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Comeback Kidd

Last January, Jason Kidd was in Arizona facing domestic-abuse charges. Today, the new star of the New Jersey Nets is the best-loved player on either bank of the Hudson. What a difference a year makes.

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New Kidd: What a difference a year makes.  

It's six o'clock at the Port Authority bus terminal, and a throng of Michael Jordan faithful is lined up to make a pilgrimage to the Meadowlands, where the Washington Wizards will take on the New York Nets. Scattered amid the crowd is a contingent of guilty Knicks fans sneaking across the river for reasons of their own. "I gave up my Knick season tickets," confesses Stefan Kaliscuk, 29. "I'm going to see Jason Kidd, the purest point guard in the world."

A point guard's job is to distribute the ball, keeping his teammates involved in the offense and shooting as a last resort. But in the era of athlete as entertainer, most of them hold on to the ball longer than they should. "When they do give it up, they want to make a spectacular pass," says Bill Reynolds, author of four books about basketball. "They want to be the stars of their own movies."

Jason Kidd, on the other hand, represents the consummate supporting actor as star: He's eager to share the ball as well as the spotlight. At a time when ESPN highlights hip-hop trash-talking and tattooed triumphalism, Kidd doesn't dunk on breakaways, much less swing from the rim. Almost suspiciously polite and astoundingly efficient, the six-foot-four-inch California native reminds young New York sports fans of Derek Jeter, and old-timers of Joe DiMaggio.

Kidd arrived in the metropolitan area just five months ago with a raven-haired wife, three adorable children, and a steamer trunk full of questions about his personal life. Traded to the Nets from the Suns in the off-season for the spectacular Stephon Marbury, Kidd left Phoenix under a cloud after his arrest last year for punching his wife, Joumana. But New York basketball fans weren't much interested in his domestic problems: Instead, as the Knicks stumbled, they wondered, "Can't anybody here play this game?" They never thought the answer would come from across the Hudson.

With a thick body and an uncanny ability to anticipate the moves of every player on the court, Kidd is the best rebounding point guard in the NBA. He tracks players and measures angles at warp speed, delivering the ball with pinpoint accuracy to teammates he can't even see. When an opposing big man dribbles too much or turns his head, Kidd slides over and strips him of the ball. And his predatory instincts are contagious: Last year, Nets forward Keith Van Horn was limp on defense. This year, he prowls the paint, pushing his man off the box, denying him the ball. Guard Kerry Kittles coils on the wing, ready to strike. When an opposing player does manage to penetrate, Kenyon Martin levitates, swats the shot into Kidd's hands, and the fast break is on.

Kidd's open-court passing game is so productive that nine different Nets have led the team in scoring this year, and the perennially dreadful New Jersey franchise sits atop the NBA's Atlantic Conference. Already, NBA pundits are touting Kidd as league MVP.

At the Meadowlands, Michael Jordan is the main attraction -- at least until the game begins. Knicks obsessive Spike Lee has come out from the city to see him, as have Michael J. Fox and Charlie Rose. A season-ticket holder hoists his child aloft so he can better see the living legend: "There he is, son, look." But the moment the referee tosses the ball aloft, Jordan, along with the crowd, is swept into Jason Kidd's world, where even supernovas are subject to the rules of physics.

On the first play, Kidd slithers a quick entrance pass to Martin, who spins and dunks over Jordan. On the next play, Kidd, head up to survey the court, rifles a full-court pass to the streaking Martin, who hits an eight-foot jump-hook shot. Then Kidd curls off a screen and sinks a short jump shot himself. Then he spots Kerry Kittles posting up under the basket and tries to get him the ball. Kittles is too closely defended, so Kidd shuffles the ball to Martin, who gives it back to Kidd, who passes to Kittles, who nails the short jump shot.

The Nets finish the first quarter leading 43-18. But there are no histrionics or leaping high fives, just an avalanche of assists, sixteen in the first quarter alone. The final score will be Nets 111, Wizards 67, and all Jordan can do is shake his head and smile.

Seated beside his wife in a booth at Aquagrill in SoHo, the broad-shouldered Kidd looks older than his 28 years. It might be his goatee and furrowed brow, but Kris Stone, who played high-school ball with Kidd in the Bay Area, says his friend seemed so skilled and self-possessed even then that opponents would ask to see his birth certificate.

He's as affectless off the court as he is on it, ordering clam chowder and lobster salad in a whisper barely audible in the bustling restaurant. "I call him the Rain Man," Joumana says, looking at her husband. "Ask him a simple question and he'll give you a blank look. But he sees things other people don't see. He'll tell you exactly what was going on in the background of a movie scene."

Joumana, a tawny-skinned stunner, calls the shots in the Kidd family. Asked about his former agent, Aaron Goodwin, Jason holds a spoonful of chowder aloft and nods to Joumana, who shakes her head and frowns. When it comes to the Phoenix Suns' general manager, Bryan Colangelo, son of team chairman Jerry, Joumana looks up from her mesclun salad, rocks back, and delivers an emphatic thumbs-down. Seven months ago, it was the Colangelos who gave Kidd the thumbs-down in Arizona.

The official reason for the trade was that in four years with Kidd at the controls, the team had suffered three opening-round losses in the playoffs. The Colangelos thought they needed a legitimate scorer more than they needed a playmaker. They also wanted a box-office draw. "We fell short with some enthusiasm in some of our older players," Jerry Colangelo complained at the time.

"I did everything they asked me to do at Phoenix, and then some," Kidd says in his low Oakland drawl. Joumana doesn't whisper: "He's not a scorer and he scored," she says. "What did they want?"

But Jason and Joumana both know that Jerry Colangelo's zero tolerance for domestic violence helped seal their fate in Phoenix. On January 18, 2001, Joumana called 911 and told a police dispatcher that her husband had just struck her in the face. When police arrived, Kidd was arrested and booked for misdemeanor assault. He issued the standard apologies to his family, his team, and the public, and after a plea agreement was ordered to undergo six months of counseling. He continued therapy long after the schedule required by law, and eventually pressured the Suns into hiring his counselor as a full-time consultant. He even changed the music he listened to from blood-boiling rap to R&B ballads.

The Nets team Kidd joined was a moribund franchise sunk in a polluted marshland. But he's already turned the team around and taken his revenge on the Colangelos. "Before we played Phoenix, I was driving down Route 17 to the Meadowlands thinking that a lot of players get back at their old team by scoring a lot of points," he explains. "I dreamed of beating Phoenix and getting no points." When the teams met in December, Kidd had thirteen assists and the Nets won by nineteen. He scored only six points.

Jason Kidd grew up in a comfortable home in Grassvalley, a quiet suburb of Oakland, with a backyard so big his family kept several horses. Even after his African-American father and Irish mother got divorced, they stayed friendly and continued to live in the same neighborhood.


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