The New Jersey Nets gathered in October 2001 for the opening of training camp. They were coming off yet another disappointing season with only 26 wins and were preparing for a new season with essentially one change on the roster. They had made a splash in the offseason – a swap to acquire Jason Kidd for Stephon Marbury.
Now, even before the balls were rolled out, the team with no real expectations sat down for the traditional opening of camp, the team dinner.
Kidd looked around at his teammates, coaches and staff and uttered four words that would change the franchise forever: “The losing is over.” Then three others: “Stick with me.”
No one (except Charles Barkley) even suggested New Jersey would make the playoffs, but led by Kidd, the Nets made it to the NBA Finals that season and again the next. In that first year, they came up with one of the biggest turnarounds in NBA history, going from 26 to 52 wins, still the franchise record. They made the playoffs six straight seasons after his arrival again the most in franchise history.
It’s hard to believe that one player could impact a franchise so much in such a short amount of time, but it happened in the swamps of Jersey.
Kidd went on to record 61 triple doubles as a Net and sits in third place in NBA history with 107. He’s second in in NBA history for assists with 12,091, second in steals, too at 2,684. And what’s probably most telling about Kidd as a leader -- as a winner -- is that the last time the Nets, New York Knicks and Dallas Mavericks won more than 50 games, Jason Kidd was their point guard.
On Saturday, the official announcement came that he will be enshrined in the Basketball Hall of Fame. So will the man who brought him to New Jersey, GM Rod Thorn. It couldn’t be more fitting.
I was only six-years-old when the Nets traded for Kidd. I’ll never forget the day my dad took me to one of the first games of the season. It was a day game against the Celtics. He told me to watch and learn from one player: Number 5 on the Nets. That’s how you want to play the game, he told me. And he just so happened to buy season tickets for that season right after Kidd was traded to the Nets. He knew. Lucky me.
It became something both normal and special: watching and studying his game -– Kidd moving down the Continental Airlines court as the Cavalry charge trumpet blasted in the arena. Anticipation reigned. Kidd would orchestrate the offense at his own pace. You just didn’t quite know how.
If he wanted to run, they pushed in transition. The Nets averaged 19 fast break points a game that first year. If he wanted to slow down the pace and evaluate what he had in a halfcourt set, he’d put his hand up as if to tell his players to slow down and get in the set.
His game was electrifying. His court vision was like art. His ability to adjust speeds going up the court was like no other. He came into the league with ‘Ason’ as his nickname because he had no ‘J’. He sits in ninth all-time for most 3-pointers made and was third when he retired.
His biggest trait was his leadership. He made guys like Kenyon Martin, Kerry Kittles and Keith Van Horn look like stars.
He turned no-name players like Todd MacCulloch, Aaron Williams, Jason Collins, and Lucious Harris into role players that became integral in their championship runs. He did it throughout his playing days with the Nets. Mikki Moore comes to mind immediately. A journeyman before he came to New Jersey, he led the league in field goal percentage (60.9 percent) his only year with Kidd.
Kidd and Martin especially became a tandem, leading the charge in the two Finals runs. The alley-oops brought the crowd to its feet and often left them in awe. They got to do it in the 2004 All-Star Game, too. Kidd hit Martin with a left-handed, no-look, scoop pass that KMart dispatched through the rim. “Welcome to the All-Star Game,” Kidd, mic-ed up for the game, told KMart on the way back down court.
“It’s a mentality. Either you have it or you don’t and I think both of us were on the same wavelength when it came to that,” Martin told Adrian Wojnarowski in May of 2016. “We don’t get mentioned for whatever reason. I guess it was a small market and we didn’t win a championship, but 1-2 punch I’d put us up there. If it would’ve lasted longer we’d probably get more notoriety for it. Those three years… wow.”
Their opponents in the Finals didn’t make it much easier to secure their legacy in NBA history.
The first year they were matched against the legendary Shaq and Kobe Lakers team. Swept. The following year, they played the equally legendary Spurs team with Tim Duncan, Tony Parker, Manu Ginobili and a retiring David Robinson. They lost in six.
The years went on and things changed. Bruce Ratner, who bought the team in 2004, wanted to save money so he sold off Martin and other crucial pieces. They struggled a bit but then acquired Vince Carter from Toronto and made some interesting playoff runs, but nothing farther than the second round. The only Nets team to make that far since was the Kidd-coached Brooklyn Nets squad seven years later.
Six seasons after Kidd’s famous speech, he would be traded to Dallas. Three seasons later, he won his only NBA ring as starting point guard. He would also win his second Olympic gold medal.
During his time with New Jersey, Kidd averaged 14.6 points, 7.2 rebounds and 9.1 assists in 506 games. He is arguably the best player in franchise history – the only competition being Julius Erving in the team’s ABA days.
Still, there is the matter of his return to the Nets as coach. After one season in Brooklyn – this Kidd demanded a more prominent role with the organization.
He wanted to take Billy King’s role, if not spot as GM, and Nets ownership was unwilling to give him that power. And so, they let him go to Milwaukee, receiving two second rounders as compensation. It was ugly. The front office was stuck looking for their fourth head coach after two years in Brooklyn.
It’s hard to put into words where Jason Kidd and the Nets organization stand today. His banner hangs in the rafters but his presence isn’t felt. He’s one of the best in NBA history, and other than that title run in Dallas, his legacy is in New Jersey, but the breakup has both sides feeling bitter almost four years later.
The last time the Nets spoke of him in any meaningful way, it was Mikhail Prokhorov in November 2014, five months after his departure, when he said of Kidd, “Don’t let the door hit you where the good Lord split you.” It was awkward, ill-advised, unprofessional and did not make the Nets look good.
It’s easy to understand why the Nets hardly embrace Kidd, but like the picks they gave up, they must find a way to get beyond it, and re-embrace Kidd. This is their chance. He is the most revolutionary player they’ve ever had, a damn near magician the way he turned the franchise around, in an instant, at a dinner, in East Rutherford.
Maybe there will be a day where Jason Kidd can step foot in Barclays Center to an overwhelming crescendo of cheers for him as the Hall of Fame player he was with the Nets organization; for the memories he brought to fans like my six-year-old self and so many others. Maybe one day.
Perhaps to hear PA Gary Sussman say again … “The Captain, Number Five… JASON KIDD!”
The introduction, like Kidd’s game. was ... timeless.
And so should the relationship between Kidd and the Nets.