by Russ Bengtson
Whenever you interview an NBA player, you always hope he’s going to say something crazy. Like, “I think I can lead the League in scoring and assists,” or “I can’t wait to dunk on Shaq,” or, “Hopefully I can continue to do what I do best. Get the team to the playoffs and have fun doing it.”
That last one doesn’t seem all that crazy unless you consider the context—Jason Kidd in the fall of 2001, talking about the New Jersey Nets. They hadn’t sniffed the postseason since 1998, the John Calipari days. It was September, the month everything changed, and Kidd had just been traded to the Nets in July, two months and an eternity before. When the trade went down, the fact that Stephon Marbury had been traded for Kidd—who was older and thought to be starting on the downside—was what passed for shocking news. I remember someone from SLAM calling me to tell me about the trade, and discussing it (mostly negatively from the Nets point of view) for a long time. As it turned out, we had no idea what shocking was.
We also had no idea about Kidd. We’d all watched him when we could, of course, but in those stone-age days before League Pass the West Coast was hard to keep up with. And Kidd had been out there his whole life—first playing high school and playground ball in Oakland, then at Cal, then in pre-Cubes Dallas and pre-D’Antoni Phoenix. Dude was so Cali he even bleached his hair for a month or so.
So when I talked to him in September, and he started talking playoffs, I wasn’t sure how to take it. I don’t think I actually laughed at him over the phone, but I was thinking it. I’d been to quite a few Nets games over the previous few years, and their flaws were many. Keith Van Horn was timid and inconsistent, Kenyon Martin was injury prone, and Kerry Kittles was all of the above. Byron Scott’s first year as head coach had resulted in a 30 games under .500 season. Subtract Marbury’s obvious passion from that equation and fill it with Kidd’s seemingly cool demeanor—it was hard to believe that things would get THAT much better. Not to mention they had traded their homegrown lottery pick, Seton Hall big man Eddie Griffin, for three lesser-regarded players: Arizona swingman Richard Jefferson, Stanford center Jason Collins, and Pepperdine guard Brandon Armstrong. Playoffs? We’re talking about PLAYOFFS?
Well, we all know what happened. Jefferson and Collins stepped right into big minutes, Martin recovered and became a break-finishing monster, Kittles and Van Horn filled their roles, and Jason Kidd did exactly what he said. The Nets went 52-30, and not only made the playoffs, but advanced all the way to their first-ever NBA Finals, where they were swept by the Los Angeles Lakers. But Kidd had made good on his promise. And I know better than to ever doubt him again.
SLAM: You’ve been a West Coast guy your whole life. What excites you the most about coming East?
JK: I’m just excited to be able to display my talents on the east coast. When people talk about basketball, they very rarely mention the West Coast. I’m happy to play in I guess you’d call it the Mecca, or the capital.
SLAM: Have you talked to Jerry Colangelo or any of those guys since the trade—has there been closure?
JK: There’s closure because I don’t work for them anymore. That’s behind me now. Closure was trading me, and you just have to move on. I have nothing to say to either Jerry or Bryan, or Skiles. I played hard for them, anything about me like “he dogged it,” or “he didn’t give 100 percent effort.” So I can’t say anything bad about them, and I hope they don’t say anything bad about me.
SLAM: What was your first reaction when you first heard about the trade?
JK: I had a gut feeling I was being dealt somewhere. They wouldn’t tell me to my face, but after the last game against Sacramento in the playoffs, I had a feeling that my time in Phoenix had come to an end and it was time to move on. I had told a couple of people that and they were saying “there’s no way.” But you can never say there’s no way, especially in this business. I wasn’t caught off guard, it was more the way everything was handled, which is what disappointed me the most. Things always come to an end, and sometimes they end the right way and sometimes they end the wrong way. And I just felt this ended the wrong way.
The good thing is that I have the chance to play basketball. This is a kid’s game, and you play against the best in the world, so I’m excited to have this opportunity to display my talents with the New Jersey Nets. People always talk about the Knicks, hopefully with time we can get to that level of competitiveness that there’s another team. The perfect example is in L.A.—there are two teams now. It used to be just one team, now there’s two teams. So hopefully we can have that same type rivalry that the Clippers and Lakers are starting to have.
SLAM: Now, you know Steph said a lot of the same things when he came in. And everyone thought that the Nets were gonna be a better team, but here we are again. Do you think about that kind of thing at all?
JK: No, I think everybody’s different. You want to set high goals. My job is to win ballgames, and I’m not gonna be intent on doing anything less than that. The other thing is to make my teammates better. No matter who it is out on the court, my job is to make those guys better. This is coming at a time in my life when I’ve had past experiences—playing for the Dallas Mavericks and being young and understanding that there were a lot of high expectations, and then they went in different directions. And then coming to a team that won 50 games every year—hopefully I can bring what I’ve learned to the New Jersey Nets. Because these guys want to win as bad as I do, and that’s where it starts.
SLAM: In Kenyon you have someone a little like Shawn Marion, so that’s a good start.
JK: I think they’re similar. Nobody knew about Shawn—everybody on our team knew about Shawn, but I think the public didn’t know until they got to see what he could do. I think I can help Kenyon in the same way—to get to the level that he wants to get to. Because I think he has the same abilities—he’s a little bigger, but he runs like a deer and he can get out there and run and plays above the rim. I’m very fortunate to have had some guys on my team who can do that. It makes my job a little easier. But he’s young—and there’s a lot of young guys on this team. Hopefully I can take them all under my wing. With Keith and Kenyon and Kerry, they can all help. This is not gonna be a one-man show, it’s gonna be a team effort. And if we can stay healthy, this can be a fun year.
SLAM: You’ve gotten a little more well-known for your scoring lately, and this seems like it’s a good time for that. You’re gonna need to score more than you have in the past. Do you feel like you’re ready to take that kind of weight, as well as running the team?
JK: My game will change. I’m gonna come out and look to be aggressive, and look to score. But what I enjoy most is to get the ball to the open guy and have them put the ball in the basket. With Keith, and Kittles, and Kenyon—we’ve got a couple guys who can put the ball in the basket. But I won’t pass up any open shots, and I will look to score and I think that will help my teammates. They’ll be a little bit more open.
SLAM: Were you disappointed you couldn’t stay with 32?
JK: Disappointed, yeah; but when I saw who wore it I [laughs] there was no disappointment. You’re talking about one of the greatest of all time, Doctor J, Julius. So there were no phone calls made [laughs again] to management. You always have to respect your elders and also respect the game.
SLAM: Do you consider this a fresh start? And did you really want one?
JK: This is a little different—this is gonna be a different conference, a different area. This will be new to me, but the game hasn’t changed, and hopefully I can continue to do what I do best. Get the team to the playoffs and have fun doing it.
SLAM: Do you think it’s realistic to think that you guys can get to the playoffs next year?
JK: There’s no reason why we shouldn’t set our goal to be that. I’m not sittin’ here predicting—just setting goals. I don’t want people to be confused. I think goalwise, the teams you gotta look at are Indiana, Detroit, Boston, those were the bottom half—those are the teams we gotta pass. So I think you take a step—you gotta win the games that you’re supposed to win, and if you want to have any chance, you gotta pass the teams that were ahead of you. That’s the start.
SLAM: You said at the end of the season that you were pretty tired, following a long season and the Olympics. What did you do this summer, did you just take a lot of time off?
JK: I took a lot of time off. This was one of the first summers I’ve taken off a lot of time. The last two summers I represented my country, in Puerto Rico and then at the Olympics. This was the first summer I really relaxed, let my body catch its breath. And really now this is the start to turn on the engine and get the bad carbs out—the bad gas—and get the V-12 ready to go.
SLAM: Zone defenses this year. Do they mess you up or make things easier?
JK: I think it’s gonna put a premium on shooters, and guys being able to penetrate and being able to find the open guy. Guys are gonna have to knock down the open shot to spread that zone, and it will open up the middle.
SLAM: I’ve been to a lot of Nets games, and that’s been one of the problems the Nets have had—not being able to knock down those open shots.
JK: That was the thing in Phoenix, too—we didn’t shoot well as a team last year. But we just kept shooting them. You gotta trust them. That’s one thing that guys on my team gotta understand—I believe in them as much as they should believe in me. Any time you take a shot, it’s a good shot. You miss, and I believe you’re gonna make the next one.
SLAM: Now that you’ve had the summer, are you excited that things are getting started again?
JK: I’m really excited. Due to what has taken place in the last couple of weeks on the East Coast and in the world, I think this is gonna be a big time for professional athletes to get people’s minds off what has taken place for at least two or three hours. Our job is to entertain—and to also win ballgames—but It’s gonna be more of a job for us to go out there and make people laugh, cheer—and even boo—to make sure they leave Continental Arena or any arena with at least a couple hours of not thinking about what has happened.
SLAM: Booing’s always popular in Continental.
JK: As long as they’re not booing us. [Laughs]
SLAM: You’ve been in the League for a while now. Who would you still pay to see?
JK: Tracy McGrady and Allen Iverson, and I would have to go see the Big Fella. You’ve gotta take the family to see the Big Fella and say, that’s the guy that’s unstoppable. Or say the rules of the game has changed, and that’s the guy that changed it. Almost like Bill Russell or Wilt Chamberlain—he’s had that kind of an effect on the game. That’s a great compliment.
SLAM: Are you happy to be out of the West for that reason, at least the path to the Finals is a little bit clearer?
JK: A little bit clearer? Shit, you don’t have to see Duncan and Robinson, or the duo in L.A. Every night is another team that’s a playoff contender. And now you’ve gotta throw in the Clippers—teams are getting better. It’s not gonna be easy, but there is no clear-cut dominant favorite. There’s Philly, and Toronto and Milwaukee, but there are some positions open. All you gotta do is get to the dance, and anything can happen.