He was both stoic and heroic, a rare commodity in today’s world of self-promotional, ME! celebrities. Steady and quiet but with a sense of the historic and the dramatic when needed.
From the moment he walked in the door at the Nets old practice facility in East Rutherford to the moment he departed after a bitter end, the Nets were his team. Vince Carter might have been the more spectacular player, Kenyon Martin the more volatile, but the New Jersey franchise of the NBA were Jason Kidd’s team, his project, ultimately his creation.
The Nets made the playoffs every year he was in New Jersey, made the All-NBA team three times, the All-Defensive Team five times, and took the team to the NBA Finals twice. The 52 wins racked up by the magical 2001-02 team were the only time the Nets, in New Jersey or Brooklyn, broke 50 wins.
And magic they were.
But when Kidd arrived in July 2001, the Nets were a team with a bevy of talented, young but misfit players. Rod Thorn had tired of the mercurial Stephon Marbury, four years Kidd’s junior. Kidd, on the other hand, was coming off a domestic abuse arrest in Phoenix and seemed like damaged, if shiny goods.
We’ve written of it before but his first day on the job in October 2001 was not just memorable, but prophetic. He stood up at the team dinner at the Meadowlands Renaissance Hotel and spoke briefly as Michael Lewis later wrote.
“The losing is over. It will not be accepted any longer. Nothing that has happened before right now matters. Absolutely nothing. You work hard, you stick with me, you sacrifice and you do what’s best for this team, and we’re gonna win. Nothing else is acceptable.”
Then, he sat down. Forty-four words followed by fifty-two wins. Can’t be more efficient than that! Kidd had other great years, but that season confirmed his greatness. From the beginning, It was always, always about preparation, on the court, off the court.
Before he first spoke to the media that same day, he spent an hour talking with Gary Sussman, the Nets spokesman, about the team, the media, the market. Before he practiced with his new teammates, he wanted to know where he wanted the ball delivered.
“He was talking about how the first practice went and he knew where so-and-so wanted the ball,” Fred Kerber of the Post recalled in the Nets official oral history of that season published this week. “He knew where (Keith) Van Horn wanted it. This guy wanted to catch it at his knees. Another guy wanted it high. I asked him how long it took and said about a half-hour. He pretty much knew the whole team that first day.”
That kind of confidence, coupled with leadership won him acolytes on that team, which ultimately became the youngest team to make the Finals in 25 years.
“When you have a guy like that who can sort of steady the ship when things start getting very intense or tight, you could look at JKidd and JKidd was like, ‘I’m ready,’” said Jason Collins, a rookie on that team. “That sort of calm would resonate throughout the locker room. OK, we can do this, because we have a guy on our team who can go out and get a triple double.”
Thorn, who traded for him, won the Executive of the Year and was inducted with him, said he knew early on they would be good, despite the doubters and the haters.
“To start the season, my feeling was I’m hopeful that we can make the playoffs. After we played a couple weeks in the season I felt pretty confident barring injury that we would make the playoffs,” said Thorn. “Now it was, how high can we go in the Eastern Conference? Our team was just so much better. We were competitive every night.”
Mike O’Koren, an assistant on that team, put it succinctly in talking to Kerber this week. “We felt we were back being part of the league.” Tom Barrise, another assistant on that club, was saltier. “There was new life around the team. We weren’t the ‘Swamp Dragons’ or whatever the hell they wanted to call us.”
For the fans, it was art, the shock of the new, and Kidd was revered, no more so than on the nights he destroyed the Knicks. As Kerber wrote in his last piece for the Post Thursday, “Kidd couldn’t tolerate the Nets taking a back seat to the Knicks. He vowed the Nets would no longer be the No. 2 area team, then beat the Knicks like a drum for six-plus seasons.”
The greatest pass of his career, the famed bowling ball pass to Lucious Harris, came vs. the Knicks, befuddling and frustrating the New Yorkers. “I put some spin on it so the ball would go to him,” said Kidd in an interview.
Ian Eagle remembers the transformation.
“As the season progressed I couldn’t believe how many people were suddenly interested in what was happening on the court, random people coming up to me at restaurants, at the mall, on the street, asking about Kidd, asking about the broadcast with Bill Raftery and myself,” Eagle told the Nets official site. “It was a metamorphosis. All of a sudden, fans were taking interest and he was the centerpiece. He was the impetus.”
It took a while. Only about 500 fans showed up for the first preseason game, only a few weeks after nearly 3,000 people had died in the 9-11 attacks a few miles away. Not a lot of people were willing to take a risk of visiting sports arenas or theaters.
Kidd took the mic that night and, smiling broadly, told the faithful a version of what he had told his teammates the week before. Then, he went out and threw an alley-oop pass to Kenyon Martin. It was on.
On opening night, the stated attendance was a little less than 9,000, half the Continental Airlines Arena capacity. But in reality, no more than 6,000 showed up.
With Byron Scott, the Showtime veteran, pushing a running game and Kidd executing it, the Nets were off to the races from Day 1.
“We were fast,” said Kerry Kittles. “You turned the ball over or it was a long rebound and that ball was coming and we were out and running the lanes and sprinting the lanes. It took teams by surprise. We knew in training camp it was going to be hard to play against us.”
“We were playing so fast and a lot of teams in the NBA were used to the slowdown style,” added Collins. “Now that’s the way the game has evolved. In the preseason we played so fast we weren’t just winning games. We had some blowout wins.”
After finishing first in the East, the Nets were in virgin territory, the playoffs. They made through the five-game opening series vs. the Pacers that included the double overtime win in the deciding game; survived a scare vs. the Hornets when Kidd needed stitches to close a gash over his right eye and then in a titanic stuggle against the Celtics, they blew a huge lead in Game 3, evened the series in Game 4 — with Kidd famously flashing “2-2”with his fingers at the sputtering, cursing Celtic crowd. They won it in six and made the playoffs, shocking the world.
“Again Kidd had this look in his eye that indicated to his teammates, ‘follow my lead.’” said Eagle describing the Celtics series.
The magic ended in the Finals with a sweep by the Lakers. They weren’t ready. Scott said he could tell the night of the first game, that the look in their eyes spoke of nervousness, anxiety maybe.
“We couldn’t do anything with Shaq,” admitted Thorn. “Shaq was so big and talented and quick and strong and we could not do anything with him. You add Kobe to it. If you look at the series, three of the games were close. The second game they beat us handily. They were just better.”
And it was over. The next year, with Kidd and KMart still connecting, the Nets won 49, then 10 straight in the playoffs, but failed in the Finals again, vs. the Spurs, losing 4-2.
Things went south after that. A cash-strapped Bruce Ratner bought the team and instituted an era of belt-tightening as he planned for the big move to Brooklyn. He wouldn’t pay the luxury tax, wouldn’t match Denver’s offer to Martin, required Thorn to sell a first round pick.
Thorn kept the team afloat, smartly demanding three picks for Martin, then using two of them in the trade for Vince Carter five months later in December 2004. Despite VC’s heroics, the Nets never made it back to the Finals and ultimately after a faked migraine at the Garden, the Nets relented and traded him to the Mavericks in February 2008. Kidd wanted to win and he wasn’t sure the Nets did.
But we and he will always have those magical 110 games in 2001—02, from preseason to the Finals.
“You look at teams and one of the things somebody told me, it’s a step-by-step progression,” Kerber explained. “Usually a team going from bad to good, the first thing they do is start winning at home to get to .500, start winning on the road, you get to the playoffs, you start to advance in the playoffs. Because of Jason, the Nets just bypassed the first five steps and went right to the Finals!”
“We just laughed at the passes he would throw,” said Kittles. “I remember he threw a pass -- we were playing at Detroit -- and somehow we’re in transition and he must have stopped just past halfcourt and I was running the right wing and he threw a pass through some defense or somebody’s legs, but it was a low bounce pass that I was sure would go out of bounds, but the ball hit the ground and had backspin on it and I caught it and laid it in the basket. Who puts backspin on the ball?”
Who did a lot of things Kidd did? Not many. Magic Johnson. John Stockton. Bob Cousy. Maybe that’s it.
Jason Kidd was not perfect. Far from it. There was ugliness along the way during his seven years as a player and Dmitry Razumov’s plan to bring him back as head coach failed in a power play of finger pointing and name calling. Mikhail Prokhorov famously said of Kidd, “don’t let the door hit you where the good Lord split you.” He should apologize. He should already have apologized.
But little of that matters now, on the day he enters Basketball Nirvana in Springfield, Massachusetts. What he did for the Nets in 2001-2002 will never be forgotten as long as the team, whatever its name, wherever it plays, exists. Hopefully, Sean Marks’ long term plan bears fruit and the Brooklyn Nets recreate what the New Jersey Nets accomplished. Until then, we will always have Jason Kidd and God, were we lucky!
Congrats, JKidd. You’re the best.
- A trade, a belief, a shock: How 2 NBA icons transformed a laughingstock - Fred Kerber - New York Post
- The bloody moment that defined Jason Kidd’s tenure with Nets - Fred Kerber - New York Post
- Jason Kidd and Rod Thorn go into Basketball Hall of Fame together, which is only right after they built Nets’ glory days - Mike Vorkunov - The Athletic New York
- JASON KIDD AND THE NETS’ MAGICAL 2001-02 SEASON: AN ORAL HISTORY - Tom Dowd - Brooklyn Nets
- Jason Kidd’s best moments - 2018 Basketball Hall of Fame Class (Video) - ESPN
- Jason Kidd’s Hall of Fame Career (Video) - NBA.com