Horsing Around With Jason Kidd

by Thomas Beller

06/06/2003

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Neighborhood: Across the River, Letter From Abroad

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The following article was reported and written in the winter and spring of 2002. This article deals, in part, with the fact that Jason Kidd's childhood was formed in part by his chores caring for horses.

**

It was a cold winter night, and the Knicks were playing the Nets. I took the bus from Port authority.

No sooner does the bus emerge out of the Holland tunnel than you see one of defining elements of life in New Jersey: New York. The skyline haunts the start of the ride, and the looming industrial architecture of the Meadowlands haunts the end of it-- massive and a little grim; Jimmy Hoffa may or may not be buried underneath the end zone of Giant's stadium, but the whole environment has a late cold war feel, and the spotlights on the arena's exterior only highlight the shadows all around. On one of my visits the bus driver got lost in the huge parking lot. "Left! Left!" the passengers screamed to him as we wound our way this way and that in the direction of the Continental Arena.

The Continental arena itself is a strangely loud but also somewhat neglected place, half full in spite of the team's new found success; whereas Madison Square Garden has a somewhat warm, lamp lit coloring, the Continental Arena has a fluorescent light on bare concrete grayness to it. But it's also a homey place. The only movie star who made an appearance at the games I went to was Richard Dryfus. Down near the court, there's an usher who, after fifteen years at the arena, now wears earplugs; they stick part way out of his shaved head as he nods a smiling hello when you walk by. Up a level, there's another usher, an older gentleman whose shoulders are specked with dandruf, who treats his job like one of those jovial cops directing traffic in front of schools. In between checking tickets he roots unabashedly for his team; I stood next to him for a while and on one Nets possession, as the shot clock wound down, he started yelling, "Five, four, three, two... Shoot the ball!" He was the most animated fan there.

The Usher and I had a little talk about the new Nets. We discussed the return of Kerry Kittles, whose career seemed over after four operations on the same knee, but who was now scampering around draining three point shots; the promising play of rookies Richard Jefferson and Jason Collins, and especially the enormous power and energy of Kenyon Martin, now in his second season. Byron Scott, the team's coach, had openly criticized Martin last year for not playing with enough intensity. This season the coach-player lectures have been more along the lines of, "please calm down," as Martin has received a number of suspensions for flagrant fouls.

"But mostly it's Kidd," said the usher. "He's made all the difference." He was referring to Jason Kidd, the all-star point guard who arrived from Phoenix in a one for one trade during the off season and who, at that moment, was crouched down in his defensive stance. Kidd's defensive stance always makes me think of a karate black belt about to execute a move-- this may be due to the slightly Confucian aspect to his demeanor (humble, wise) or the slightly fu-manchu quality of his goatee, or maybe because with Kidd things often happen so quickly you can barely take it in. As Moochie Norris of the Houston Rockets put it, "Always expect the unexpected with Jason Kidd."

For a moment, though, I had thought the usher said, "The Kid," as in Kid Colt, the Cisco Kid, the guy who rides in from nowhere on his horse, and saves the town. As it turns out, this would be pretty accurate, too.

**

The Knicks-Nets game begins and in a short period of time, in front an unusually full crowd that includes quite a few Knick fans (Spike Lee made the trip) as well as James Dolan and a rather stricken looking Scott Layden (the Knicks' owner and general manager, respectively), and the Nets commence stomping on the Knicks. By halftime the lead is thirteen points but, as is so often the case when you're talking about Jason Kidd, the numbers don't convey the whole picture.

Take, for example, a play in the first quarter for which Kidd would be credited for a steal and an assist, two categories in which he is number three and number two in the league, respectively. The play began with Kidd, in that karate defensive stance of his, stealing the ball from the Knicks' Allen Houston. He immediately races down the court with the ball, with Latrell Sprewell trailing him the whole way. Sprewell, in addition to being the Knicks best player, is also the one capable of making the most ferocious and nasty facial expressions, and his occasional outbursts of intensity were the only thing Knicks fans had to hold on for most of this year. Now he trailed Kidd nearly hip to hip all the way down the court at high speed. It looked like Kidd was going to try and lay the ball in, more around Sprewell than over him. Then, at the last moment, he hoisted the ball up towards the backboard with more force than was necessary for a shot. The ball careened hard off the backboard and flew out… and into the hands of Kenyon Martin, thundering downcourt a few steps behind, who caught the ball high in the air and slammed it down for a gigantic dunk; Martin's knees came up so high they nearly hit his elbows, his chin was somewhere around the rim, and he looked for a moment like a giant praying mantis about to devour the whole structure of the rim, backboard, and support. The crowd went suitably wild, Martin gave backboard an open handed slap, like he was giving it a high five, and then drifted down to earth. The Knicks looked suitably despondent.

Before halftime they would look amazed. Kidd, having gotten a rebound, unleashed a peculiar pass downcourt to a streaking Lucious Harris. Again, the statistic would read, "assist," but the pass itself was something they don't teach you at basketball camp. As Sprewell himself put it after the game, "Jason bowled that pass. He rolled the thing, it bounced three times, he put a curve on it, and it spun right to the guy and they got a lay-up out of it. I was just looking at guys like, 'Wow, did you see that?'"

The rather painful irony for any Knicks fan is that if the Patrick Ewing had played with a point guard half as talented in his prime, the Knicks would have been a lock for the championship that Ewing spent a ridiculous amount of energy promising and Knicks fans, utterly co-dependant, spent a ridiculous amount of time lamenting. But here in New Jersey it's all blue skies and new beginnings. So far.

At halftime, I got in line for a beer, and stood in front of guy named John, who was wearing a Nets sweatshirt, Nets sweatpants, and a Nets baseball cap. He was shifting his weight anxiously from foot to foot. He said he has been a Nets fan for eight years - "I just sort of fell into it" - and that it was his birthday. "I'm nervous," he said. "I'm nervous about these Nets."

Relax, I said. They're up by thirteen point at the half. Happy birthday.

"It's just, it's just..." he said, and nibbled on a finger nail. "It's just that you don't go from nothing to everything in one season. It just doesn't happen."

**

In basketball, as opposed to Tolstoy, it is the unhappy teams that are all alike, whereas each happy team is happy in its own unique way. On the unhappy teams, everyone is upset about the minutes they're not getting, the money they're not getting, the ball they're not getting and, in some instances, the feedback they are getting from their coach.

Happy teams, on the other hand, have undergone a kind of ego crystallization in which each player has a place and is content with their role. Like a snowflake, each crystallization is a bit different. The crystal (though given that NBA players are probably the most diamond encrusted men on the planet, maybe a gem metaphor would be better) forms around the leading player, or the leading tandem of players. Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen, Shaq and Kobe, Stockton and Malone. On the Nets it's a little different: Everything crystallizes around Kidd, even though he is not the prime scorer. He is the distribution hub, and also, almost secondarily a scorer, which is a little awkward, since the franchise player is usually the go to guy at the end of games. On the Nets, the scoring is widely and fairly evenly distributed with the top four scorers, Van Horn, Kidd, Martin, Kittles, and MacCulloch, averaging between 15.2 points a game (Van Horn) and 13.7 (Kittles).

**

Jason Kidd's presence here in the New York Metropolitan area (a phrase a Knick fan might want to employ to duck the simple fact that he plays in New Jersey), is due to not one but two unhappy situations. The first concerns Stephan Marbury, Kidd's predecessor at the point guard/savior position on the Nets. Marbury is a New York native, a prodigy who grew up in the projects in Coney Island, spent a brief year at Georgia tech, and, with much fanfare, turned pro. He is a fiercely quick and aggressive player, a shooter and scorer, and he possesses and overtly in your face glare of someone who knows no fear, and wants you to know it. The shots he creates are usually the ones he takes himself. He also signed a sponsorship deal with Hugo Boss and, other than being traded for Kidd, his most lasting legacy may be on the Nets appearance off the court. In the Nets locker room, once the players have showered and the tattoos are covered with clothes (Kenyon martin's says, "Flesh of my flesh, blood of my blood;" Kerry Kittles has a gigantic Jesus on the cross taking up most of his upper back; Kidd has no tattoos) the Nets locker room looks like a gathering of exceptionally tall investment bankers.

Marbury spent several seasons teamed up with Kevin Garnett on the Minnesota Timberwolves. Most elite NBA teams are as good as their two best players, and Garnett and Marbury seemed likely to go places. But either because they weren't going places fast enough, or because, as he suggested, he was simply bored to death in Minnesota (and maybe he was cold too; NBA players share with the newly retired a desire for warm climates; given the size of their guaranteed contracts, playing in the league may well feel like they arrived in the golden years and hard part is done with) Marbury demanded a trade, and landed relatively near home, in New Jersey.

But New Jersey is not New York. And for Marbury and the Nets, the whole thing was a bit of fiasco. In fairness to Marbury, the Nets had their usual run of misfortune and injuries - Kittles out for over a year, Kenyon Martin taking a whole year to play make to full force from a broken leg, Jason William's early retirement, Jamie Feick's early retirement, the list goes on) but the chemistry. "There were guys on the team last year that absolutely hated Marbury," said the enthusiastic usher, not exactly an inside source, but, I think, a perceptive one. At the end of the season the nets were in last place .

In Phoenix, Kidd and the Suns were having problems as well, only some of which had to do with basketball. The Suns had underachieved during Kids 5 year tenure, having been bumped from the playoffs in each of the four years he was there. Kidd's forte is not scoring, and there was a growing chorus of complaint about his shooting percentage which is fairly low for a franchise player.

And then came what Joumanna Kidd, Jason's wife, calls "The incident."

**

Joumanna Kidd has coffee and crème skin and bright, extremely lively features; she its courtside on all home games, often the kids three year old son, TJ, by her side (where are the seven month old twins?). Sitting all the way on the other side of the arena, one can see the brightness of her smile. She is in attendance for all the homes games, usually with three year old T.J Kidd on her lap.

When Joumanna first met him, Jason was, as she put it, "taboo."

"I had done a lot of modeling and I had been in the same atmosphere with professional athletes and the experiences I had were like..." she widens her brown eyes and shakes her head, as though to say, beasts! "I was brought up old fashioned, you know, husband and wife, white picket fence and I thought, 'I would never get that sort of life with someone like that, so why date them, why waste your time?'" Kidd was so persistent she at one point set him up with a friend of hers. "The more he asked me out the more I wanted him to go away. Now I'm like, 'what happened that night!"

To judge from his demeanor on the court, and off the court, Kidd is a gentleman. The courtship took place during the off season; Kidd is from Oakland, Joumanna from outside San Francisco. They got engaged just after Kidd was traded from Dallas to Phoenix, and it was in Phoenix that she expected to stay.

"I always watched people come and go on the team, and thought how hard that must be and how lucky we were that Jason was the franchise and he's not going anywhere. I was seven months pregnant with the twins when I heard the news and, initially, I was in shock." In phoenix, the Kidds were given words of warning about New Jersey: "The weather was the big thing everyone talked about. 'Oh my gosh you're going to freeze!' And snow this and snow that." And lot of people tried to scare us by saying 'The media are going to kill you. But I've never had such positive experiences with the media."»

Her negative experience of media, presumably, involved "the incident," when Joumanna called 911 to report that her husband had punched her in the face (chk!!--not sure if it was a punch or blood or…). Apparently the argument involved a French fry that was meant for their two year old son, TJ, but got redirected to Kidd. Kidd was arrested and sentenced to six months probation. What followed was a rather intense disillusionment with Kidds on the part of the Phoenix fans and the big sports poo-bah of that town, Jerry Colangelo. There were statements, apologies, Kidd went to therapy, which was court ordered, and stayed in it longer than he was required to. The Kidds reconciled and seem to have grown together from the experience. For over a year after the event Kidd has gamely answered questions about "the incident," a raking over the coals as intense as anything a national politician would endure. In a recent Sports Illustrated cover story on Kidd, the whole family was pictured in a beaming out from a bubble bath; professional athlete's generally avoid discussing their infractions while Kidd has employed bubble bath diplomacy.

When I asked Kidd about "the incident" his response was straightforward, though tinged with point guard logic: "The thing Joumanna wanted from me after that happened was for me to understand that this was more than a marriage that was in jeopardy, it was a friendship. I think love and friendship coexist. That was what was missing, the friendship, and it makes life a lot more easy, knowing that she is in my corner, and that I should be in her corner, too. I hadn't been looking at it that way, so I had to readjust."

Joumanna didn't want to talk about it. Talking to her, though, one gets a sense that, from the perspective of the athlete and their family, there is a almost a siege going on. On one side, there is the media. Joumanna hosted a sports talk show called "The Positive Side of Sports," in Phoenix. As opposed the negative? "I didn’t want to sit there and crucify guys," she said. "There is so much of that in sports culture. "I was just recently on a panel with Yogi Berra's wife, and Jackie Robinson's wife, and they said, 'We never had to go through what these kids go through today.' There are so many reporters and they are all jockeying for position and it almost feels like the nicest ones aren't going to last."

The other side of the siege seems to involve the sheer gravitational pull that athletes of Kidd's stature, and wealth, exert on people around him. "Me and a couple of the other wives were talking about the things that happen with groupies recently. I never forget this one time at a restaurant in Dallas. This girl came over to the table, and she was just..." Joumanna holds her hand in front of her chest and widens her eyes as though words can not convey the extent of the lurid self-abasement and, less abstractly, cleavage. "All over the place. And she said, 'Jason, I made up a cheer for you. 'Jason! Jason!' And Jason didn’t want to laugh at her and hurt her feelings, yet he was uncomfortable because... she was all over the place! Things like that are what made me fall in love with him. He doesn’t want to hurt anyone's feelings about who they are. He's just such a nice guy. The whole time she was doing this cheer he was just like, "How are you, how was your day," just being really polite and not wanting to make fun of her."

**

The Nets practice facility is a large, multi-court gym at the end of a peaceful industrial drive from which you can see the Manhattan Skyline. The press is barred from practice, let in only at the end, and so our clamorous group walks into a tableau familiar to anyone who has ever been on a basketball team at any level: end of practice free throws. The mood is relaxed, even cheerful, the day's work mostly done, the team in first place and on a roll.

Jason walks over to where I am sitting. He takes small precise, steps that are almost dainty, as though he were walking on hot sand. With most basketball players it is all about limbs, extension, length. Kidd's games, and his passes, seem to emanate from his core. It's that Karate stance, the low center of gravity. And there is something almost like a force field around Kidd; when he releases a ball one often gets no sense of its weight; rather, it pops off him with a kinetic force, the way a kernel of corn pops into popcorn. He's a walking popcorn machine. And he is also, at the moment, a somewhat fatigued but good humored basketball player at the end of practice.

His earliest passion, he tells me, was soccer. But when he was in third grade, there weren't enough kids on the fourth grade team. "They asked the third grade boys on the if they wanted to play on the fourth grade team and my best friend raised his hand, and I though that was a cool thing to do, so I raised my hand, too." It was in eighth grade that things began to change, "people weren't talking to me, they were talking about me."

He grew up in the hills outside of Oakland California. His father was black and his mother was white. The basketball genes, he says, came from the maternal side. "My mother claims to be the athlete of the family," he says. She played basketball in high school. My dad was too short. She's 5' 10" and my Dad was only 5' 6". She loves basketball. My dad was from Missouri, he grew up a cowboy and always loved horses."

It turns out that horses were a big part Kidd's childhood, and not necessarily the most enjoyable part. His father kept several horses in their backyard, which Kidd described as being one acre, ("He's just being modest," said Joumanna later) and he had to take part in their upkeep.

"I thought they were beautiful animals," he says. "The only I was really scared of as a kid was feeding them by hand. But as I got older I understood that they weren't going to bite your fingers off. They really wanted the fed more than your fingers. I was feeding them grain hay carrots apples. … I had a lot of chores, garbage cleanup cleaning the stalls, going with my dad to pick up bales of hay. Those became very heavy. Learning how to stack the hay properly so you could tie it down, and then have to unpack it… wassup?" he says to a Todd MacCulloch, the Nets center, who ambles by, …and put it in the barn. I didn't do it with the hooks because I was always scared of the hooks coming out of the hay and stabbing yourself, poking yourself, so I did it by hand. I wore gloves, but after a while it started to hurt."

Such was the early physical education of man many people believe will win this year's NVP award. I asked where he got his instincts as a passer. "It all starts with the interracial marriage, my dad being black and my mom being white, being able to succeed in that, understanding that they had to give up a lot, and also sacrificing for the kids, both of them having a nine to five job and having three kids." And three horses.

Eventually we get up from our seats to shoot the basketball. I've been told that a game of one on one is out of the question, so, as it happens, we decide to play of HORSE.

Very quickly, I have several letters and Kidd does not. In spite this Kidd says, "You've got a nice shot." "You're just saying that to make me feel better." "That's true," says Kidd. "But building confidence is a big part of the game."

**

Towards the end of the season, the defending champion Loa Angeles Lakers come to the Meadowlands, "The Swamp," as some players call it, and for the first time the place is packed. The Nets haven't beaten the Lakers at home in eight years. Shaquille O'Neal is out with a sprained wrist, and the Nets open the game with a flurry of baskets, mostly from Kerry Kittles, who scores 14 on a combination of three point shots and dunks. The Nets are playing the fluid, pass intensive game that is Kidd's trademark. As Kittles heats up, the arena gets louder than it's been all season. The first quarter ends with the Nets up fifteen and Phil Jackson, who played a few season with the Nets in the early eighties, abandoning his Zen like detachment on the sidelines and, on several occasions, puts two fingers in his mouth for a shrieking "hey taxi" whistle, followed by some furiously agitated hand movements, directed at one of his players.

Then, later in the game, when Kobe Bryant starts dazzling and scoring, the arena also gets louder than it has all season; there is so much Laker yellow in the stands it's almost as though it's a home game for both teams. Kobe Bryant catches fire and with five minutes to go in the game, the Lakers are up by six and the Nets fifteen point lead seems, and, in a way, their whole amazing ascendancy to the top of the East coast conference, all those play-off hopes, seem like a mirage, a memory in the same way a long ago tropical vacation is a memory: you know for a fact it was warm, but you can't really feel it.

I flash back to a encounter I had with several former Nets players at Basketball City in Manhattan several months earlier. Basketball City is a complex of TK beautiful basketball courts, and as I ran up and down in my league game, I noticed that the game on the next court had some very good players. One of them dunked practically from the foul line. It was an assemblage of musicians, including R. Kelly, and former NBA players, including Lloyd "Sweet Pea" Daniels, a former playground legend and marginal NBA player, Walter Berry, a Playground and college legend, and marginal NBA player, and Jayson Williams, a very non-marginal NBA player who was the lynchpin of the last incarnation of Nets to make the playoffs, but whose career was cut short by injury.

Williams was effusively friendly when I approached, and enthusiastic about the current Nets team. "Jason Kidd is the best point guard in the league," he said. "Right now he's probably the MVP. But anything can happen in the swamp."

He said it with such a broad smile - and with a hundred million dollar contract in the bank and the ability to dunk from the foul line, what's not to smile about? - and yet there was a hint of some other emotion, too, not sadness or bitterness, exactly, but that feeling of missed opportunity. The whole exchange now seems quite haunted, given that Williams seems to have accidentally shot someone in his house.

But that's tragedy on a another scale. For now, I'm witnessing the mere collapse of a basketball team that's headed for the play-offs anyway. And yet the Nets rally. Kidd is at the center of it, getting a key assist to the rookie Richard Jefferson, making a key defensive play on Bryant, and then hitting what turns out to be the game winning shot. Improbably, the Nets win. I run into Jeff van Gundy, the former Knicks coach, outside the locker rooms after the game and asked him about Kidd. Van Gundy, who for the years he coached the Knicks looked like the world's most overworked, under rested man, looked trim and refreshed, and not just because of the touch of base make-up he had on from his debut as an TV announcer.

"He's a player who knows how to make other players better," Van Gundy said of Kidd. "He can have a great effect on the game without even touching the ball. He's turned around every team he's been on. He did it at Cal, he did it with the Mav's, he did it with Phoenix, and now he's done it with the Nets. When you find a winner like him, you grab hold of him..." - the normally undemonstrative Van Gundy actually puts his arms out, hands open, and then makes two fists and brings them to his chest - "and you keep him."

Kidd, dressed is a loose cut two piece suit with matching silver tie, is his usual subdued self after the game: humble, wise, measured, but bemused, too. Of Richard Jefferson's dramatic late game shot he said, "I had a feeling he was going to make it, because he didn’t have time to think." One of the strangest moments of the game came late in the fourth quarter when Kidd drove to the corner with the ball, guarded by Kobe Bryant, a violent melee of action and aggression, while just a few feet a away, sitting courtside in Joumanna's lap, is little TJ Kidd, fat cheeked impassive face, watchful, holding his little ball. Absorbed but also, in that three year old way, unimpressed. After almost every game you can see TJ staggers onto the floor and dribbles his ball around. In an uncanny mimicking of his dad, he dribbled from one foul line to the other and then often turns and dribbles back, covering that anonymous center court terrain which Kidd, with his amazing quickness and his long range passes, has made the staging area for the Nets revival.

Now, press conference completed, Kidd collects Joumanna and TJ and the three of them head for the garage through a cafe with a garden motif, green trellis, fake ivy, and archways. The parents walk on either side of the son, each holding his hand, Joumanna holding his little ball in her open palm. The archway frames them, and for a moment it's like the end of a movie, a Western, the hero and family riding off into the sunset, holding hands. Joumanna gives the ball one once as they turn the corner, and then they are gone.

April, 2002

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