eighth grade,” Mr. Bozeman said. “All that public stuff, he’s used to people coming up to him.”
As for Kidd’s on-the-court talents, Mr. Bozeman said that what impressed him most was his anticipation. Mr. Bozeman described Kidd’s near-subconscious talent for deciphering where an opponent’s out-of-bounds save will land, and racing to that spot to steal it when the ball arrives. (Mr. Bozeman also traced Kidd’s dexterity to his childhood love of soccer.)
“If a ball was going out of bounds and an opposing player is running to the ball to get ready to throw it back in bounds, Jason will run to the spot, anticipating where it will go,” Mr. Bozeman said. He said the same anticipatory skills are what makes Kidd perhaps the league’s most formidable 6-foot-4 rebounder; Kidd, in fact, was second on the Nets in rebounding this season.
Mr. Bozeman said he was talking to one of his old Cal assistants the other night during the Boston series, and the two laughed about how much Kidd’s style of play has remained the same. “He’s just playing the same way he did in high school and college,” Mr. Bozeman said. “It’s just that he’s now comfortable in the N.B.A.”
Kidd’s N.B.A. career has indeed been rather tumultuous for a player of his caliber. The Olympic Dream Teamer has already been traded twice, first from the Dallas Mavericks to the Phoenix Suns, and now to New Jersey.
But Kidd’s first N.B.A. coach, Dick Motta, who plucked Kidd with the second overall pick of the N.B.A. draft (sandwiched between Milwaukee No. 1 Glenn Robinson and Detroit No. 3 Grant Hill), recalled a rookie who was remarkably poised for professional ball.
“Look, he was a pro when he was a kid,” said Mr. Motta, who’s now out of basketball. “He played in front of 15,000 people when he was a junior in high school.”
Still, Kidd’s tenure at Dallas was marred by tension in the locker room. He feuded with teammate Jimmy Jackson, a high-powered scorer from Ohio State. The long-standing rumor was that the Jackson-Kidd squabble centered on a woman, the R&B singer Toni Braxton; Mr. Motta said he only knows what he “read in the papers.”
What Mr. Motta did know was that even as a rookie, Kidd was superb at making his teammates better. “If I were a player, and Jason had the ball, I’d bust my ass to get open,” Mr. Motta said. “Every time he’d pass to me, I’d kiss his feet.”
Mr. Motta also throws up a defense for what is occasionally posited as the Achilles’ heel in Kidd’s game: his shooting. Kidd’s shot is often ugly and inconsistent (he shot 39 percent from the field during the 2001-02 regular season), but Mr. Motta said it’s a blessing in the clutch.
“They always say Jason can’t shoot,” said Mr. Motta. “But he only hits the shots that count.”
Last summer, Jason Kidd paid a visit to Gordon Johnson at St. Joseph’s. Kidd had just been traded to New Jersey.
“He said, ‘Gordie, it’s going to be tough, but we’ll get it done,’” Mr. Johnson said. “‘You watch-we’ll find a way to get this done.’”
Together, Kidd and Mr. Johnson sat at the coach’s computer and looked up New Jersey’s roster on the Internet. Mr. Johnson said that Kidd was impressed by the Nets’ young talent.
“We talked about what it would be like to get into the playoffs,” Mr. Johnson said. “He thought they could get there.”
Todd Bozeman was convinced that Kidd would have a big year, wanting to punish Phoenix for jettisoning him to Jersey.
“When he got traded, I said to people, ‘Man, I would hate to be Phoenix,’” Mr. Bozeman said. “Because one thing about Jason: You won’t hear him talk about it, but that cat is so competitive, and he doesn’t like to be traded …. I can see him saying, ‘Man, I can’t believe they traded me-I’m going to come back and just dominate them.’”
Mr. Bozeman said the last time he ran into Kidd was at the league’s All-Star weekend in Philadelphia. Kidd was, of course, about to take a pre-game nap. Mr. Johnson, meanwhile, paged Kidd throughout the year, beeping him updates about St. Joseph’s and congratulations on the Nets’ amazing odyssey from obscurity.
Llike most everyone who knew Jason Kidd, the kid, Mr. Johnson said he saw it coming.
“No, I’m not surprised,” Mr. Johnson said. “You could see there was something special about him.”