By Steve Lichtenstein
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In the summer of 2001, Jason Kidd was traded to a franchise that had won but one playoff series in its 25-year history in the NBA.
The New Jersey Nets, the team I rooted for since their ABA days, were the League’s laughingstocks, the ugly stepchild competing in the New York metropolitan market.
Until Kidd arrived, the Nets’ marquee stars were almost always “me-first” players, like Derrick Coleman, Mr. “Whoop-de-damn-do.” Or Stephon Marbury, the self-named “Starbury,” who was shipped to Phoenix as barter for Kidd.
At the time, Kidd drew chuckles when he predicted that the Nets would jump to 40 wins in his first season in New Jersey, a pretty mighty leap for a team coming off a 26-56 disaster under inexperienced coach Byron Scott.
Sure Kidd was an elite floor leader, but pundits fixated on his faults, particularly his erratic perimeter shooting. No way were the Nets going anywhere with Kidd surrounded by a group of young players and castoffs.
What most (including me) didn’t fully comprehend was that Kidd was one of the most impactful players ever to suit up. In an era when most kids wanted to be like Mike, and then Vinsanity and Kobe, they should have been looking at Kidd as their on-court role model (off the court Kidd, like all humans, has made some errors in judgment for which he has paid the consequences, but that’s not the focus here).
It’s why Monday was a dour one among true basketball fans, and especially Nets fans, as Kidd announced he was retiring after 19 seasons of making his teammates better players.
Kidd spent only six-plus of those in East Rutherford, where the Nets have since vacated, but my memory of him will always be a blur in a No. 5 Nets jersey leading a fast break followed by the perfect pass to set up two points.
It wasn’t just that Kidd resurrected the down-on-their-luck Nets by leading them to six straight playoff appearances, including two consecutive improbable runs to the NBA Finals (Kidd was off on his 2001-02 prediction by 12 wins. And then they won 11 more in those playoffs, or two more than the Nets had totaled in 25 years). It was the WAY he did it, through unselfish yet still incredibly entertaining basketball.
Kidd’s calling card was a one-man fast break. One of the best rebounding guards of his time though only six-foot four, Kidd would crash the defensive boards and still beat the opposition down the floor.
Flanked by the young legs of Kenyon Martin, Richard Jefferson and Kerry Kittles, Kidd had options on those forays. Kidd always went with the winning play, not the one that could have boosted his scoring average or the one that could have made the evening’s highlight reel. If the situation called for a simple but solid post-entry bounce pass, Kidd delivered it on target.
Kidd finished his career as the second-leading assist accumulator in NBA history, but you didn’t feel like he was pulling a Rajon Rondo, purposely passing up easy scoring chances to get closer to a record.
It was always about winning. In order to win, Kidd took it upon himself to make sure his teammates received the ball in the best positions to score. Martin and Jefferson parlayed their winnings from Kidd’s efforts to earn max contracts. Kidd should have demanded a commission.
It became fashionable to proclaim that Kidd “dominated games without scoring.” But that was also a fallacy, because when the Nets needed buckets, particularly in the playoffs, Kidd knew how to get them some. In 78 playoff games with the Nets, Kidd averaged 16.8 points.
In the Nets’ first postseason series in four years, Kidd took over in the deciding Game 5 against Indiana, scoring 31 points in the Nets double-overtime thriller. In the conference finals versus Boston, he helped the Nets shake off their Game 3 gag and the vicious taunts from the Boston faithful to will the Nets to three straight wins, posting three triple doubles in the six-game series.
The following year, Kidd averaged 20.1 ppg in the playoffs, including 23.8 ppg as the Nets swept the Pistons to reach the Finals. I still remember leaping from a couch in a Miami hotel after his late-game jumper from the right side in Game 1 stunned the raucous Detroit crowd.
A few years later, Kidd started working with Nets assistant Bob Thate to iron out the kinks in Kidd’s long-range shooting form, which, ironically, turned out to be crucial in helping Kidd extend his career after he was traded by the Nets to Dallas in February 2008.
Kidd, who was drafted number two overall by the Mavericks in the 1994 draft, came back to help them win their (and his) only NBA title, in 2011, as a three-point shooting specialist.
In five years when he enters the Hall of Fame on his first ballot, my guess is that the championship will likely be the impetus for his decision to go in as a Maverick. After all, that’s why he played.
But there’s no question he meant more to the Nets. He was their leader by example, showing a young team how to play the game the right way.
Even in his brief term this season as a Knick, with his game on his last legs, Kidd inspired a roster full of shoot-first, ask-questions-later players to share the ball for a few months. It’s a shame that many will remember Kidd for his run of 10 straight scoreless postseason games to close his career.
At least that’s not how I hope he will be portrayed. A lot of what made Kidd special wasn’t always all that sexy. Most kids these days aren’t impressed with intangible assets.
Fortunately, my two sons had opportunities to watch Kidd take command over games while he was with the Nets. It was my job to remind them that you couldn’t tell how well Kidd was playing by his point total. As they’ve both grown up to play point guard for their respective youth teams, I feel extra proud when I see them display Kidd’s on-court values in their games.
There’s no one else I’d rather see them emulate.
For a FAN’s perspective of the Nets, Jets and the NHL, follow Steve on Twitter @SteveLichtenst1.
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