Comeback Kidd

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.

As his father ferried him to youth soccer, basketball, and baseball games, it became apparent that young Jason wasn’t an average child. He was one of the best soccer players in the Bay Area, with the reflexes of a dragonfly. Then he started to grow. “During a physical exam, when I was 12 years old,” Kidd remembers, “the doctor predicted that I’d be six foot nine. You should have seen the look on my father’s face.”

When he was in eighth grade, Kidd would travel to St. Joseph of Notre Dame High School in Alameda to play in afternoon scrimmages with the school’s varsity players. “He dominated from day one,” Stone recalls. As a junior, Kidd took tiny St. Joseph’s to the Division I state championship. In the championship game against Fremont of Los Angeles, a state powerhouse, he went only 5 for 25 shooting from the floor, but in the last five minutes, with the game on the line, he got every rebound, stole every ball, and scored every basket. As a senior, he led his team to another state championship and was named USA Today and Parade magazine High School Player of the Year.

Then, after two years running the offense at the University of California at Berkeley, Kidd placed his name in the NBA draft and was selected second overall by the Dallas Mavericks. In his first season, he took the sorry Mavericks from 8 wins the previous year to 36 wins and was named co-Rookie of the Year with Grant Hill. He didn’t have the personal skills to lead a team, however, and things quickly went sour in Dallas. The star of the team had been shooting guard Jimmy Jackson, who felt he needed to control the ball, and a feud quickly developed between the stars. Kidd now calls his trade to Phoenix a “Christmas present.”

There were other incidents that damaged Kidd’s reputation, including a paternity suit and two late-night car accidents. But then Kidd starting seeing Joumana Samaha, a Bay Area promotional representative for a beer company. When he first asked her out, she was skeptical. “I knew what I wanted, and Jason was not it,” she says. But on their first date, she recalls, “we talked for hours and hours. He wasn’t anything like I thought he was. Something clicked.” Remembering when they met, Kidd and his wife turn in their booth at the Aquagrill, look into each other’s eyes, and kiss.

When he was traded to Phoenix, Jason implored Joumana to move in with him and even handed over his little black book. She accepted, and set about reworking his image, changing his agent and sending some of his buddies packing. She knew from her own experience that Jason’s quietness was being misinterpreted by the media as aloofness, so she coached him on how to handle interviewers.

Joumana even helped Jason with his jump shot, chasing down rebounds while he took hundreds of shots a day. After the two were married in 1997, Jason’s shooting percentage rose above 40 percent for the first time.

Nets general manager Rod Thorn had been watching Kidd for years. “I spent six weeks with him in Puerto Rico and Hawaii qualifying for the Olympics,” he recalls. “The best players in the world were there, and they all wanted to be on his team.” Thorn has also stuck by coach Byron Scott, who was shell-shocked by a rookie coaching season notable for poisonous team chemistry and only 26 wins.

But these days, Scott is smiling the way he did when he was converting Magic Johnson’s passes into easy baskets as a Los Angeles Laker. “I have been blessed with two of the best passers who ever lived,” Scott says. But Scott deserves the credit for quickly installing a motion offense that maximizes Kidd’s passing skills. Instead of isolating star players for spectacular one-on-one moves, the Nets’ “Princeton offense” keeps all five offensive players in motion. When the defense tries to anticipate movement toward the ball, the Nets reverse to the basket. When the defense tries to protect the basket, Kidd finds Van Horn on the perimeter for a three-pointer. It’s almost Zen: To score points, players give up the coveted ball, at times actually running away from it.

So far, the Kidds seem to be enjoying their well-publicized life in the media center of the world. “It’s so different from Phoenix,” Joumana says. “There, fans treated him like Michael Jackson, but here, it’s like they appreciate his basketball.” But their perfect picture has cracked before, and it wouldn’t take much for the Nets to return to their losing ways. Kenyon Martin, the team’s muscular energy source and defensive stopper, sometimes loses control. Already this season, he’s leveled both Karl Malone and Tracy McGrady, receiving two suspensions for the flagrant fouls. But neither Scott nor Kidd is eager to make Martin acknowledge the difference between youthful exuberance and sheer malice. Kidd even believes a little mayhem can help a team. “Every great team has had its enforcer,” he says, “someone who the opponent fears.”

In the playoffs, defenses are stiffer and more disruptive than in the regular season. When offenses fail, the ball often ends up in the hands of players who have to make great individual moves. That’s when the Suns’ deal for the dazzling Marbury might start making more sense.

Then there’s the matter of money. It will take truckloads of cash and a long-term contract to keep Jason Kidd in New Jersey beyond next year. Nets CEO Lou Lamoriello, also the chief executive of the super-successful New Jersey Devils franchise, is so tight-fisted that people joke that he once fired an employee for leaving the lights on in his office at night.

But don’t count on the Nets’ letting Jason Kidd go. He isn’t just a great player. He’s a great player who has arrived at a time when New York-area fans are ready to savor his rare gift.

As Jason and Joumana head out of the restaurant hand in hand, some fans who’ve noticed his presence edge closer. Jason keeps his head down, but Dan Honeker, an investment banker and die-hard Knicks fan, edges close. “Hey, Jason,” Honeker whispers. “Great job. We love you.”

Comeback Kidd