By Steve Lichtenstein
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The NBA is on the cusp of crowning its conference champions.
Nets fans can only dream of watching their team reach that stage.
Now in the infancy of yet another rebuilding project, the franchise is a long way removed — in both its outlook and its location — from its relative glory days of over a decade ago.
On Tuesday, former Nets guard Kerry Kittles was added to the Princeton University men’s basketball staff as an assistant coach.
The 40-year-old Kittles, who was selected eighth overall in the 1996 NBA draft, still looks like he could be the front-runner for the “three-and-D” wing position the current Nets so desperately need, if only his knees would accommodate.
Following his retirement after an eight-season professional career (interrupted by a sabbatical in 2000-01 due to knee surgery), Kittles earned an MBA at his undergraduate alma mater, Villanova, and then served in both the NBA league office in its “Corporate Crossover” program and on Villanova’s President’s Advisory Council before he caught the coaching bug.
“I’ve always thought I would eventually become a coach,” Kittles said. “I’ve always enjoyed helping young kids see the big picture in life. It’s not always about sports. Even in my days with the Nets, the younger guys that came in, I’ve always mentored them, and not just about how to earn more minutes on the team but also what are you doing with your time off the court.”
Kittles said he was further encouraged after reaching out to, among others, two of his former Nets coaches, John Calipari and Lawrence Frank, as well as general manager Rod Thorn.
“They told me: ‘It’s going to be a big learning curve. You’re going to have challenges as far as learning what it takes to motivate guys and learning what it takes to push their buttons. But overall you’re going to be a natural at it, and you’ll figure it all out,'” Kittles said.
While the topic of his new profession hasn’t come up, Kittles said he still keeps in touch with former teammate and current Bucks head coach Jason Kidd, whose acquisition by Thorn in the summer of 2001 sparked the Nets’ ascendancy.
Kittles said he knew right away that Kidd’s arrival would result in a culture change.
“Our first meeting when Jason Kidd came on board,” said Kittles, “we were in training camp, and he stood up and said: ‘Listen, I don’t care about the past here. We’re going to change this whole thing around. I’m going to pass the ball and everyone’s going to get involved in the offense. We’re all going to compete on defense. We’re all going to buy in to the team first and not ourselves. We’re going to have a winning attitude, and we’re going to compete every night.’
“We didn’t know how good we were going to be, obviously, until we got on the court and started playing together. But once we saw how fast we were, with the transition baskets and the speed and how we could cover ground defensively, we knew we were going to be pretty good.”
Kittles called those iterations “the Golden State of the NBA for those two years.”
In reality, the Nets never garnered the ultimate prize. They were swept by the Lakers and fell in six games to the Spurs in their consecutive NBA Finals appearances. But Kittles’ point was that their games were so entertaining that they would have been similarly qualified as must-see League Pass alerts.
“We had an exciting young group of players,” Kittles said. “We played a different style than most teams. We ran transition, we dunked and we shot 3s. We were fun to watch.”
Kittles, who averaged 14.1 points per game over his career, had his best statistical seasons playing for Calipari. During his sophomore campaign in 1997-98, Kittles went for 17.2 points per game while shooting 41.8 percent from 3-point territory in helping lead the Nets to an unexpected playoff berth.
“We had a good group,” Kittles said. “What most people don’t understand is that you have to have a great bench. You have to have great role players to go along with the stars and the key players to the team. We had a very well-balanced team. We were bringing off the bench Sherman Douglas and Chris Gatling, who was an amazing player.
“The following year, we got off to a really rough start. Sam Cassell was injured, and we didn’t have Sherman to back up the point guard. So we really had no point guard, and that hurt us.”
Calipari was fired after losing 17 of the Nets’ first 20 games to start the season. Kittles doesn’t believe he will be back in the NBA any time soon.
“If you ask every college coach, would you have an itch in coaching the best players in the world, they would all tell you yes,” Kittles said. “Would they leave their current jobs and go to the NBA, where there’s so much risk? Or would they stay and try to create a legacy where they’re at?
“I don’t think (Calipari) has an itch, but the NBA is throwing a lot of money around at coaches these days. So I would say you never know. But I think he’ll stay for a long time. He told me he really wants to coach his son (Bradley, an incoming freshman) for four years, and that he’s not leaving. For at least four years, he’ll be at Kentucky.”
Kittles said he still has some friends in the Nets organization and understands why the franchise bolted for Brooklyn.
“We just couldn’t draw there (New Jersey),” Kittles said. “The (arena) location was probably the biggest problem with us drawing the fans and having the really consistent fan base that was really passionate.”
Now Kittles is back in New Jersey and eager to forge a new road at Princeton.
“I looked at the NBA a little bit, and those opportunities would have pulled me away from my family as far as relocation,” Kittles said. “This opportunity came about, so I pursued it. I had a great conversation with coach Mitch (Henderson), and we hit it off really well. I think this is going to be a great fit for me here.”
Under head coach Byron Scott and assistant Eddie Jordan, the two-time Eastern Conference champion Nets ran a “Princeton offense,” with a passing big man at the high post and tons of movement off the ball.
No wonder Kittles feels at home.
For a FAN’s perspective of the Nets, Jets and the NHL, follow Steve on Twitter @SteveLichtenst1